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Trends and Insight

Ayami Nakao, COO of Hakuhodo International talks on 'Inspiring Culture' at Hakuhodo USA

Ayami Nakao shares her vision on how Hakuhodo can leverage its position as an industry challenger

Ayami Nakao, COO of Hakuhodo International talks on 'Inspiring Culture' at Hakuhodo USA

In an increasingly borderless world, Hakuhodo is strengthening its overseas operations and enhancing its ability to respond to clients around the globe. Currently Hakuhodo has more than 105 overseas offices in 19 countries and regions. Moreover, Hakuhodo was ranked as the world’s third largest advertising agency in Ad Age’s Agency Report 2020. In the seventh in our series of interviews with leaders from Hakuhodo’s various domains, Hakuhodo speak with Ayami Nakao, COO of Hakuhodo International and executive director of North America Operations. She shares her vision on how Hakuhodo can leverage its position as an industry challenger in both the US and global markets, and tells us why “inspiring culture” is at the core of what defines Hakuhodo USA.


A new perspective for North America

This has been an exciting and hectic time for Nakao: The entire US base was moved from Chicago to New York in July, and Nakao has just relocated there from Paris in order to focus on leadership of Hakuhodo’s North American operations. She is looking forward to making the most of the new opportunities and challenges that the move to New York will bring.

As COO of Hakuhodo International, her primary role is to support President and CEO Shuntaro Ito in strengthening and developing Hakuhodo’s global network. “Particularly in the US market, my goal is to work directly with the clients’ executive teams to support their business and brand transformation,” Ayami says.

While market trends and the needs of clients have evolved since she was initially appointed as Corporate Officer for Hakuhodo Inc. in 2015, Nakao says that the essence of her role remains the same. “I was given the mission to support key strategic clients in building global brands—creating a solid foundation for our Japanese clients to compete in the ever-challenging Western market.”

2015 was also the year when Hakuhodo USA was established in Chicago, at a time when Hakuhodo was still exploring what shape its presence would take in the North American and European markets. “Thanks to the opportunities provided by our clients, we’ve been able to create a number of success cases. These tangible business results created incredible word-of-mouth marketing and elevated our brand reputation. This is perhaps the most significant achievement over the past six years,” says Ayami.

Nakao with members of her team at the kyu office in Tribeca, New York City

She sees the recent relocation of the US operations from Chicago to New York as a natural progression in Hakuhodo’s business development. She points out that Hakuhodo had made several attempts to break into the US market, dating back to the establishment of Hakuhodo Advertising America Inc. in 1975. However, these efforts finally came to fruition in the past few years.

“No one needs another agency in New York. But there’s always a need for a different cultural perspective. After six years of success in Chicago, I knew we were ready for New York, especially if we were bold enough to provide a unique Japanese cultural perspective.

Clients are bored with the same cookie-cutter holding company solutions. Clunky, heavy and outdated, we’ve all seen that they no longer work.” So, what alternative perspectives can Hakuhodo bring?


Sei-katsu-sha insight and approach

Looking ahead, Nakao is very much about embodying Hakuhodo’s founding principle and the purpose of Sei-katsu-sha Insight in every aspect of the business. “Hakuhodo was founded in 1895 by Hironao Seki as Japan’s first advertising agency. Rooted in the philosophy of sei-katsu-sha, which respects people not merely as sho-hi-sha or ‘people who consume’ but ‘holistic beings’, the name Hakuhodo is inspired from the Japanese characters meaning ‘to give back to society’,” she explains.

“It is becoming increasingly critical for clients to understand and engage with their sei-katsu-sha, or core audience, at a deeper cultural level. We believe that the best brands always inspire culture. Beyond purchase, it’s a sense of belonging and connection that we are cultivating for our brands.”


Inspire culture—discovery and enlightenment

“We’ve always been about creating meaningful relationships. In a world that often seems preoccupied with transactions, our way of being and contribution is in fostering deeper understanding, creating meaningful relationships, and instilling a sense of belonging for the brands we work with. Whether it be brand creation, innovation or rejuvenation, through the stories we tell, and the brand experiences we bring to life, we reveal more than what meets the eye—harnessing cultural contexts, to enrich and deepen all cultures.” Nakao adds that it takes a certain talent pool to get this right.


The alchemy with kyu

Behind the decision to move to New York is the presence of kyu, the strategic operating unit of Hakuhodo DY Holdings that was established in 2014 with the mission of being a source of creativity which propels both society and the economy forward.

Nakao sees the culture of collaboration with kyu as the way of the future and an ideal partnership for Hakuhodo USA going forward, particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. “One of the big lessons we learned from the pandemic is that clients are faced with more complexities than ever: Real and digital. Personal and collective. Local and global. As partners, we need to think more deeply about our clients’ brand and business transformations. This change in context means that it’s no longer enough to excel in ‘capabilities’. It demands that we be able to dig deeper, execute with precision and elevate all brand experiences with deliberation.”


Purposeful branding

While the Covid-19 pandemic has brought conversations on DX (digital transformation) to the forefront, Nakao points out that DX is hardly anything new these days. “It goes without saying that we should use digital to transform our business, but the key is simply ‘business transformation’: How do we ‘comprehensively’ transform our clients’ businesses—not just limited to the digital realm, but in the holistic customer experience.”

On the other hand, she cites 'purposeful branding' as a concept of current global significance. “I believe that companies with a greater sense of purpose will become stronger in this environment and these differences will become even clearer than before. Only brands with a distinct culture of purpose that are able to create a meaningful impact for their fans, stakeholders, and the surrounding community will succeed,” she explains.

The three key cultural insights

It goes without saying that the Covid-19 pandemic has created great upheaval. However, as the first time in recent decades that the entire world has experienced a common crisis, Nakao points out that the pandemic has also brought opportunities for reflection and learning. Linking to her personal passion for culture, she mentions three key insights that have particularly resonated with her:

Culture of Connection: “As the pandemic literally forced and created a distance— a disconnection between the self and the outside world—ironically, it gave us the opportunity to re-evaluate our relationships: What truly matters in our lives, who we really want to connect with, and how we want to spend our time,” Nakao says.

Culture of Respect: The past year has brought racial and cultural issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and hate crimes against the Asian community, to the forefront, particularly in the United States. While acknowledging that much of the news has been negative, Nakao points out that it has also triggered much needed discussions around our own prejudices and a heightened need for dialogue. “I believe that ignorance is no longer an option. For people to embrace inclusivity, we need to first confront the realities of what is happening and understand why.”

Culture of Innovation: “The Covid-19 era has been also a period of tremendous growth in new entrepreneurship and business innovation, especially in the United States. While business took a big hit, people were forced to become more inquisitive, imaginative and creative,” Nakao explains, adding that this aligns with Hakuhodo’s key concept of Unimagined Ways.

In a time of increasing uncertainty, where the only guarantee is change itself, Nakao sees an even greater need for creativity. “These three insights may manifest themselves in different forms but what’s certain is that our culture is evolving in unprecedented ways: From conspicuous to conscientious. From aspirational to relevant. From timely to timeless. In these times clients must be able to navigate their business and brand transformation with agility and speed.”


Authenticity in action

On a personal level, Nakao says that the pandemic reconfirmed her point of view on the dichotomy between local and global. “Having been educated at international schools, I always thought it was normal to be ‘globally minded and locally rooted’. Having just relocated to New York, I couldn’t be more excited about my new status as a New Yorker on top of being a proud Tokyoite, San Franciscan and Parisian. It’s the authenticity of local cultures that make our world a much more interesting place to belong to.”

Echoing her earlier comments on the importance of diversity and inclusion, Nakao does not sugarcoat the reality of her own situation. “In 2015, I became the youngest and first female board member of Hakuhodo Inc. It helped me to fully understand what it means to be an outsider and a minority. At Hakuhodo USA we are in the business of ‘inspiring culture’ and this demands that we are consistently building a team that celebrates diverse cultural backgrounds. There’s nothing more dangerous or boring than homogeneity. It’s a creative dead-end.“

Hakuhodo USA is proud and honoured to officially open its doors this September in New York City.


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