Interview with AOY winner: COO Chris Iki

05 August 2021

Interview with AOY winner: COO Chris Iki

Last year TBWA\HAKUHODO was named “Japan Creative Agency of the Year” for the 10th time at Campaign Asia-Pacific’s Agency of the Year awards 2020 (hereafter referred to as AOY 2020). We talked to Chris Iki, who was named “Agency Head of the Year” in AOY 2020, about the creative force that is TBWA\HAKUHODO.

Chris Iki
TBWA\HAKUHODO Chief Operating Officer

Chris Iki has more than 30 years of experience managing global brands in the field of marketing. After joining TBWA in 2004, Chris was assigned to TBWA\HAKUHODO where he led the Nissan Global account as Global Account Director, and worked closely with TBWA agencies across more than 14 countries. In 2012, Chris was appointed as Chief Operating Officer of TBWA\HAKUHODO.

Q. Congratulations on winning “Creative Agency of the Year”, and for being named “Agency Head of the Year”! Please give us a brief history of your career.

I was born and raised in Tokyo, and attended a university in Pennsylvania. Upon graduating from university I chose to start my career in advertising with my first position being an assistant at Wunderman Worldwide (now called Wunderman Thompson after the merger with J. Walter Thompson) and I spent my days creating direct mail packages for American Express. Yes, the world was quite different back then and direct mail was the primary means of communication with many customers. I worked my way up from assistant to account executive and expanded my responsibilities to other accounts such as Apple, United States Postal Service and AT&T.

Several jobs later, I joined TBWA in 2004. I was seconded to G1 Worldwide (later to be renamed TBWA\HAKUHODO International), the initial joint venture between Hakuhodo and TBWA\Worldwide in Tokyo, where I worked on the Nissan Global account as Global Account Director and later as Managing Director. In 2006, TBWA\HAKUHODO was established and I continued to work on the Nissan business until I was appointed Chief Operating Officer in 2012.

Combining only the best of TBWA and Hakuhodo

Q. As a joint venture of TBWA and Hakuhodo, what encapsulates TBWA\HAKUHODO’s identity?

We have the best of both TBWA and of Hakuhodo in terms of philosophy, culture and working processes. With two very different cultures combined, we have really established our own standalone identity. We’re not a mere “subsidiary”.

In 2011, we were awarded “International Agency of the Year” by Ad Age, and that was the tipping point for TBWA\HAKUHODO to be seen as a force to be reckoned with globally. The award was thanks to our creativity of course, but it is the Disruption®️ philosophy at the core of our culture and thinking that inspires this creativity. The spirit of Disruption is at the root of what we do, and I believe that’s why our work is so highly regarded.

Disruption: Moving forward, not dwelling on the past

Q. Can you tell us more about the essence of “Disruption®︎”?

“Disruption” is the core of the unique work process of TBWA, devised by the current chairman.
Simply put, Disruption is a mindset and tool that initiates new thinking that isn’t bound by conventions.
It allows us to continually question accepted norms, and to pioneer innovation. Disruption is the embodiment and application of “undoing” convention.

Interview with AOY winner: COO Chris Iki

Q:How is the concept of “Disruption” instilled in TBWA\HAKUHODO?

Disruption is not just a concept or a catchphrase – it is a process that we actually apply in our daily work. Not just as a way of thinking, but as a concrete tool that you can use.
Unless there is a clear and persuasive reason that something should only be done a certain way, there is always an innovative approach that can be imagined. The process always starts by asking the question “why is this convention the way it is?” and you go from there.

Disruption need not apply to marketing only either. We have a group of staff who are driving DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives in the agency (out of their own volition and passion), called “The Peace Pirates”. They are applying the process of Disruption to help inform their strategy and creative imaginations to build initiatives and activities in the agency. One project they have is focused on disrupting the convention around “menstruation” in our society.
Japanese labor laws actually stipulate the right to a monthly “menstrual leave” for those it may apply to. This is the law of the land. However, not many people take it, mainly for “cultural” reasons that make it hard to be open and frank about these things. This is the convention. The Peace Pirates are starting to disrupt convention through seminars, events and talks, creating an atmosphere and forum of openness like we’ve never had before, and it all began from Disruption.

Management in the pandemic era

Q. How were TBWA and TBWA\HAKUHODO affected by COVID-19?

The strong ties of the TBWA network offered great assurance and guidance from the onset. The safety of our employees was always top priority, from day one. We created and managed guidelines and reporting lines for swift action. TBWA\HAKUHODO was among the first within the TBWA network to switch to a full work-from-home mode, and I have to say how impressed I am by our employees for being so quick to adapt to this new situation and working reality. We also increased the frequency of communication with our employees for that sense of connection and reassurance during these unprecedented times.

Meanwhile, we’ve been focused on how we will work post-COVID. About 150 leaders from throughout the TBWA network have been holding regular online meetings for more than a year now, sharing thoughts and best practices, preparing for how to approach the post pandemic phase. Though COVID-19 was a serious challenge, being closely connected helped global leaders of the TBWA network stay strong to guide through dark times.

Interview with AOY winner: COO Chris Iki

The future of the advertising industry – “Creativity for Good”

Q. From your weekly TBWA leadership meetings, what trends have you noticed in the global advertising industry?

I have an impression that the global market is slowly but surely recovering. Businesses are starting to recover, and many clients are taking this opportunity to re-examine their existing partnerships with agencies. One reason why there’s been a surge of pitches around the world.

I also see the flow of human resources getting even more dynamic. COVID gave people time to think and reflect on themselves, their life and values in general. This made many people reevaluate their careers and move from agencies to in-house, as well as people who want to do more meaningful work for the world and for people.

Q. Do you think similar trends are coming to Japan?

Yes. COVID has made businesses re-evaluate the values and the way we operate that had been taken for granted, including office spaces, working style, communication between employees and team management.

People seem to be more focusing on the things that are meaningful rather than only sales figures. In terms of client-agency relationship, even in Japan where there hasn’t been much of a pitch culture traditionally, I think clients will increasingly be more active in re-evaluating agency partnerships. TBWA agencies around the world have been getting more queries from clients on TBWA’s approaches to sustainability. I believe that sustainability-focused thinking will become prominent in Japan too.
I also think an increasing number of professionals will seek out dynamic career paths looking for work that fulfills both career aspirations and a wish to contribute to social good, for example.

In light of this, agencies need to reflect and respond accordingly. For example, instead of solely focusing on awards, it’s now more important than ever to facilitate and foster our capabilities for “social good” output and creativity.

Q. Have there been changes and trends within TBWA\HAKUHODO recently?

Last year, we launched “TH for GOOD,” a framework that enables the agency to recognize and support employee-generated ideas for work that contributes to social good. This is an area of major future focus.
Another area we’re focusing on is the aforementioned DEI. We believe that in order to advance DEI in Japan, change must first come from within, and we have a new internal group that evolved organically to champion this change. They are “The Peace Pirates” that I mentioned earlier. Formed by voluntary members from across a wide range of departments, they are taking the lead in raising awareness and interest in DEI related topics that are relevant to Japan, within the agency.

Disruption X – expanding “Disruption”

Q. You mentioned the TBWA network is “preparing new approaches for recovery”. Could you elaborate on this a little more?

Interview with AOY winner: COO Chris Iki

Because the world is changing – we simply cannot continue business as we did before the pandemic. We are revisiting and innovating our values and one of them is the idea of “Disruption X”.
Our traditional stance has been to bring disruptive thinking from strategy to output, but Disruption X is about expanding our sphere of service offering beyond the realm of communication.
It is to support and consult our clients in the upstream business process such as product planning, design and development with our Disruption®︎ method. Clients will not only have strong creative output but also be differentiated from competitors through the expanded business domain. Disruption X can also lead business growth for start-up clients too, helping them to explore the new business chances.

Always forward, always exceptional

Q:Do you have any final remarks for the readers?

TBWA\HAKUHODO is an agency that is always moving forward. We believe we are always in “beta” and we need to continually change at the speed of culture. Where we don’t ever want to be, is behind.
We want to keep trying new things to surprise the world. So watch this space! TBWA\HAKUHODO is always exciting and always exceptional, disrupting creativity, business and social issues.

We will continue to introduce our TBWA\HAKUHODO members in STORIES, so please stay tuned for the next episode!

Communication team(