With Nike, Google and Honda as clients, advertising agency W+K Tokyo explain to Steve O'Brien how they merge Western and Asian influences in unique ways
"The work comes first", says Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo's creative director Eric Cruz. It's a bold, muscly ethos in keeping with an advertising agency based in one of the most fiercely business-centred cities in the world. But W+K Tokyo have, in only 10 years, reached an enviable point where they are working with some of the world's strongest brands, with Honda and Google two of their most recent clients.
For those two companies to entrust their delicately controlled images to any design company is a testament to W+K Tokyo's standing in the Asian advertising world. Despite being based in Japan, they're insistent they're not a Japanese agency - though the company was set up to service Japan and the Asia Pacific region. Instead, as art director Shane Lester tells us, "We talk a lot about hybrid. We have a multicultural perspective and people in our office who bring a fresh viewpoint to our clients' problems." This is also, as Cruz says, "reflected in the way we have structured the office, fusing an ad agency, a design studio, a think tank and a record label into a new kind of creative studio."
In an increasingly globalised world this approach has set W+K Tokyo apart, lending them a unique aesthetic and cultural voice. "Tokyo is a laboratory where everything is in a state of perpetual work in progress. Things are built and destroyed in a cycle that reflects its Buddhist belief," Cruz explains. "Products don't last long, brands come as fast as they go, and even buildings are not meant to withstand time; rather in its place is a cyclical transformation that is accepted by its citizens."
"Tokyo was perhaps the first post-post-modern city," Lester continues. It's truly the ultimate place to practise advertising, where commercial messages are fully embraced by the culture while foregoing any negative connotation. In this sense, Tokyo is at the cutting-edge of consumer society, and if you are complicit in it, this city can be your paradise."
When Google came calling, it was with a brief to really establish the record-conquering search engine in Japan. In the Western world, we tend to assume Google's global dominance, but the giant online company, set up around the same time as W+K, had yet to convincingly spread its cultural impact to the East.
"It's often surprising to people overseas" says Lester, "but Google in Japan doesn't yet enjoy the extremely prominent position that it has in terms of market share in America for example. So it was very important to us to convey the fun, approachable and helpful image of Google through this campaign, while teaching people how they can use Google to benefit their life. To do this, we set up the campaign to act seamlessly across a wide variety of media."
"Google had a very unique dilemma in Japan," says Cruz, "since it was perceived as an unfamiliar 'foreign' brand. Although the Japanese knew of Google, it was seen as being for more 'advanced' or 'expert' web users. So we wanted to both humanise and democratise the brand, make it more familiar and simply let people know what it can do." The campaign was dubbed "dekirukoto" and is aimed to introduce and teach Japanese users "all the things you can do with Google".
"Our goal was simple," reflects Cruz. "To teach people what Google is all about through a cross-media campaign, including print, online and event ideas that informed people of its products in a Googly way. Users are then directed to a microsite that teaches them how to use Google's products through educational videos.
"We had posters in key locations in the city," he continues, "and even a full Yamanote line train (one of the busiest commuter trains in Tokyo) that was completely filled with Google content, including videos playing on the monitors inside teaching people how to use key Google features. This train itself actually ran past a central location in Shibuya (one of the busiest youth, shopping and recreation areas in Tokyo) where passengers looking out the window at the right moment could catch a glimpse of the live event portion of the campaign".
This was the 'Fly in the Sky with Google' event, where participants at the site could hover into the sky for a short amount of time, powered by a huge cluster of helium balloons in Google colours. "The number of balloons inflated on any given day was decided by the number of search queries received at the landing page campaign website," Cruz explains. "So the more people searched, the higher you'd fly at the event."
The campaign was sweated out, working closely with Google for three days and nights, "brainstorming, presenting and designing virtually on the fly," as Cruz says. The campaign gave a large boost to their number of search queries, helping their market share. What was historic for Google with the campaign was the sheer amount of innovative offline content, an area of advertising they'd never committed to before.
"The campaign was well received," says Cruz, "and there was lots of positive feedback from the users, showing they had learned more useful ways of using Google. In essence, we helped re-introduce Google as a more approachable brand that would prove itself useful to the Japanese."
W+K are very much a design company born out of a new-media age. Multi-platform advertising is in the company's DNA, and this is reflected in the backgrounds of its staff. Cruz's history is not in advertising but in graphic and broadcast design - and that tiny difference sets W+K apart. "We didn't structure the Tokyo office from the normal ad agency model," he says simply.
"The evolution of media of course goes way beyond advertising," says Lester, "and is completely redefining culture, creativity, brand, fame, access to information, and all the barriers that used to stand firmly because of that. As an extension, I would even go so far as to say it is even beginning to redefine the bandwidth of the human brain. If you believe this as I do, then multimedia has to be the most exciting thing in the world. Trying to work creatively within this can be daunting, as technologies are always changing at a rapid pace, and we have to try and keep up with it all. On the other hand, the opportunities it affords are also amazing, and I think creative agencies need to challenge themselves with it in order to create this generation's truly new experiences."
W+K are insistent they're not a company to jump into bed with anyone. Cruz says they have to "love the brand itself and believe in it" for W+K to consider working with them, and they turn away as many as they embrace. The 'hybrid' ethos extends beyond the cultural and aesthetic, and informs the manner in which they approach campaigns.
"If the company is the body, clients are half of the heart and brains behind the brand," says Cruz. "I see our role as the other half of the heart and brains. We function to give the brand a 'voice' that presents its personality. Some brands are confident and self-assured, such as Nike; other brands are tech-savvy and yet unfamiliar, such as Google in Japan; while others are still developing, such as Kumon, a Japanese educational supplement. Kumon has come of age with us and gained its mature and global voice with our help. Different clients require different ways of presenting themselves."
Another recent project was for Nike - Nitro Special Force. W+K Tokyo designed an impressive "Special Force" music video, featuring eight hip hop artists set against a variety of Tokyo backdrops and neighbourhoods, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Nike's Air Force 1 trainers. W+K collaborated on the song with Nitro Microphone Underground, pioneers of the Japanese hip hop scene.
W+K's other recent big scoop was a campaign for Honda, worked on by both the London and Tokyo offices. The concept was to introduce the car maker's i-VTEC vehicle and, between the two companies, they gave birth to an idea of a "road trip". Dubbed the 'Drive Every Drop' campaign, it would chart a trip across Asia. Log onto the website and you can add a drop of petrol towards the journey and help choose who drives the car, where it goes and who it visits on its real-life trip. Aided by blogs and web films, the campaign focuses on the environmental benefits of the i-VTEC engine by getting its customers to think about fuel used on big journeys drop by drop, as opposed to gallon by gallon.
"We wanted to connect Honda with the spirit of discovery and exploration inherent in doing this kind of road trip," says Lester, "introducing all kinds of interesting and innovative people across Asia Oceania who represent and expand on the themes of innovation, efficiency, and driving pleasure that Honda and the i-VTEC engine stand for."
"The website was great fun to concept," adds Cruz. "This was one of the few times of late where Honda HQ did a regional campaign. So the big challenge was to create a campaign that would work in countries across Asia Oceania. Since the market is so different from country to country, it was hard to be too specific. The real challenge was in making the idea realâ€¦ from the actual design of the website under challenging budgets (since our creative appetite exceeded our pockets), all the way to planning and shooting the video episodes - a huge task in itself.
"Everyday, we went through so many changes, from confirmed episodes and interviewees cancelling, to battling with weather conditions, to even just the challenge of driving through India itself. But to us it's all part of the adventure!" The team also enjoyed meeting interesting people on their travels, including deforestation protestors, poverty campaigners, builders using reclaimed materials, and Australia's 'Carbon Cops'. "Being part of this project has been one of the most fulfilling points in my career," says Cruz. "It made me realise how devoted and passionate human beings can be."
Though W+K have 10 offices worldwide, W+K Tokyo are clearly proud of their distinct character. For a company made up of so many Westerners, to be trusted to sell as many brands as they do to an Asian audience is true testament to their skills. And it's clear they're more influenced by the city of Tokyo than if they were based anywhere else.
"Tokyo has the richest visual culture I have ever witnessed," says Lester, excitedly, "and it collects literally everything to the point where there's almost no reason to go anywhere else. The attention to detail is unflinching, while the consumer eye is the world's most sophisticated and discerning!"