Since the 1970s, the transformation of advertising businesses into multinational forces has been rampant. Two particular, inter-related, forces have been at play in recent years: the growth of BRIC and their commercial possibilities; and the permeation of interconnected digital media. These have helped advertising and marketing groups to grow their revenues from millions to billions, and to create networks that can be overlaid onto the territories of multinational clients, while being cognisant of local, cultural nuances.
Japanese communications giant Dentsu is no stranger to the opportunities and challenges of scale. With offices across the world, it has a rich heritage of interesting, creative work that has made the business one of the world's largest in the sector.
With growth comes new opportunities, and while it is easy to create adaptation offices, or cut-and-paste offices - using either the HQ or local agencies as the master - the creation of a new London office suggested a different approach.
The UK is not short of creative talent, and Dentsu has come the market at a later time than others. As agencies should have a reasonably good grasp on the principles of differentiation – as it's what they do every day with their clients – the team at Dentsu was given the possibility to conduct such a strategy with its new London office. The resulting business, Dentsu London, is a very different business to its parent.
Dentsu London has been given the freedom to be as creative in its execution as in its business model: offering original, quirky, independent executions in response to local ideas, developments, and briefs. Head of Strategy Beeker Northam explains the thinking. “We have been given freedom as to what we do, what we say, how we make money, and the kind of work that we make. When I came on board, it was a blank slate: an opportunity to consider what might be a different way. We wanted to create a philosophy that would fuel everything, and to encourage ourselves to deliver the most ambitious work that we could.”
Building this work required a brand position that embodied what the agency should be about: Making Future Magic. This simple, three-word statement is one which Northam and the wider business aims to permeate throughout the agency, taking an open interpretation of “creative communications” and deploying tools and techniques relevant to the brief, irrespective of their discipline. This means having a fundamentally different configuration of strengths, references and experiences - and working with an ever-changing and diverse range of partners.
“We had to develop “Making Future Magic” very quickly, so you can talk about it to clients, even before there is work. There was a keenness to define what we were, because we don't define ourselves by channel, and people would say 'Are you traditional or are you digital? Do you do social media? Which areas would you work in, and what kind of brief can I give you?' Those are the conversations that are, now, less likely to occur.”
Kicking off the agency's work was a collaborative piece around its new brand position. A group of 10 illustrators and designers from outside of the agency – nominated by those within it, and working alongside them – produced a range of products based on an open brief of “Making Future Magic”. 12 designs were chosen, with products including mugs, stickers and bags, offered for sale through an online store.
It takes two
Northam's view is for the agency to retain the headcount at around 50 – a rather controversial consideration for a global business powered by growth, and very different to the 6000 staff based at the Japanese HQ.
Creative support is provided by other companies, partnering on a per-project basis. This approach is designed to ensure that a freshness of approach is retained, while ensuring that originality in execution is from the source, rather than a rehash of work from elsewhere. “The advertising industry has a reputation of using ideas from the media artist community; they get very cross with advertising people, and with good reason. We really wanted to change that: to make those relationships more positive.”
One year on, the London office delivers projects exclusively for the UK market, alongside work for multinational clients within the network. However, its UK projects go way beyond the limitations and contexts set by a client brief, and beyond a portfolio entirely set by commercial relationships.
Challenging the perception of a “digital default” is the agency's recent work with Wallpaper.
Based on techniques from Japanese print media, the magazine's art director Meirion Pritchard worked alongside Northam and colleagues from both organisations to develop Moving Wallpaper, something like a two-layer, flat Zoetrope. The resulting work has been seen worldwide, proving that the oldest media are still capable of delivering new surprises.
However, Dentsu London's its most recognised in-house development is Suwappu (Japanese for “swap”), a toy that can be split in two and re-made with other parts from the range. It started as a brief to develop a product that embodied the intellectual ethos of “Making Future Magic”, and to symbolise the concept of “Haitsu” - hybrid communication.
Once Northam and her team had developed the idea of toys with swappable components and capabilities, execution was undertaken in conjunction with the team at BERG. The partnership developed an architecture for interaction, proposing a “readability” which provided something beyond the possibilities of what a toy could traditionally offer. These toys don't just respond to physical human interaction; they pass the time with each other on Twitter.
It was important for Northam and her team to perfect the character design, which is clearly influenced by Japanese design and culture. A specific reference point was Kawaii – the Japanese concept of cuteness, as evident in the plethora of super-cute characters designed for brands, products, and services. Kawaii characters, as evidenced in Hello Kitty, can become highly successful and cut across a wide range of audiences and media – from stationery to dolls, and TV programmes. Although such global recognition is still a way off for Suwappu, the Dentsu team have already produced a Suwappu comic and film to compliment the range.
The Suwappu film and first in the series of comics, drawn by Matt Sheret
The development of the London office is clearly designed to open the Dentsu group to more opportunities in more places. Being the first office outside of Asia with such a degree of creative freedom allows it to be seen as something of a Petri dish: a way for the group to test new business models, and to examine how different forms and executions are is relevant to specific markets and cultures.
However, what Northam sees is the group taking much more of a bilateral approach to creativity – and for the London office to be recognised in its achievements.
“It's really gratifying when there's appreciation of our work, because they [the Japanese office] are so innovative. It's a new thing [for Dentsu] to say 'you do what you've got to do to make it work'. It's a good experiment for everyone, and they have been extremely supportive.
“The business is so new and is taking on a life and culture of its own, and it is getting to the point where it can surprise me. One of the challenges that we set ourselves is for the Japan HQ to be as interested in us, as we are in them... and that's happening.”
The second year of Dentsu London will one where its unique combination of creative and commercial innovation comes under closer scrutiny and examination. However, there's no denying that for all concerned, the first year has been fun.
Beeker Northam is Head of Strategy at Dentsu London. Her blog is Beeker Ideas, and she is @beekernortham on Twitter. The Suwappu toys are on Twitter as @suwappu_badger, @suwappu_fox, @suwappu_tuna, and @suwappu_deer.