In Orbit With... Peter Grasse

TMU: Could you give us a brief overview of the advertising scene in Japan?

PG: There’s one big agency named Dentsu and they have the majority of the accounts. Moreover the accounts don’t move because Dentsu owns the majority of the media and oversees the majority of the contracts for the majority of the celebrity talent - which are a necessary component to every ad as the majority of advertising is on TV in the 15 second format.

TMU: Why are some Japanese ads so completely batshit crazy - is it something in the water?

PG: Those crazy ads are totally normal here. That’s why Japan is a closed comedy market. Western humour is different, even diametrically opposed in that it’s more or less formulaic. Japanese humour can typically be a bit slapstick, but the good stuff is just out there. Additionally, it may be due to the Creatives being less protective of their ideas and brands being more comfortable with risk. Sometimes that makes for batshit, but more than often, it makes for something surprising and cool.

TMU: Many Western ads don’t seem to work in Japan - is this a cultural programming of Japanese consumers that makes them so different to the rest of the world?

PG: Western ads do work here if they are clever visual ideas. Or, better yet, if they are poetic enough to be universally appreciated. Yet, if they aren’t tailored to Japan, they fail because the Japanese consumer is discerning and wants to recognise the Japanese character, in other words, see themselves in the films - which is similar almost everywhere in the world with a significant population and unique culture. 

Further to this Western directors often don’t make their best work in Japan. They just can’t grasp what it is to be Japanese. Or, more often than not, they carry too much baggage as to what they think is modern day Japan and simply get carried away with their fabricated ideal. For instance, there was a big CGI soccer spot recently that looked good and had all the bells & whistles necessary to verify it as a ‘big ad’. Nonetheless, it missed the mark because the performances weren’t real and the fantastic world it imagined wasn’t built from the shared values and poetic symbols of Japan. Whereas Nike Japan had a similar brief recently and they simply nailed it. Their characters were believable and inspiring. The performances were true to the dreams and motivations of the enlightened individual, as well as recognising the social norms held by the society at large.

TMU: Why are the majority of TV spots 15 second ads?

PG: The reason most cited is that because Dentsu controlled the media; they knew they could sell twice as much ad time with 15 seconds as opposed to the standard :30. Like the West, we usually make a :90 and a :60, but in the end its the :15 that works the hardest.

TMU: Are Directors’ treatments when pitching for jobs also very different?

PG: Japanese directors don’t often do treatments. Rather, they get right into collaborating on the script and storyboarding with the Creatives early on in the process. It’s a very collaborative approach.

TMU: How are TVC shoots different from other Asian countries and regions?

PG: The Japanese are famous for not saying ’no’, except on a shoot - where they say no to everything. Can I shoot there? No. Can I ask the talent to do this? No. I’ve heard from most every producer on the planet that shooting in Japan an absolute ballsache (their words, not mine). That’s why a great production service company is essential to a good shoot & good time. Reference available upon request.

TMU: Are non-Japanese Directors in demand in Japanese TVC production?

PG: No. Certainly even less so than when I first stared working here 10 years ago. Back then, Tokyo agencies were eager to shoot with famous foreigners. However, that’s simply not the case anymore. There is enough great local talent here.

TMU: What’s the gender split on Directors in Japan male / female?

PG: There are a lot of new female directors up & coming in Japan - not to mention worldwide. In fact, 4 of the current 7 spots on are by female directors.

TMU: How is technology changing what you do?

PG: The cameras just get better & better. It’s wonderful!

TMU: What makes a great TVC treatment?

PG: One that’s not written to get the job, but rather is written to express a grand plan idea & aesthetic. One that is entertaining to read.

TMU: What’s the best part of your job?

PG: Being proud of what I make.

TMU: What are your favourites diners in Tokyo right now?

PG: I’ve kept the same rule since I arrived here - I never eat in the same place twice. There’s that many restaurants and they’re all more or less great. COME VISIT US IN JAPAN!

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