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Creating a New Company from Scratch in Japan

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It is well known in the global PR industry that Edelman tried but failed on a few occasions to enter the Japanese market — then the world’s second-largest economy — dating back to the 1980s. When the firm asked me to lead its latest charge into the country in 2004, I was not at all convinced that this would be a good idea and worried that Tokyo could be a career graveyard. It’s true that I had been playing a ‘hot hand’ with my colleagues making Korea Edelman’s largest Asia office from 2002, but the Edelman organization wanted me to replicate that success in Japan and I knew that would be a much harder thing to do from scratch (thus I was able to secure a 49% stake in the Japanese company for what I knew would be the toughest job of my career).

A lot of outsiders to Asia think that because Korea and Japan have a lot of things in common, then you can follow pretty much the same cookie-cutter approach in both countries.

Well, that may be true sometimes, but more often than not distinct approaches need to be pursued to achieve ‘societal alignment.’ For example, in Korea digital technology has rendered the press club system obsolete, whereas in Japan it still reigns supreme as an information cartel. Korean PR is more visual and vivid, but in Japan the use of text unaccompanied by images is commonplace in PR and while it’s OK in Seoul to send large e-mail attachments, in Tokyo that was often found rude.

Koreans are in a hurry to get ambitious things done, so speed is their thing and it doesn’t matter sometimes if the journey is a bit harried as long as the destination is reached. The Japanese, I find, are more inclined to take the time to ensure that every last detail of quality is mastered. Far better to take longer creating something of the highest quality than to rush things and be sloppy.

That was the key for me, aiming to create a premium brand for Edelman in a country that values quality, and to ask staff to be the best they can be in the spirit of Japan’s kaizen business philosophy. Still, while I did try to tap into this vein of national sentiment, we were actually able to grow so fast by acting completely different than all of the other PR firms. In Japan, where it’s important to ‘fit in’ and be like the others, we decided early on to aggressively differentiate ourselves by being completely different than the other firms in a range of areas.

This involved:

  • positioning the firm as aiming at a new PR standard of excellence competing on quality rather than price (in a country where there are a lot of frustrated and patient clients suffering one mediocre ‘commodity’ firm after another who crave a PR firm that can think, fearlessly advise and execute rather than just ‘follow instructions’)
  • ensuring the prominent role of Japan in the global Edelman network and showcasing Japanese accomplishments internationally (in a global industry where Japan really does seem to ‘punch below its weight’ and many practitioners working at firms in Tokyo regard English interactions with overseas people as a necessary inconvenience, thus making the overseas colleagues wonder about their Japanese co-workers’ commitment)
  • relentlessly promoting Edelman Japan’s accomplishments in the PR industry (in a country where modesty can reduce the motivation and effectiveness of overseas marketing, but in a network where shameless self-promotion is a sign of PR virility)
  • massively educating the staff with accelerated learning programs so as to increase the value of our primary product — the employees’ time — and thus help keep the premium quality promise with stakeholders

Just about every person I spoke with forecast the doom and defeat of a new Edelman Japan created along these lines, and some days when it was me living out of my suitcase after one discouraging meeting after another, I wondered if a unilingual Canadian expat could get the new firm off the ground. I later discovered that compared to optimistic Americans, Japanese can seem pessimistic and seek a greater degree of tangibility before corporate boasts are taken seriously.

Before I set up shop in Tokyo, Dan Edelman — who like his son Richard was a strong supporter of the new Japanese organization — sent me all of his files which chronicled Edelman’s dealings with Japan since the early 1980s. They arrived one day in large binders labeled with well known Japanese PR names like Dentsu, Kyodo, Hakuhodo, and Ozma. When I flipped through the hundreds of pages of material, I was stunned to see with my own eyes the extent of cultural misunderstanding (on both sides) which must have played a role in stymieing the success of the earlier failed attempts to win allies, forge affiliations, or precipitate acquisitions.

I guess we were able to make a success of Edelman’s Japan entry because — financed by the confidence of early foundation clients like Microsoft and Nissan — we just built the place one person at a time, sharing the entrepreneurial thrill of co-creating a company with a very courageous group of Japanese colleagues who wanted to make a career in modern public relations.