IMJ is one of the largest full-service digital agencies in Japan. Founded 21 years ago, the company recently joined Accenture Group, a worldwide consulting firm in 2016 to reach to more overseas markets and create a business model focusing on crafting user experience. According to Mr. Takahiro Yamamoto, a corporate officer at IMJ, even though it’s not a company strategy to boost international hiring at the moment yet, he expects the inflow of non-Japanese staff will bring in insights about overseas markets and suitable localizing approaches to develop globally. IMJ’s strength lies in its ability to utilize data to gain customer insights and recommend the most suitable solution from the client’s customers’ point of view. He thinks clients would also prefer companies with members from a diverse background in the future.
Digital marketing in an increasingly diverse market
Internationalization has become a popular term in Japan in recent years. With a shrinking domestic market due to an aging population, the term is now part of the national strategy in both business and education to increase diversity and open the country itself to global opportunities.
Cultural diversity in Japanese workplaces is taking on a much more exciting mission to invigorate Japanese corporates to connect with increasingly diverse markets both at home and overseas.
With 92% of the population connected to the internet and an increasing smartphone penetration rate, the Japanese consumer market is constantly exposed to new trends from all over the world more than before. Digital marketing in Japan is on the front lines supporting organizations’ understanding of the fast-changing and complex consumer behaviors to seek a larger footprint on the market. Taking on the mission to connect with consumers across borders and cultures, digital agencies in Japan are seeing changes within themselves in the search for better international market understanding.
Connecting ideas and bridging markets
Efforts by previously domestic companies to reach the global marketplace are recognized overseas, attracting aspiring employees to seek opportunities in the land of rising sun. In 2016, the number of foreigners living in Japan reached an all-time high of 2.38 million. Following the inflow of international talents is the opportunity to exchange ideas and live in diversity for everyone.
Ms. Wan, who came to Tokyo from China in 2014 after her graduation and is now working at IMJ’s data-driven marketing department, shared about her job: “We help clients find solutions to achieve their online business goal using data analytics. I think the best part about working here is that I can work with people from different countries and backgrounds. I always discover new ideas that I had never known.”
IMJ is partnering with global companies such as Adobe and Salesforce to build its core customer value in creativity, data, and marketing technology. The company also provides an environment and culture to facilitate open discussions and exchange of ideas. For example, IMJ usually borrows a classroom from an elementary school to use as a venue for their brainstorming workshops. Staff, clients, and consumers (and sometimes even parents with their children!) would join to contribute their ideas and work together to create user scenarios.
As the world becomes highly connected with better digital infrastructure, purchasing behavior is rapidly changing and becoming more complex. From the creative perspective, Mr. Yamamoto believes that the involvement of more global talents is necessary as cultural nuances will be best understood from an insiders’ point of view. Emotional sensitivity is complex and may differ even between regions of the same country. For example, even if 2D banners are widely accepted in Japan, it may be not as well received in other countries. Cultural understanding is essential to touch consumers with relevant communication.
Learning at work and nurturing international talent in harmony with Japanese business culture
Working overseas is a huge opportunity with high expectations and undeniably big challenges for the new arrivals. Language and cultural barriers are the first to mention. Ms. Wan found “It was difficult to talk to clients in Japanese at the beginning. One of the difficulties is that I have to often confirm if it’s a “yes” or a “no” because Japanese is ambiguous sometimes. My advice for the newcomer is to remember the “ho-ren-so” practice when they start at a new company.” “Ho-ren-so” is a mantra in Japanese business culture, it is an abbreviation for “report-inform-consult” in Japanese, which can be seen as the basic rule to conduct effective business communication in Japan.
Some differences in business cultures work out for its best. “I think the biggest difference between Japanese and Chinese companies is that Japanese companies would give you a lot of time to learn and also take more time to train you. In Chinese companies, you have to do it from the first day you enter the company. This is the biggest difference,” Ms. Wan said.
It’s also critical for managers to help non-Japanese staff to fit in and ensure equality at the workplace at the same time. For Mr. Yamamoto, “everything is fair in job assignment, not depending on nationality or language.” Members are motivated to learn and grow by the prospect of plenty of exciting opportunities for their career. “More global clients or projects are supposed to increase in the near future as we are a part of Accenture now. For example, there’s a foreign car maker targeting Japan market. Also, some Japanese companies among our clients are trying to promote their brands in the Asian or South American market.”
Japanese companies, known for a low employee turnover rate, create opportunities for employees to learn and grow within their company. In the case of IMJ, its strength is to be able to offer their employees a wide variety of career paths to choose from. As for Ms. Wan: “I am mainly doing data analysis at the moment, but I would like to delve deeper into how the data can help me think from different perspectives and identify problems for better planning.” According to Mr. Yamamoto: “Ms. Wan’s possible career paths include her current mission to optimize marketing efforts via different channels using data analysis. Another path involves analyzing customers’ insights and developing communication strategies. She can also challenge herself on a more international stage.”
A chance for change
The popularity of the term “internationalization” might have preceded the practice itself but companies are showing efforts to change from within to expand their reach. “Joining Accenture is the largest factor allowing us to address the importance of changing our business attitudes through changes in our company system.” According to Mr. Yamamoto, “We learn a lot and are motivated by communicating with our global members who are also dealing with data analytics. My department is working hard to improve our English. The greatest benefit of using English is that we are able to learn about more case studies and when we face troubles, we can email them immediately to ask for feedback or advice.”
Culture and family are fundamental parts in forming an individual’s characteristics and working style. Japanese companies are becoming more aware of this and learning to understand their employees better. Mr. Yamamoto would always tell his managers to learn as much as they can about the countries where their members are from. “Of course, this is not easy but simply having the willingness to learn is important as it makes a big difference in supporting the members to work comfortably. The upper management needs to teach this way of thinking and make it stick. The fact that our business is globalizing, I feel, is a good opportunity. We have to change the way we do our work. It is a chance for change at IMJ.”
As many of the barriers to enter overseas markets are quickly removed by technology, the international market is not an exclusive playground for the giants anymore and the job market for the bright minds is no longer confined within a country’s borders. The world is welcoming those who have the heart to celebrate diversity.
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Also published on Medium.