The Truth about Dentsū

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Dentsū is currently in the news for its clumsy administration of a coronavirus relief fund, a project which it was awarded under government tender. A closer look reveals a company linked to reports of harassment, overwork, and suicide. In his 20-year career with the advertising giant, Yokoyama Yōji saw it all.

Looking Back at My Dentsū Past

At the time I was approached to write this article on Dentsū, I was already receiving frequent requests from the media to comment on the advertising firm’s role in a tender to administer a government relief fund, so I had more cause than usual to contemplate my 20 years with the company. 

I imagine the media approached me, rather than someone who is currently employed by Dentsū, because they thought I would be able to comment more freely—although the main reason was probably my book, Kigyō-jin kara daigaku kyōju ni naritai anata e—Moto Dentsū-man no daigaku funtōki (Making the Transition from Corporate to Academic Life: One Ex-Dentsū Man’s Struggle).

I began my academic career in 2012, and at the time was exclusively affiliated with the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies. In my first year at NUFS, I taught a class called “Understanding Corporations.” Each of the 15 or so students in my class had to choose a company to give a 15-minute presentation on one option on a list I gave them. Dentsū was on the list, so every year someone gave a presentation on the firm. 

In this article, I will consider some key phrases my students often used when describing Dentsū in their presentations (some of which verged on urban legend), along with some phrases reporters often use to describe Dentsū when interviewing me, in an attempt to set the record straight. I will then propose some alternative phrases that better describe what Dentsū employees are really like, as seen from my time there. In doing so I hope to elucidate the secret of Dentsū’s success.

Enduring Perceptions of Machismo and Militarism

In the words of my students, Dentsū has a macho and militaristic culture. The received wisdom is that 30% to 40% of Dentsū employees were in sports teams at university, and this was certainly true of my intake. When I joined the company, it had a rigidly hierarchical culture, much like that of a university sports team.

At Dentsū, new recruits were trained in truly military style. The hall used to train new recruits was on the thirteenth floor of the Tsukiji headquarters (this was before the firm relocated to Shiodome). During our three months of training, we were not allowed to use the elevators, so we had to take the stairs. Every morning before work, we would climb the 13 flights of stairs to that hall, much like a military procession. This was partly to prepare us for the ascent of Mount Fuji that all new recruits were required to perform. (In my year, the first to the summit was a woman who had recently won a national triathlon championship.)

Initiation Rites

Climbing stairs was only the beginning, however. It was not until the “welcome party” for new recruits posted to the Nagoya branch, organized independently by the junior employees at that branch, that I would truly be initiated into the macho and militaristic institution that was Dentsū.

In a reference to the Barcelona Olympic Games that were about to take place, the staff had organized 10 events for the new recruits, all of which we had to perform naked, in the style of the ancient Olympics. While many of the other (all male) recruits were athletically built, I was quite the opposite—chubby and nonathletic—and had to endure the humiliation of coming in last. Nor was I any match for my macho colleagues at drinking games or speed-eating competitions involving Dentsū manjū—oversized manjū sweets, about as big as your face, that are sent to all employees on the anniversary of the company’s founding. We were forced to participate in competition after competition, the details of some of which are not fit to print.

In those days, we had to pledge utter obedience to our superiors, much like the military. At first, I didn’t know whether I would be able to survive in such a harsh environment. Later I learned that the initiation ceremony at the head office was even more punishing. Thankfully, Dentsū put a stop to these initiation ceremonies 20 years ago.

While this kind of egregious harassment would obviously be unthinkable now, the high percentage of recruits from university sports clubs remains unchanged today. Incidentally, the received wisdom in the industry is that rival ad giant Hakuhōdo has a more collegial environment, in which junior employees have warmer and friendlier relationships with their superiors.

It is widely agreed that Dentsū’s macho, militaristic group culture, which only arose in the first place because of the scant regard for compliance in those days, formed the foundation for the association between the firm and the harassment, exploitation, and karōshi deaths from overwork that are so often mentioned in the media. However, it cannot be disputed that this culture has also contributed to Dentsū’s success, as I will discuss later.

Well-Connected Employees Held “Hostage”

The next keyword I would like to discuss is connections. My students often asked me whether it was common for Dentsū to recruit people because of the ties they enjoyed with movers and shakers in various fields. 

There were indeed a lot of people in this category, who either had a parent on the board of a major corporate sponsor, television network, or newspaper, or a relative who was a famous film director or some other kind of celebrity. Often, upon learning a coworker’s surname, I would form a mental picture of their father. Indeed, the tabloids recently reported that Dentsū has hired the brother of a performer in a well-known pop group.

Those hired through their connections served as “hostages” that would encourage the business in question to continue its relationship with Dentsū. That is not to say that these people were not competent, however. A surprising number in this category had considerable potential in their own right—in some cases the employee in question had been a member of a sports team at a prestigious private university, and just happened to have a famous relative (as was the case with the pop singer’s brother mentioned above). Many of those hired for their connections therefore went on to become high performing employees.

Another phrase often used in the media is “cozy relationships with politicians.” The perception that Dentsūis chummy with political leaders is common among journalists, and has become part of the “folklore” associated with the company. I studied election campaigns at university. The Liberal Democratic Party was one of Dentsū’s accounts in my day as well, and the company secured contracts to handle party communications, including in election campaigns. These services remain part of its everyday business activities.

The Political Angle

However, these activities merely aim to help political parties to communicate, by way of publicity at the time of the election and other such messaging. During my time at Dentsū, I never heard anything about specific Diet members being lobbied for tenders in the way journalists imagine goes on. In relation to the latest scandal over the relief fund for businesses hurt by the coronavirus, which was managed—many say mismanaged—by the firm, some reporters put it to me persuasively that Dentsū had petitioned Diet members for the contract. In fact, this would be impossible.

If anything, I was more surprised to learn that a reporter from a major newspaper played mahjong for money at his own home with the head of a government body. I think it is more common for journalists to form cozy relationships with politicians and public servants as a way of obtaining information. These journalists then draw analogies with their own experience and get it into their head that Dentsū cozies up to Diet members and infiltrates the public service as well, thereby perpetuating the myth that the company has close ties with politicians.

I will now share a few alternative phrases to give you an idea of what Dentsū employees are really like, based on my 20 years working there.

Many of these phrases are positive, like “highly motivated,” “possessing varied interests,” “likely to marry an actress or celebrity,” “high achiever,” “creative,” “sensitive to trends,” “possessing leadership,” “having good instincts in many situations,” and “always putting the client first.” But there are also many with negative associations, such as “hassled with internal marketing,” “snowed under with work,” “arrogant,” “good at delegating,” “always ready to claim credit for other’s successes,” “overzealous,” and “competitive.”

There is not room to fully explain all of these phrases here, so I will explain a few select phrases that I believe are behind Dentsū’s success.

The Talent that Drives Success

The former Dentsū employee at the center of the recent scandal involving the national government’s outsourcing of administrative work for a COVID-19 business relief package, who I will call “H,” exemplified the phrase “high achiever.” He joined at the same time as me, and we worked on several projects together. (H left the company in 2019.)

One day, as I was in a meeting room, diligently writing out the details of my team’s approach to a pitch presentation on the whiteboard, H happened to walk past. After stopping and looking at what I had written for a few seconds, he strolled into the room, made some amendments to what I had written in red, then walked out again.

My team ended up creating and submitting its proposal in accordance with H’s amendments, and won the bid. I was often with H in meetings, and his strategic eye and business design capability always stood out from the flock, even amongst the uniformly high-achieving Dentsū staff. I have never met another person there who surpassed his capability for business design, and I doubt there is anyone of his caliber at any of our competitors, either.

 Ōkubo Yūji (left), representative director of the Service Design Engineering Council, a Dentsū affiliate, and the Council’s executive director, Hirakawa Kenji, address the media on June 8, 2020, about their administration of government grants. (© Jiji)
Ōkubo Yūji (left), representative director of the Service Design Engineering Council, a Dentsū affiliate, and the Council’s executive director, Hirakawa Kenji, address the media on June 8, 2020, about their administration of government grants. (© Jiji)

In all the creative and promotional fields Dentsū was involved in, you would find many other talented, high-achieving employees like H. I believe that is the secret of the company’s success.

However, the success the company as a whole cannot be explained by its parts alone. This is because the communications services (receipt and dissemination of information relating to corporate and political advertising campaigns) and solutions services (services to solve clients’ problems) that Dentsū performs cannot be performed by individuals alone.

The Value of Team Players

To make a promotional event or TV commercial a success, collaboration between a large number of people, both within the agency and externally, is essential. You need to be able to bring a team together. Employees used to the character-building discipline of a sports club are more likely to possess such team-building skills.

Those who have played team sports like rugby and baseball tend to be imbued with a team spirit that values working together and being considerate of one’s fellow teammates. Working under a project leader with this kind of background teaches you a lot about managing people.

A high degree of motivation is another secret of Dentsū’s success. During the coronavirus pandemic, a small business I advise launched a new project in which they held online meetings with top creators from Dentsū to develop new businesses and products. The experience of working with the company’s creators again for the first time in eight years brought home to me that its strength lies in its creativity. When combined with the creativity Dentsū brought to bear, the skills of that small business could be transformed into innovation.

Global Transformation

In closing, I would like to talk about the future of Dentsū.

The Dentsu Group has grown into a corporate conglomerate with annual consolidated revenue of over ¥5 trillion. It is an increasingly global entity at that, with 60% of that revenue earned overseas. When I talk to old acquaintances there, they tell me that Dentsū is run like a western company nowadays.

The corporate culture that the firm has fostered is set to change significantly in the future as Dentsu is transformed into a global corporation. The macho, militaristic culture I described above is already beginning to change. Dentsū will increasingly need to recruit staff from overseas as well, and therefore to change the focus in its hiring practices on the well-connected in Japan.

The Ten Rules of the Demon, a set of “commandments” drawn up in 1951 by Dentsū’s fourth CEO, Yoshida Hideo—known as the “demon of advertising”—form the base of the company culture. These rules are etched into the DNA of all Dentsū employees, and questions about them even appear in tests given to prospective hires.

I have been informed that after when a female employee was worked so hard that she committed suicide in 2015, Dentsū stopped making new recruits memorize these rules. This development has made it difficult to pass on the corporate culture to the next generation. The trend to work increasingly online due to COVID-19 is also likely to change the way that junior employees are trained.

In addition, globalization and changes in the domestic business environment will force changes in the culture that has supported the corporation in the past. New aspects in the culture that contributed to Dentsū’s success in the past are sure to bring with them changes in the qualities seen in its employees of the future. 

I believe that Dentsū is being forced to formulate a new corporate vision that is better adapted to changes in the business environment, and to revamp its corporate culture to be more compatible with globalization and modern technology.

The Ten Rules of the Demon

  1. Work is not something to be assigned given—it is something you make for yourself.
  2. Do not take a passive stance to work, but actively engage other parties.
  3. Take on big projects. Small projects make you smaller.
  4. You will make progress by aiming high and performing difficult tasks.
  5. Once you start work on a project do not put it down until you have achieved your goal, even if it kills you.
  6. Be a leader rather than a follower. Over time, the gap between these two groups grows truly vast.
  7. Have a plan. A long-term plan will give you tenacity, creativity, righteous effort, and hope.
  8. Be confident. If you lack confidence, your work will lack power, tenacity, and depth.
  9. Providing a service means always keeping your wits about you, and never showing the slightest weakness.
  10. Do not fear confrontation. Confrontation is the mother of progress and nourishes aggressive enterprise. Aversion to confrontation will make you timid and irresolute.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Dentsū headquarters in Shiodome, Tokyo. © Jiji.)

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