Two minutes in Tokyo with Carl van Wijk

Carl van Wijk, creative director and content producer in Japan, takes us through the advertising scene of Tokyo compared to his home of New Zealand, as well as the trials of being a content producer in the world’s third-largest economy.

Why did you initially decide to begin a career in advertising?

I was good at drawing from a very early age. My art teacher in high school encouraged me to study graphic design at AUT. When I graduated I thought the best place to use my talent was in an ad agency. My father came home from work one day with an interesting article by an ECD in a prominent Auckland agency. It was about students finding it tough to start a career in advertising so I called him up the next morning, went in to see him with my portfolio and he gave me a job as an Art Director.

What were some of your first projects?

I was very privileged to work on some great brands right off the bat. Nissan, Lion Breweries, NZI Insurance and P&G. Working on Nissan I created campaigns for many models. From designing the catalogues and print ads all the way through to the launch TV commercials. It gave me a great grounding and understanding of the many aspects required to be a good creative. It wasn’t long before my works were winning awards all over the world. Qantas was another great brand I worked on in NZ, generating press ads every few days. Great fun. I moved to Australia and worked at Y&R for several years on the Mitsubishi account creating many campaigns. A highlight was a campaign I did for Pajero featuring the voice of the late great Muhammad Ali, with the commercial filmed in the spectacular mountains around Queenstown.

Why did you decide to move to Japan and take your advertising skills to the Japanese market?

After working in New Zealand and Australia, collecting many awards in the process, I decided I needed a change. Something bigger. I had done a lot of work on the Mitsubishi Motors account and gotten to know people in Japan along the way. I was offered a job in the Global Creative Department in one of Japan’s largest ad agencies, ADK. I jumped at the chance to work in Tokyo. I had something to offer with the skills and knowledge I had gained in New Zealand and Australia. As a Kiwi, I thought a little differently to the locals, and I was always pushing to try alternative ideas. I worked on global campaigns for Mitsubishi, Bridgestone, Nikon, Toshiba, and Tokyo Metro among others.

What are some of the challenges involved in marketing NZ brands in Japan?

Japan is the third-largest economy on the planet. The city of Tokyo alone has a population 10 times larger than the whole of New Zealand. Competition for brands is massive. So when a brand from New Zealand decides to enter the market, it had better have something interesting to say. New Zealand is well respected by the Japanese but actually very little is known about it as a country. The typical knowledge, even now in 2020, doesn’t go much further than the All Blacks, kiwi fruit and lamb. It actually shocks me that for most people that’s it, but I truly believe that NZ has a huge opportunity to introduce much more. ie Maori culture, natural products like our unique fruits which remain unknown to Japan and tourism, which still has a long way to go.

What are the major differences between NZ and Japanese advertising?

Japanese advertising is a machine. To grab attention, brands need to fight it out and deliver their message in only a few seconds. You will see outdoor posters & banners everywhere – including subways & trains. It is crucial to catch people’s attention while they are on the move and it has to stand out to succeed.

Most TV commercials are 15 seconds long and jammed with visual imagery. You will often see a seemingly irrelevant story that only subtly mentions the product or brand. Although you might not understand what the product or brand is about from the ad, you will remember these well-executed and interesting (sometimes bizarre) plots. It is still a trend to have celebrities in commercials. In fact, to Japanese celebrities, appearing in commercials is a sign of popularity, and it is often how celebrities increase their fame. It is about creating trust.

Japan has a culture of collectivism, where people seek affirmation within a familiar group. Testimonials from familiar faces bring more credibility to
a product than a detailed scientific explanation about how effective it is.

Social media is exploding here with messages bombarding the public every which way. Smartphones are king with many people owning more than one. Anything goes here and I often see advertising that could never run in NZ. Japanese are very open-minded in many ways.

What are some of the similarities?

A great creative idea stands out. Like Kiwis, the Japanese love having a laugh at themselves. To be honest very little else is the same.

What are some of your favourite campaigns that you have worked on and why?

I had the great privilege to work on the global campaign for the Japan National Tourism Organization. The brief was to target North Americans and Europeans NOT interested in Japan. No geisha, no bullet trains, no Mt Fuji. To help achieve the objective, we cast only foreigners to help break down the perceived language barriers. Then, after 2 months of shooting across Japan, the campaign launched globally, resulting in over 21 million hits on YouTube. Very happy client.

The world’s largest ITC company NTT wanted to raise its brand awareness in the US. Targeting CES in Las Vegas they commissioned a large booth to share their groundbreaking technology. It was my job to create the overall theme and video content. The concept was ‘Beyond the Internet’. Not an easy thing to explain to the general public. The client entrusted my team and myself to create something that would grab attention and explain this technology in a meaningful way. NTT has now adopted this content for its overseas expansion plans.

Working on the progressive Japanese cosmetic brand Shu Uemura was a great challenge. Targeting Japanese, Chinese and Korean women with one central idea is not easy. The rewards are great. Working with a terrific team of directors, photographers and producers, not to mention extremely talented account people, is a real honour.

I still get a thrill to see my work in high-end department stores and all over social media, but when I see it I’m reminded of the wonderful teamwork that went into putting it all together.

How does having international experience provide you with leverage in NZ?

To gain experience abroad is mind expanding. Sure we can all see the global community online but to physically see how others think and work, both in agencies and on the street, is quite a different thing. New Zealand has tons of opportunities. Combining this with global thinking can be a real advantage. To be able to look back from another market it is clear to see what those opportunities really are.

The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will be Japan’s chance to WOW the world. Japan is a dominant influencer with its technology but increasingly more and more with its culture and food.

In terms of advertising, I expect many of Japan’s big brands will leverage this to introduce themselves to new markets such as NZ, which has been dominated largely by US and British companies up until now.

Japanese companies like Asahi have already entered the market with success and I think NZ can expect to see more competition, especially in the food and tech industries. Japan has an immense scale and clout. They have proved over and over that their brands are often a hit abroad so I would expect to see more globalization in the near future.

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