As an industry, marketing is huge in the west and is the foundation for which popular culture and products are built on. I’ve always been curious how it’s perceived in Japan and it was great to have all my questions answered by Johnny Pawlik.
Co-founder of Mantra Media, Pawlik have worked on many international marketing campaigns centred on Japan and infuses Japanese philosophy into his view of marketing.
What were your first experiences with Japan and has your perception of the culture changed over time?
My first experience of being in Japan was in 2010. I flew to Osaka and the first time I got off the plane I was struck by the warm weather compared to England and the smell. Japan has a distinct smell and it’s immersed in nature. Even if you’re in a large city, the philosophy of nature is ingrained into a locale and the language.
Going and back and forth between Japan for the last 12 years, I’ve come to truly respect the Japanese way of business and would describe it as the polar opposite of working in the west.
What are some of your most distinctive experiences in Japan?
There are so many different things that stand out. One specific memory is the first time of having yamachan, a chicken dish that’s popular in Japan. It was started by a chap from Nagoya and my business partner is from Nagoya and he said you have to try this thick miso Nagoyan restaurant that’s popular in Japan.
It was such an unusual experience because the taste of the food was unlike anything in England. I’d say the first time you eat yamachan it’s like eating cake for the first time.
Another thing that’s struck me is how polite people are. When I’ve been in Japan in the rainy season you have your bag and an umbrella in your bag to look after your products.
From a retail experience perspective, the Japanese have it locked down. When it comes to being conscientious and caring and really invested in customers they know what they’re doing.
Compared to the UK, we don’t really have that level of customer service unless you’re having lunch at The Savoy for example.
From a business perspective, it’s the establishment of partnerships and business relationships out there. The Japanese people I’ve engaged with want to know you and they buy the person before the product.
It can be the opposite in the UK, where it’s product first, person second. Once you start working with people in Japan they become friends and colleagues for life.
What was the inspiration behind setting up Mantra Media and how does that tie into your connection with Japan?
The journey of Mantra Media started 20 years ago and the organisation was formed in 2015. My business partner (he’s from Japan) and I have known each other for years and went to university together.
From the beginning, I wanted us to be an international business because then domestic markets couldn’t dictate our sustainability. In 2016, we were scaling quickly and my business partner suggested we do something in Japan.
So we launched a campaign in Kyoto to upskill people from a digital skills perspective and it just scaled. We did a 360 influencer training academy talking about SEO, social media management and PPC management.
We did two weeks of seminars and representatives from Kyoto University, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Japanese media attended. All our materials were in Japanese and English and the seminars helped us gain clients overnight.
Since then we’ve done a lot of international campaigns and to give you a few examples we did a huge project in London, we were at the Japanese Embassy, we’ve done an event at the British Museum and doing all kinds of weird and wonderful things etc.
You’ve described the agency as ethics first branding. What does ethics mean to you in marketing?
There’s a few different ways of talking about this. The first is internally and how we operate with our staff. To my knowledge we’re the only marketing company in the UK that has 24/7 psychological support for every single member of the team in or outside the business.
It’s specific because everyone knows the psychologists and it’s not just random people over the phone. They are people who work with us and fit with our culture. We also don’t micromanage and have an unparalleled R&D schedule for helping people grow and develop new skills.
Externally we’re particular about who we work with. We only work with companies that meet our ethics values and wouldn’t work with any big UK brands that have been done for encouraging slave labour or fast fashion businesses as examples.
Our ethics are that we want to do good in the world and we want to create positive activity in other people’s lives. It’s about working with charities, governments and startups that actually want to make the world a better place.
You’re also the founder of Atelier where you promote Japanese products and culture to a wider audience. What is the story behind the brand?
We were commissioned by the Kyoto Prefectural Government to produce a market penetration and methodology report based on the European ceramics market. This meant looking into how we could help ceramic brands in Kyoto enter the European market.
This helped me launch Atelier, which sells high-end luxury handmade heritage products from Kyoto to the UK. Not only do we get daily orders of high-end luxury products, but we also supply restaurants, cafes and art galleries with high-end matcha, but more affordable because we work with the growers.
What’s your opinion on how marketing is perceived in different cultures from your experience? Is there a different take that Japanese culture has on how they market things?
There are distinct marketing differences in Japan. With marketing technology, they tend to be slower and it’s not uncommon for a fax machine to still be used. Japan is very good at thinking about things and taking the time to get it right.
I see that very much in the startup scene in Japan at the moment. I’m a mentor for lots of startups in Japan and I’m doing some work at a governmental level. I find it’s now accelerating faster than ever from a business perspective and with the adoption of new technologies.
Japan also has a better branding perspective. In the UK, the idea of humanising brands or creating an emotive infrastructure around a brand has only really started to catch on properly now. In Japan it’s always been there and humour is a big part of how they operate from an advertising perspective.
For example, Dentsu is the marketing company of Japan and they use a lot of humour in their brand representation, which is awesome. There are lessons to learn from both markets.
Japanese working culture has a defined system and a concept that fascinates me is kaizen. What’s your take on it?
The first time I’d heard of the kaizen/never-ending improvement Toyota methodology was about 20 years ago from a friend. His father had a manufacturing factory and he took a lot of fundamentals Toyota had and applied them to his own business.
The model of constant improvement is in Mantra Media’s DNA and with every client we work with we use an iterative process. We have our standardised processes but every client we bring on has learning applied in real time to the processes we use.
Ikigai is also an important concept for me and ties to how Mantra Media operates with purpose. So if our guys were just writing copy for one kind of grant I don’t think it would work. They have to feel a sense of purpose behind it and that’s why we have a higher retention rate of staff.
Interesting. And are there any other particular Japanese concepts that appeal to your personal philosophy? As examples, I find the concepts of forest bathing and ouibaitori to be great for my mental health.
As a basic example, people in the office take off their shoes before walking into the space and there’s a kind of seperation. When I first started employing psychologists, I said that I wanted every single person to feel like they were putting on a Superman suit and they could be the best version of themselves. The act of taking off shoes was a part of that.
Another thing is embracing the philosophy of Japanese drinking culture where people are focused at work and know how to blow off steam in the evening. After hours it’s that feeling of being at your most authentic and you can make an absolute fool of yourself if you need to.
Here we have an open work culture where we expect people to be the best version of themselves and we can also create a space where people don’t feel judged.
My last question is what marketing trends do you see on the horizon in both the UK and Japan?
From a marketing perspective Japan is now starting to apply a lot of technologies to how how they do things and there is something going on with influencer marketing. In the UK, it’s been on the decline for a long time with fake engagement across multiple platforms.
In Japan, influencer marketing is very considered and it’s the attitude of ‘we need to meet these influencers. We need to know what they are about.’ It’s not a case of paying them based on followers alone. I think UK marketers need to wake up to that fact.