That interview with Oka Yasumichi that I was worried about went pretty well. Oka was affable, impressed and intrigued by the network diagrams illustrating his career that I showed him, and willing to answer my questions at length. Listening to the recording of the interview I realize one thing—my interviewing skills are rusty; I talk too much, wasting time better spent on listening. Still came away, however, with some interesting things to think about.
1. How media have shaped the experience of different generations. To older advertising creatives, who got their breaks in the 60s and 70s, print advertising was the prototype, the medium in which they made their bones. People in Oka’s generation, who graduated from college and went to work in the industry in the 1980s, a Japan without TV is unthinkable. The prototypical ad is a TV commercial, the core of a big campaign in which print ads are ancillary. This generation, however, is struggling to deal with the Internet, which is disrupting the TV-dominated world that is their generation’s normal.
2. The relationship of TV to its audience has not been a constant one. In a fascinating conversation with his Dentsu mentor Akira Odagiri, who joined Dentsu in 1961 and was in at the start of TV advertising in Japan (a conversation transcribed as a book titled CM (i.e., Commercial Message), they note that Odagiri made commercials on the assumption that a family was gathered in front of the TV set and that he was speaking to everyone. In contrast, Oka grew up with his own TV in his own room and makes commercials on the assumption that he is speaking to a viewer one-on-one. Odagiri started working on commercials when TV was new and exciting; the TV set was like a lover, someone you can’t take your eyes off, whose every word is important to you. By the time that Oka started making commercials, TV was at best a friend or acquaintance; someone you hang around with but don’t always pay much attention to.
3. When Oka thinks of the changes in his world that changed his life, the first is the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble in 1991. The collapse of the bubble was good for Oka’s career. Commercials during the bubble had been bakasawagi (stupidly noisy); with the bubble’s collapse Japanese audiences turned more receptive to the subtle melancholy that infused the commercials that made Oka an advertising star. The second was the decision that he and three Dentsu colleagues made to quit the big agency and set up TUGBOAT. Their decision forced others to think about whether they, too, would stay in the big agency cocoon or go out on their own. Oka was disappointed that most similar projects were nothing more than spinoffs from big agency groups, of which they remained wholly owned subsidiaries. But for him the results were dramatic. He no longer had bosses! He notes, moreover, that the fact that he and the other TUGBOAT founders quit and kept working together as a group made their situation different from that of individuals who quit agency jobs and become freelancers and often wind up working with their old colleagues in much the same way as before.
4. When I asked Oka to name those in the industry whom he considers his rivals, he said there was really only one, Sasaki Hiroshi. When I mentioned other big names, he said that he didn’t see them as rivals. They are either of different generations or playing different games. I found myself forced to stop and think about how a rival must be a peer with whom you compete in the same space.
5. Finally, I asked Oka about a sentence he had written, in which he said that he is almost never conscious of being part of a team and then went onto write that he can work with anyone who is tops in their field; after all, he said, he doesn’t have to live with them. He then pointed that team only becomes an issue when you have to pick the members of a team, A,B and C, for example, instead of A, D and F. Since at TUGBOAT, there are only the four principals and they always work together that issue never comes up. Yes, you might say that the members of TUGBOAT are a team; but they never have to worry about the issues that arise when you have to assemble a team for a new project.
Any thoughts about these remarks will be most welcome.