Kazoo Sato: At The Cutting Edge of Creativity
shots catches up with our current cover star, the laser-focused CCO of TBWA\Hakuhodo.
“One of the few rock stars of advertising in Japan” is how a former colleague once described Kazoo Sato, CCO of TBWA\Hakuhodo, and for once it’s not a hyperbolic tag. How many creatives have run a successful side hustle as a DJ and been discovered by the legendary Gilles Peterson, flown to Rome for a set, rubbed shoulders with Björk, or won an MTV Music Video Awards Grand Prix? And he certainly gives good hat (surely a prerequisite for any rock star), arriving at the interview in a rakishly-tipped panama.
From smoking weed to strategy
After a gruelling week judging the Product Design category at Cannes Lions, most jurors would be collapsing on a sun-lounger and drinking themselves into rosé-soaked oblivion, but Sato is sipping Perrier and animatedly discussing Snapchat’s Spectacles, which narrowly lost out on the Grand Prix.
“I thought, no agency could make this kind of high-quality product for mass production. Sure, we can do prototype stuff, but if you look at the design of these glasses, [the tech is] incredible. How can we as agencies compete?” he muses. “We’ve been so reliant on film, but we need to be able to craft and execute many different types of execution.”
Sato grew up in Yokohama, Japan’s second largest city. He studied hard, but as soon as the school bell rang it was “skateboarding, smoking weed, skateboarding, smoking weed and hanging out with the cool kids.” That all changed at age 16, when he set his heart on becoming an international human rights lawyer. After completing a law degree he joined a postgraduate course in Edinburgh, Scotland where, in between cramming up on case law, he embarked on the aforementioned stint on the European club circuit.
“It was the first time that I heard the words ‘marketing’ ‘research’ and ‘brand’ – the language was all new to me. ‘Strategy’ – are you going to attack some country?! For a year it was very, very difficult, there was so much to learn.”
By the time Sato returned to Tokyo in 1996 a legal career no longer appealed. Instead, he landed a job at Sony Music Entertainment researching new artists, designing album sleeves and shooting the odd music video, while continuing to DJ. It was during a Friday night set at super-club Yellow that he met Alex Lopez, then-ECD of Beacon Communications (part of Leo Burnett). The two became friends, and a subsequent visit to the agency shattered all of Sato’s prejudices about advertising.
“Before, I had this idea it was all guys wearing suits and chasing girls. But when I saw people actually writing and drawing, I realised it was very creative after all.” Lopez offered him a job as an art director and so, in 1998, Sato took his first step into the advertising industry. Agency life came as a huge culture shock. “It was the first time that I heard the words ‘marketing’ ‘research’ and ‘brand’ – the language was all new to me,” he remembers. “‘Strategy’ – are you going to attack some country?! For a year it was very, very difficult, there was so much to learn. I’d work till midnight at the agency, then I’d come home, have a bath, and carry on studying until 3am.”
The Wild Bird Society of Japan’s Voice of Endangered Birds
Over the next decade Sato worked on some of Beacon’s biggest accounts, from P&G to Coca-Cola, rising through the ranks to creative director and taking a seat alongside Mark Tutssel and Michael Conrad as part of Leo Burnett’s global creative council. The first of a string of creative awards came in 2008 with a gold Lion for The Wild Bird Society of Japan’s Voice of Endangered Birds [above] which saw samples of birdsong mixed into contemporary dance tracks and sold as limited-edition vinyl in underground record stores.
Moving on out, moving on up
The win opened new doors; celebrating on the Croisette that night, Sato got chatting to a creative team from TBWA\Hakuhodo who suggested he join them. A joke – or so he thought. Back in Tokyo, he got an official call from Hiroshi Ochiai, the agency’s CEO, and after weighing up his options – “I was feeling pretty safe and comfortable. I needed a new challenge. So I said bye bye to Burnett, and sorry to Mark Tutssel” – he upped sticks and moved to Japan’s second largest agency in 2009.
Since then, Sato has created and overseen a slew of campaigns for adidas, Suntory, Quiksilver and AIG, and been promoted twice – to executive creative director in 2012 and to CCO last year. He has served on every international awards jury from Spikes Asia to New York Festivals, picked up Pencils and Lions and been named Japan Creative of the Year. He’s become a stalwart of the ad industry, yet maintains much of what he does isn’t really “advertising” at all.
Finding new ways to tell stories
A quick trawl through his career highlights bears this out. Take 3D on the Rocks for Japanese whisky brand Suntory, which used inverse 3D-printing tech to sculpt ice cubes into cultural icons, so customers could chill their glasses with a mini Statue of Liberty or even a Cannes Lion. Or adidas’ FIFA 2010 campaign, Sky Comic, a series of giant murals created by football fans around Japan.
Quiksilver’s True Wetsuits, meanwhile, addressed Japan’s notoriously long working hours. With overworked salarymen struggling to find the time to go surfing, Sato’s team developed a jacket, trousers, shirt and even a tie made out of a special fast-drying neoprene fabric, allowing time-pressed businessmen to head straight from the beach to the boardroom. “We spent six months making prototypes, and at times it seemed impossible,” remembers Sato. “I even sent my copywriter out surfing in Tokyo, in the middle of the winter, to test it!”
Ultimately, says Sato, “whether it’s through film, interactive, product design… it’s about finding a new way to tell the story”. And with increasing globalisation, “the language needed to tell that story must also be more global – though of course, we still have a crazy Japanese context!” That’s where he believes being “a local agency with a global mindset” is a real advantage.
One of the biggest drivers of globalisation has been the internet, which has also inspired a shift to longer web films and virals. “All the creative training [in Japan] is, how do you write a story in 15 seconds? A lot of older creatives don’t know how to write a two-minute story,” points out Sato. So he’s particularly proud of #TackleTheRisk, their online film for AIG Insurance, which sees New Zealand’s national rugby team, the All Blacks, brutally taking down passers-by on the streets of Tokyo (the twist is that they’re actually being saved from unforeseen accidents).
Life with Lions on your side
Though the work-life imbalance highlighted by True Wetsuits still persists, within his own agency Sato tries to lead by example, making time for hobbies, like his 20,000-strong vinyl record collection. He reckons the cause of Japan’s punishing agency culture is two-fold. “For one, we’re just too inefficient. People don’t prepare for meetings, they’re just throwing ideas around for hours. It happens everywhere. But we’re trying to make it more focussed.” The second is agencies’ historically servile attitude towards clients. “There’s a real hierarchy: the clients pay you to do the work, not have opinions. It’s a bad ecosystem, but it is slowly starting to get better.”
“There’s a real hierarchy: the clients pay you to do the work, not have opinions. It’s a bad ecosystem, but it is slowly starting to get better.”
Key to improving the situation is building creatives’ confidence, one of the reasons Sato backs awards shows. “It’s not about how many Lions you win, but [winning makes you think] I can do it! My idea works! My writing can be understood globally! I faced a client the day after winning my first Lion aged 27, and it really gave me the confidence to stand up to them.”
The big question, though, is whether it’ll be man or machine coming up with creative ideas in the future. McCann Erickson Japan famously appointed its first AI creative director last year, and a local insurance firm has since replaced some employees with IBM’s Watson Explorer tech. So are the robots coming for his job? Sato laughs. “A lot of people are scared, but I’m more interested in how we can collaborate with this technology to make great campaigns. I’m excited. Bring it on!”
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