The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan



The New Mad Men

The evolution and transformation of advertising in Tokyo

By Roland Kelts

Among the fastest ways to check the barometer of a nation’s popular culture—to see who’s cool and what’s in style or comical—is to watch domestic TV commercials. Advertising cuts to the heart of a culture’s DNA.

TV ads from Japan, for example, have long been coveted abroad for their apparent outrageousness or sheer oddity. Entire YouTube channels and websites (see the seminal upload Japanese commercials featuring American A-list celebrities.

On Japanese TV, Leonardo DiCaprio promotes the Orico credit card and hawks Jim Beam; Tommy Lee Jones guzzles Boss canned coffee; and Madonna sports geta (wooden sandals) to tout Takara shochu. Then there is Sofia Coppola’s 2004 film set in Japan, Lost in Translation. It makes cross-cultural advertising a comical plot point, with Bill Murray playing a washed-up US movie star in Tokyo to shoot a Japanese TV ad for Suntory whiskey.

Author and media scholar Marshall McLuhan called advertising “the greatest art form of the 20th century . . . an environmental striptease for a world of abundance.” But that world is rarely what we now call global. The art of advertising has long remained culture-specific: Italian ads for Italians, German ads for Germans, etc.

“Since the ’50s, Japanese advertising has learned a lot from the US,” marketing executive Hideo Ishikawa told Advertising Age magazine. “However, many typically Japanese characteristics, disciplines, and ways of thinking remain intact and unaffected by US influence.”

Japanese ads usually go for the soft sell versus the hard sell (i.e., the product is introduced at the end, or remains offstage throughout the commercial). They focus on a celebrity’s endorsement followed by the embrace of the masses, and seek short-term trend appeal over long-term consistency of brand development.

US ads, meanwhile, more often place the product upfront, feature “regular” people, and strategize for long-term branding (think Coke or McDonald’s).

The Cutters Studio in Ebisu, Tokyo

The Cutters Studio in Ebisu, Tokyo

Blurred lines
But in this century, the lines between East and West are blurring. As in culture, so in advertising.

The United States remains the largest advertising market in the world by a wide margin. Japan is in second place, and China is advancing quickly. US ad agency stalwarts, such as Wieden+Kennedy, have had limited success in Japan, where they have had to battle the near-suffocating domestic giants Dentsu, Hakuhodo, and their ilk.

But Japan’s insular industry is now seeking global partners, opening to creatives from abroad as the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games perch on the horizon

Cutters Tokyo, the Japanese branch of a veteran US post-production studio, seeks to globalize Japanese advertising by educating and collaborating with domestic clients. The first overseas affiliate of Cutters Studios, founded in Chicago in 1980, opened in Tokyo two years ago. It is the only foreign studio in Japan to have won an award for commercial editing, for its cinematic advertisement of Nike Japan, set in Japan’s hallowed Koshien baseball stadium.

“Japan is a top-down, hierarchical society,” said CEO Ryan McGuire. “And that’s been true of the advertising industry.”

Cutters is trying to introduce a more collaborative process, characterized by rigorous editing and cross-communication. “In Japan, the director is handed the reins and expected to do everything,” McGuire explained. “But in the US, the director turns the footage over to the editor, who can apply a critical and more objective eye.

“For example, in Japan, there are roughly 900 frames per commercial. If I can take just 45 frames and make them do something exceptional, I can increase the overall impact of the commercial by 10 percent. That gets 10 percent of the audience to raise an eyebrow, and that’s huge.”

In Japan, Cutters now boasts 69 clients, 80 percent of whom are Japanese brand giants from an array of industries: SoftBank, SKY PerfectTV!, au, Asahi, Kagome and Mazda, among others. And the studio’s approach has worked with some of Japan’s biggest media stars, including Takeshi Kitano, SMAP, Yu Darvish, and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. In one short film, Cutters even worked with Japanophile US rock star David Lee Roth.

The opening of Cutters in Japan is the first step in the studio’s global strategy. Bilingual Ryan McGuire is the son of the company’s original founder and CEO, Tim McGuire.

“Cutters Tokyo is the best post-production studio I have ever seen in Japan,” said Dentsu’s Yuto Ogawa. “They use methods that Japanese studios would never select, and they really value open communication. With picture, sound, and color, they infuse meaning into every element. [They are] a breath of global fresh air in the Japanese commercial TV industry.”

The team at Cutters Studio Japan emphasizes collaboration, rigorous editing, and cross-communication.

The team at Cutters Studio Japan emphasizes collaboration, rigorous editing, and cross-communication.

Cutters edge
Just as Japanese styles, fashions, and aesthetics continue to mesmerize young Americans, US sensibilities are transforming Japanese advertising tropes. For a foreign creative studio to stake a claim and win awards in the tightly controlled domestic market is a signal of Japan’s growing eagerness to be a global player.

From its ¥110 trillion, 224m2, multi-story facility in Ebisu, Cutters Tokyo hopes to revolutionize television advertising in Japan, said McGuire, by introducing techniques and processes from the United States and Europe via a crack bicultural creative team, building bridges into the domestic market. Across the industry, executives at Dentsu, Hakuhodo, J. Walter Thompson Japan, and other veteran agencies highlight Cutters’ accessibility, creativity, and execution.

Ryan Johnson of Wieden+Kennedy —the agency that partnered with Cutters Tokyo on their Grand Prix-winning Nike Japan commercial, called “Sensei (Pledge)”—believes that the company is reviving Japan’s ad industry by emphasizing old-fashioned teamwork. “The reason Cutters Tokyo has managed to be so successful in such a short time isn’t just their sheer talent,” he said. “It’s because they have an unparalleled passion to do creative work that adds something back to culture and to the creative community.”

Longtime producer Tomo Sueda of JWT Japan finds essential US and Japanese qualities of hospitality behind Cutters’ magnanimous spirit. “I believe Cutters will expand their territory in Asia with their creativity and omotenashi mind-set,” he said.

“It was always in the plan to use Tokyo as a springboard for expanding into the Asian market,” McGuire added. He travels frequently to Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, and Shanghai—with the latter two cities being the most likely sites for opening future branch studios.

McGuire first came to Japan for a homestay as a teenager. He fell in love with the country and its civility and refinement, prompting him to learn the language and constantly seek opportunities to live and work in Asia. He says he is still learning from Japan as Cutters expands into continental Asia. “To be honest,” he added, “if the Japanese could make commercials the way they make and prepare food, I’d have absolutely no business here.”


Roland Kelts is a half-Japanese American writer, editor, and lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of the acclaimed bestseller Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US and the forthcoming novel Access. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Psychology Today, Playboy, and The Wall Street Journal. Kelts authors a monthly column for The Japan Times, and is also a frequent contributor to CNN and NPR.


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The US remains the largest advertising market by a wide margin; Japan is in second place.