Interview with AOY winner: CEO Akihiko Imai

15 April 2022

Interview with AOY winner: CEO Akihiko Imai

Last December, TBWA\HAKUHODO was the proud recipient of Gold for “Best Culture of The Year” third year running, from the Campaign Asia-Pacific “Agency of the Year 2021” awards.
The “Best Culture” award is in recognition of agencies and management that do their utmost to promote creativity and diversity to ensure talent shines as bright as it can.
Our very own CEO Akihiko Imai was also the winner of the “Japan/Korea Agency Head of the Year” award. We are indeed very proud to have him at the helm and took a few minutes of his time to ask about the essence of our unique culture of creativity, and also about the future of our agency.

Akihiko Imai, President and CEO, TBWA\HAKUHODO

Joining Hakuhodo in 1989 as AE, Imai-san worked on a toiletries maker account for 9 years before moving to an automaker (Nissan motors) account in 1998. Since then he was assigned to work in the precursor to TBWA\HAKUHODO, “Hakuhodo G1” in close collaboration with TBWA and OMD. His experiences there opened him up to the world of global-scale business and collaboration. He is one of the founding members of TBWA\HAKUHODO and has been with the agency since its start in 2006. He started with media planning and digital responsibilities before rising to the rank of President and CEO in October 2010.

Q. Congratulations on your personal win for Agency Head of the Year! And congratulations to the agency on winning Gold for Best Culture and Silver for Creative Agency of the Year! How are you feeling?

Interview with AOY winner: CEO Akihiko Imai

It’s a culmination of all of our efforts and I can’t thank each member of our staff enough.
I feel particularly happy for the recognition of “Best Culture”. We shifted to remote working very early on in the pandemic, around April 2020. Thanks to our commitment and the efforts of all our staff, we successfully managed to continue this safer mode of working throughout 2021 (offering all staff the option of working from home or coming to the office), and this to me is an indication of our progressive agency culture which is why the Best Culture award means a lot.

Interview with AOY winner: CEO Akihiko Imai

In 2021 we implemented many things for optimal and safe conditions working from home / working in the office. In the office we installed CO2 readers in each room, solo working booths and an app called ‘TH Connected’ which allows all employees to see who/how many people are in the office at any given time, or when others are planning to come in, for a safer, more socially distanced office space.
Remote working certainly makes things more efficient but it can affect quality of communication negatively and we may be losing serendipitous opportunities. As a way to keep inter-staff communication invigorated we started the “ASALON Morning Salon” online event. This is a regular online get together where staff get together and talk casually about various themes or share “did you know?” type info about themselves. I believe all these efforts that we made were evaluated highly and resulted in our win for Best Culture, for which I am tremendously proud.

Q. Many businesses are finding that despite the increased efficiency of working remotely, inter-staff communication is negatively affected and moments of serendipity are being lost.

Yes, that’s right. That is why we are starting a series of workshops where our on-the-ground managers share their learnings from two years of remote working with management and with each other. Our double-pronged approach of management-led and on-the-ground-led initiatives has no doubt contributed to our Best Culture and Creative Agency of the Year Silver win, I believe.

Hakuhodo’s philosophy as “foundation”. TBWA’s philosophy as “pillar”.

Q. What is your philosophy of managing and leading TBWA\HAKUHODO?

Interview with AOY winner: CEO Akihiko Imai

TBWA\HAKUHODO is a Disruption®︎ company. So in addition to always prioritizing our “people” “culture” and “creativity”, I also focus on “disruption”. To me disruption is about actively challenging the norm and the status quo, and this is what I / we strive for.

Q. You are originally from Hakuhodo, what kind of thinking from there have you brought to TBWA\HAKUHODO?

Image from:

Image from:

That would be the “seikatsusha (Consumer with a heartbeat)” philosophy and the “spirit of partnership” way of thinking. These principles are the “foundation” of TBWA\HAKUHODO while TBWA’s Disruption is the “pillar” that stands strong and bold above it. I truly believe we offer the best of both worlds with our foundation and pillar both feeding each other in positive ways.

Q.Can you share an example of that with us?

Interview with AOY winner: CEO Akihiko Imai

At TBWA\HAKUHODO we hold an annual in-house award scheme called the “Disruption Award”. This is not limited to client work but can include projects from across our entire operation, including the back office. Our IT and finance teams developed a TBWA\HAKUHODO bespoke expense settling system, which proved hugely popular and is now used by other group companies. Only could our “foundation and pillar” allow for such a unique and experimental approach to things. We managed to monetize our back office services through this distinctly “TBWA\HAKUHODO” way of realizing ideas.
Also in our client work, we continue to update and refresh our “seikatsusha” centered thinking.
“What do seikatsusha really want?” “What is good for the seikatsusha?”. These are the questions we continually ask ourselves.

Proposals that the client “believe in”

Q. You have been involved with TBWA\HAKUHODO since even before its official inception. What has changed, and what hasn’t in the last 15 years?

The “seikatsusha” and “partner mindset” of Hakuhodo as foundation, and TBWA’s “Disruption” as pillar mindset has not fundamentally changed since the beginning of our agency’s life. However it has evolved and changed with the times.
What has changed drastically over the last 15 years is our portfolio of clients which is becoming increasingly diverse every year. The networking strength between TBWA and the Hakuhodo Group has increased over the years and with that, the presence, influence and value that TBWA\HAKUHODO offers both parent companies has really galvanized over the years (Our proactive and successful approach in winning new clients even under the pandemic has played no small part in strengthening our influence and power). These are the big changes and developments that I have felt over the last 15 years.

Q. What have you, as CEO, kept in mind throughout the pandemic when it came to the operation of the agency?

Imai-san explaing the concept of

Imai-san explaing the concept of “Disruption X” within the agency

First of all we needed to expand our client portfolio. However, I ensured that our approach was not “win-at-all-cost” proposals, but rather proposals that the client could believe in, feel confidence and faith in. We also listened to specific client requests and brought additional elements of Disruption to our proposals. This has been the recipe of success for us to win so many new clients despite a global pandemic.
In recent years, TBWA\HAKUHODO has been deploying “Disruption X” (an evolution of our traditional Disruption) that brings us closer to being a business partner for clients, rather than a mere communications partner. This means that we are not only helping to develop communication creative, but helping in product, service and experience development for brands. These new, greatly enhanced Disruption X proposals show just how much more we can contribute to client business purpose and growth.
And of course our vision goes beyond mere business growth, but to contributing to a better way of life for the seikatsusha.

To build an environment where talent driven by curiosity and a pioneering spirit can flourish. Fear of failure be damned!

Q. TBWA\HAKUHODO is home to this distinct culture. What kind of person flourishes here?

We are home to insatiably curious, fearless challengers who know how to engage with their colleagues for rich and open discourse. Our company policy focuses on “Diversity”, “Curiosity” and “Courage”, so our people reflect these qualities and values. TBWA\HAKUHODO has people from all sorts of backgrounds, and like any other organization, diversity and inclusion has to be built-in to our culture. We are continuing to make all efforts to enhance our culture of inclusion, acceptance and true collaboration.

Interview with AOY winner: CEO Akihiko Imai

TBWA\HAKUHODO also has a group of self-motivated staff who have come together to stimulate diversity initiatives internally. Known as the “Peace Pirates”, I really feel proud of this team who are truly an embodiment of our corporate values. (※「Peace Pirates intro STORIES can be found here」)
Their activities are expanding to include collaborations with clients, and I am very keen to support their work and any other projects like it.

To break the mold of the “ad agency”

Q. Finally, how do you want to continue the Disruption of TBWA\HAKUHODO? What future do you envisage?

Interview with AOY winner: CEO Akihiko Imai

TBWA\HAKUHODO will continue to be “The Disruption Company”, but our “foundation” (the seikatsusha and spirit of partnership philosophies) will continue to evolve, as will our “pillar” of Disruption which is being updated to Disruption X. TBWA\HAKUHODO will break the mold of the traditional “ad agency” to become a group that pioneers a better society and way of living for the seikatsusha of the world. We are not just outputting “creative” but offering our “creativity” as a way to go above and beyond with our clients. Always keeping Disruption in mind, we will become a force in changing brand experiences/how seikatsusha and brands interact and to help build a better world. This is our goal for the future – to be the Creative Force for Meaningful social changes.

We will continue to introduce many of our colorful colleagues in STORIES. Watch this space!

Corp Communications Team (