Interview with AOY winner: Creative Director / Senior Art Director Yuhei Ito

28 March 2022

Interview with AOY winner: Creative Director / Senior Art Director Yuhei Ito

Last year TBWA\HAKUHODO was named “Japan Best Culture of the Year” at Campaign Asia-Pacific’s Agency of the Year awards 2021 (hereafter referred to as AOY 2021) for three consecutive years, for its culture that promotes creativity and diversity to the fullest. We talked to our Creative Director / Senior Art Director Yuhei Ito, the winner of the Japan/Korea Creative Person of the Year award, about his creative works, his unique creativity method, and his creative goal in tne near future.

Yuhei Ito
Creative Director / Senior Art Director

After graduating from Musashino Art University, he joined Hakuhodo before joining TBWA\HAKUHODO in 2017. With his design and planning skills, he has created works that extend the advertising realm for many brands. Himself and his works have won more than 130 awards until now both domestically and internationally including: ACC Award Grand Prix, Dentsu Award Grand Prix, Asahi Advertising Award, Mainichi Advertising Design Award, Yomiuri Advertising Award, Nikkei Advertising Award, Grand Prix for Transportation Advertising, Japan Media Arts Festival, CANNES LIONS, D&AD, ONE SHOW, ADFEST, SPIKES ASIA, iF DESIGN AWARD, RED DOT DESIGN AWARD.

Expanding the sphere of art directors

Q. Congratulations on winning “Japan/Korea Creative Person of the Year”! How did you feel when you won the award?

I have to say, I was really thrilled! There have been eight winners of the Creative Person of the year category from TBWA\HAKUHODO, but I heard that it is rare to win the award as an art director position. I think the judges valued that I was able to expand the “scope of the art director”.

Q. Please give us a brief history of your career.

Interview with AOY winner: Creative Director / Senior Art Director Yuhei Ito

I started my career as a designer at Hakuhodo and was involved in advertising for various companies, and since joining TBWA\HAKUHODO from 2017, I have worked on projects for many global and domestic brands including McDonalds, Nissan, Japan Philharmonic, Pocket Soap or Hi Toilet.
At first, I was mainly in charge of two-dimensional design, such as posters and logo designs, but with visuals as the starting point, I gradually expanded my direction to include products, public works, architecture, and product developments. So my career journey has been from designer to art director then to creative director.

Q. About your career journey, what was the biggest change from being an art director to being a creative director?

Compared to the days when visual design was the main focus, I think the realm of art directors has come to require more complexity. Since I came to TBWA\HAKUHODO, I have learned and have been especially conscious of “thinking from the entrance to the exit” of the idea.
In the advertising industry, creators who can work with an integrative approach are in high demand, and since this award recognizes those who lead the creative process, it gives me confidence to think that my domain expansion was highly evaluated.

Q. Among the many projects you have participated in, what was the most memorable one?

Interview with AOY winner: Creative Director / Senior Art Director Yuhei Ito

All of the campaigns are memorable, but if I had to pick one, it would be THE REBORN LIGHT in which we reused Nissan’s EV batteries as streetlights in the town of Namie, which is recovering from Great East Japan Earthquake.
It was a long-term project that took about three years from the first picture on the proposal to the implementation, due to the large number of stakeholders involved. From this project I was able to expand the scope of my work by being involved in a variety of tasks beyond those often associated with art directors, including not only the implementation of streetlights, but also creating website, movie, and advertising production, as well as planning, product design for the streets the lights would be implemented, and negotiations with various parties. I am happy that I was able to work on a socially meaningful issue and implement it in a way that will remain in Namie Town to this day.

A single picture integrating the whole ideas

Q. What does your day to day entail?

TBWA\HAKUHODO has a “flex work hour system” that allows me to freely adjust my work hours, so I spend most of my morning time communicating with my family, like having breakfast together and or dropping my kid off at daycare. During the day, I am busy with meetings, planning, and production work back and forth on each project. So I often work at night to calmly put together what I was unable to check or work on during the day. I often use the time after returning home for cultural input – I like to watch or listen to informative TV/podcast programs while taking a bath.

Q. As an Art Director/Creative Director, can you tell us your own special creative style or approch?

A concept development sketch for the voice-operated public toilet

A concept development sketch for the voice-operated public toilet “Hi Toilet”

Interview with AOY winner: Creative Director / Senior Art Director Yuhei Ito

For me I think it is “to think in one picture.”
Integrated planning, such as thinking of commercials by working backwards from ideas for Twitter posts, is something common today, but until a few years ago it was a rare concept, and I had little experience of it before I joined TBWA\HAKUHODO. But in TBWA\HAKUHODO there were a lot of works involving integrated planning even then. I had to completely change the way I generated ideas and my style as an art director, and what I naturally acquired there was the skill of “putting ideas into a single picture during a meeting.
At first, it was just to summarize and reconfirm the discussion of the meeting to check, “So this is what it would looks like if its in pictures?” – but as I worked with the teams involved on the basis of these sketches, I began to sense that visualizing the discussion moves things faster.
I gradually came to believe that “an idea that can be described in a single picture is strong,” or, to put it another way, that “the planning may not be coherent yet” if the idea cannot be a one-page drawing. TBWA\HAKUHODO is a team that genuinely believes in the power of “ideas,” and we have the advantage of integrating everything with a single idea, so I think the one-page thinking is a way for me to verify whether the ideas are well integrated or well put together or not.

Q. What is Disruption®︎ for you?

A Japanese media headline for introducing

A Japanese media headline for introducing “30 second sized soap” that looks like virus characters reads “Finally handwashing has become entertainment!”

There has inevitably been a discussion for a long time about underestimating advertising creativity as an add-on to the media business. In contrast, I believe that TBWA\HAKUHODO has a strong belief in ideas because we have the philosophy and method of Disruption – an idea that “solves the problem itself” rather than an idea “solves the situation”. We call it “disruption” when an idea is not conceived after a steady accumulation of ideas, but is interrupted from the side. I believe that by sticking to this method we are, in a sense, setting a standard to ourselves. To any ideas we ask “Is this Disruptive?” and if we don’t aim to meet this guideline, it will make us fall into the sweet trap of thinking that “as long as the given conditions and requests are met, it’s enough.”

Q. How has COVID-19 affected working style as an Art Director / Creative Director?

Ito giving the agency members a lecture on

Ito giving the agency members a lecture on “how to find disruptive insights from picture books” during internal seminar “Disruption School”

The good thing is that the elimination of travel time allows us to work and hold meetings, and to manage progress and share information more in detail. I also think that the ability to work without being tied to a specific location is a positive factor in creating a state of relaxation.
On the other hand, it is said that it is difficult to come up with ideas without face-to-face meetings, but I think a major factor is that it is “paradox of efficiency”. A unproductive wasted moment, an unexpected incidental moment – for example, a random chat with others while waiting for someone running late for a meeting, someone looks a little tired, how he or she is dressed that day….these things also have sparked new ideas, but I think this has become more difficult with the disappearance of wasted time and coincidence.
Of course, mental comfort is important, but the creative team is all motivated to create something they can be proud of, and not being able to do so can be stressful. We don’t have an immediate solution for this, but we are trying to find a way to balance between the two. For example, our creative team is making trial and erros to find best ways to collaborate for example by having the first meeting of a project in real life, or tyring to work only by chatting through slack without a meeting.

Q. What kind of people are there in the creative team at TBWA\HAKUHODO?

Compared to large advertising agencies, we are a small but top-tier group, and it is important for us that our multi-talented and versatile members with unique personality and backgrounds coexist and make synergy. There are many people with a wide range of interests such as architecture, writing, or even desserts, and people who develop and carry out their own passion while responsibly doing their work. I think this team is a place where such people – passionate, multi-cultured – can easily shine.

Creativity from now on

Q. Many of the projects you have been involved in so far have been related to social issues. Were you particularly interested in such social issues?

The posters for

The posters for “Sound-Free concert” that is to help people with hearing impairment enjoy orchestral concert with using different senses

I would say that my interest grew as I worked on a number of different projects. Until around my 10th year in the industry, I have to say I was working with thinking “I want to make something cool, something that will be talked about and praised.” But as I came to work on campaigns related to social issues, I became very motivated to find ways to implement our creativity and lead to solutions. The various cultural and informational input I get naturally turns in that direction – for example, if I work on “decarbonization,” I would try to come up with ideas what kind of EV-related creative work can be done. Of course, without such knowledge, it is impossible to meet the client’s needs, but I think my interest and input are well connected to clients’ and social needs.

Q. Tell us about the “role of design and creativity” in addressing social issues.

Interview with AOY winner: Creative Director / Senior Art Director Yuhei Ito

I think the fact that “creative agencies are problem-solving experts” has not changed since the days of making simple advertisements. Looking around the world, I feel that “design that just looks cool” is no longer in demand, and pursuing sustainability does not end with corporate or individual mere egos but their actual needs and passion. It has long been said that “design is function,” but I think we are returning to the essence of design and creativity in the face of the greatest challenges in human history.

It is often said that Japan has less serious social problems than other countries so the solutions are also weak, but this is not true. There are many issues we face in Japan, such as the super-aging society and gender equality, that cannot be solved by simple product development alone. It is exactly for these issues that we need disruptive ideas and creativity.

Q. Lastly, please tell us your goals or things you want to challenge in the future.

It may sound a bit abrupt but I want to work on public park planning and design. I often take my daughter to the parks near our house, and I felt that good parks are surrounded by good cafes, good people, and a good town is built around the park – I felt that designing a park would lead to designing a city. I would say typical UX (user experience) in parks are playground equipment, but are they really the best for children’s growth? Or perhaps we need to be more conscious of the super-aging society and the need to accommodate seniors and children’s needs. For example, the current playground equipment is great for kids, but what about the seniors who come with them? And so on. I think the challenge is how to install the ideas in public works projects, but then what kind of social movement ideas are needed to install them and make more inclusive parks? These are questions I would like to pursue if I get a chance.

Next in our series of interviews with AOY winners, we will interview our CEO Akihiko Imai, the winner of the “Japan/Korea Agency Head of the Year”. Please stay tuned and don’t miss our next episode!

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