A Dedicated Storytelling Organization: Advertising Talk in Japan

A Dedicated Storytelling Organization: Advertising Talk in Japan

Moeran, Brian

This paper looks at different kinds of stories told in a Japanese advertising agency and argues that, like organizations in other creative industries, an advertising agency may be seen as a dedicated storytelling organization. Based on long-term anthropological fieldwork, it makes use of three indigenous classifications-tales of the past, tales of the now, and tales of repetition-to see to what extent a non-western organization confirms, contradicts, or adds to previous analyses of storytelling organizations. Findings suggest that storytelling in a Japanese advertising agency generally conforms to what is already known, but that in certain cultural specifics connected with strategic positioning, management, employment relations, and other Japanese corporate practices, it is rather different.

Key words: storytelling organization, advertising agency, creative industries, Japan

It is now generally accepted that narrative and storytelling provide researchers with a useful entry into a general understanding of organizational cultures (Martin et al. 1983), management philosophies (Wilkins 1979), problem solving (Mitroff and Kilmann 1975), politics (Mumby 1987), sense-making (Boje 1991), strategies (Barry and Elmes 1997), and all the other structuring processes taking place in organizations by means of talk (Boden 1994).

Three concerns underlie this essay. The first is that most social science of storytelling published in English has focused on European and American organizations. As a result, academic theorizing may have overlooked different ways of practicing and thinking about narrative, talk, and storytelling, and there may be different emphases in organizational stories in nonwestern environments. It is for this reason that I present this case study and analysis of storytelling in a Japanese organization.

A second concern is that most scholars analyze storytelling in organizations that are not founded on storytelling. In other words, what are referred to as “storytelling organizations” (Boje 1991) do not-with the exception of Disney discussed by David Boje (1995)-manufacture stories as an integral part of the business in which they are engaged. This essay takes up stories told in the advertising industry, where both products and consumers take on personalities, and ads themselves have story appeal (Ogilvy 1983:14, 18). An advertising agency is thus a special kind of storytelling organization, combining stories about itself and its relations with other organizations in the advertising industry, with stories constructed as an integral part of marketing products to consumers. It is, in short, a dedicated storytelling organization.

A third concern stems from my own position as researcher. In numerous previous writings (e.g., Moeran 1996, 2000, 2006), I have outlined the organizational structure of a Japanese advertising agency and noted the importance of particular relationships involving the distribution of accounts (i.e., sums of money put aside by advertisers) and the industry’s three main players (agencies, clients, and media). Here I turn my attention to stories because I believe they provide further detailed insights into the organizational, political, and even psychological realities experienced by those working in an advertising agency in Japan (Gabriel 2000:43).

Doing Research in a Japanese Advertising Agency

The agency in which I first carried out research for a year in 1990, and to which I have paid frequent follow-up visits over the past 15 years, is now very large-partly because of continuing increased turnover and partly because of a strategic merger with another mid-ranking agency in the mid-199Os. It is particularly well known for its pioneering work in televising animated cartoons-work which has taken it from its humble beginnings more than 40 years ago to being ranked as Japan’s third largest advertising agency today. In 1990, it boasted a payroll of just under 1,000 employees, the large proportion of whom worked in several different buildings located at the lower end of Tokyo’s Ginza area, although a few dozen were employed in branch offices in several other Japanese cities, and a further handful posted overseas in East and Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States (Moeran 1996). Fifteen years later that payroll is three times as large.

Participant observation in the agency has impressed upon me that making ads is mainly a matter of talk. There is talk about accounts, rival agencies, and all the people and institutions (corporate clients, publishing houses, television networks, production shops, celebrities, and so on) that constitute the field of Japanese advertising. There is talk about ad campaigns themselves-about how one marketing analysis successfully repositioned a luxury item as an everyday commodity, or another creative idea enabled a product to “speak” to an elusive consumer group, and so on. And there is talk about the people who work in the agency itself, the jobs they do, and the who-did-what-when-why-and-with-what-result kind of talk that often takes the form of gossip. Everything seems to revolve around talk: all kinds of internal and external meetings (Schwartzman 1989); high tech talk by means of cell-phones, video conferencing, e-mails, Instant Messaging, texting, Blackberries, and so on; surveys, questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, market analyses, and positioning statements; brand workshops (Malefyt 2003), product and brand recommendations, creative strategy, and communication; presentations, speeches, greetings, shareholder communications (Fiol 1995), congratulations, and commiserations; instructions, advice, and warnings; stories, telephone calls, corridor gossip, lunch breaks, drinking sessions, and rounds of golf; TV commercial production, studio photography, cast assembly, fashion and styling, sound recording, and everything else that is involved in the creation of an advertising campaign. There is also the considerable literature put out by advertising industry gurus such as Claude Hopkins (1986), David Ogilvy (1987), and James Webb Young (1991), who expound upon what advertising is all about and use what they have to say strategically to get more accounts (Young 1990:vii). To cut a long story short, it is through talk that the everyday business of the agency is accomplished (Boden 1994:1). Talk is the means by which an advertising agency advertises its existence.

The talk that I record here is primarily-though not exclusively-that between my informants and myself. The fieldwork fragments of talk gathered in this way have often coalesced into stories, and stories-both those that people have told me and told among themselves-can teach the fieldworker “a great deal about the structure and culture of an organization”(Schwartzman 1993:44). Not only is storytelling “the institutional memory system of the organization” (Boje 1991:106), but at the heart of all storytelling is the imparting of something useful to the listener-whether practical advice, a moral, or a maxim (Benjamin 1969:86). In the agency, stories have been used to transform information into firsthand experience and, generally speaking, it has been those already with such experience who tell stories to enable their listeners (new recruits, comparative newcomers, and myself as fieldworker) to make sense of the advertising industry as a whole (cf. Benjamin 1969:87; Gabriel 2000:27-9).

As an anthropologist, how I record talk and accompanying stories also reflects my own craft of telling stories-as exemplified in Clifford Geertz’s (1973:412-17) famous opening to his analysis of the Balinese cockfight, or in John Van Maanen Tales of the Field (1988). The joint performance of both storyteller and listener that characterizes a story (Boje 1991:107) is thus carried over from face-to-face oral communication to a written text in which a new audience (of readers) engages with a new storyteller (the author) in a new joint performance of that same story. In other words, the writing of stories is itself a story of writing, in which, as author, I choose to select certain themes, on the basis of perceived relevance and importance, and ignore others. My data thus become my own “constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to” (Geertz 1973:9).

This essay is a tale of how different people in the agency have perceived ongoing and past events in different but related ways and talked about them to one another, and to me. As such, it describes the structuring processes of an organization in a particular industry through its everyday forms of communication, and centers on three main themes:

1. The history of the agency as an emergent corporation in Japan’s advertising industry (what I shall here call, following my Japanese informants, Tales of the Past [kako no hanashi]);

2. Networking and the sharing of industry information, stories and gossip as part of the agency employees’ everyday work routines (Tales of the Now [ima no hanashi]); and

3. Use of both Tales of the Past and Tales of the Now as part of the agency’s ongoing strategic planning with regard to accounts-the sums of money paid to agencies by advertisers to enable them to plan, create and market advertising campaigns (Tales of Repetition [kurikaeshi no hanashi]).

It is these three slightly different, but frequently overlapping, sets of tales that I shall now tell.

Tales of the Past

Referring as they do to events that have come to an end, tales of the past are incorporated into organizational history and folklore. The agency’s history, as related here, has been very much a part of the talk that employees engage when confronted by an inquisitive newspaper reporter or visiting anthropologist. In summary form it is written down and presented to potential clients. A slightly more detailed history is printed in the handbook that the agency provides for its annual intake of new employees at the beginning of every April. This lists the agency’s most famous success stories: for example, its breakthrough into television advertising through the marketing of animation films, the winning of a major blue chip account, and the introduction of its marketing computer system. It also mentions its own contributions and adaptations to the advertising industry: first use of prepaid postcards (1956); advertising in magazines’ contents pages (1959); the transformation of a comic strip into an animated film (1963); the adoption of the creative director system (1970). The handbook also ties the agency’s achievements into the broader context of the postwar growth of the Japanese economy and the advertising and media worlds.

Talk of the past is by no means all written down, however, and people who have been employed for 30 years or more occasionally reminisce about how the agency used to be and what it was that drove it ever onward to its present success. In general, this kind of talk has focused on three complementary themes.

First, it extols the charismatic virtues of the founding chief operating officer (CEO), now chairman, who, in spite of his advancing age, is still actively involved in the strategic planning of the agency’s business. The chairman is widely respected not only by his employees, but also by those working in the advertising industry as a whole. He is regarded as being “human” (Martin et al. 1983), a Japanese businessman of the best possible kind, combining intellectual acumen, tough negotiating practice, and an ethical integrity that are virtually unmatched among his peers. Talk about the chairman emphasizes his personality, energy, and strategic vision, as well as his unassuming attitude of mild compliance (sunaosa)-qualities that are, it is made clear by those talking about him, absolutely essential prerequisites for any advertising executive who wishes to make a success of his or her career. In his colleagues’ words:

The chairman’s a remarkable man. You’ve already heard him lecture you with great energy and enthusiasm this morning. You’ve had a chance to appreciate the kind of tactical skills he’s used over the years to make the agency so successful. And yet he doesn’t put on airs at all. He’s sunao. These are the kinds of qualities you yourselves need to cultivate as new employees in the agency. Practice them at all times. It is being sunao that’ll set you apart, in the end, from advertising executives in other agencies like Dentsu and Hakuhodo.

I first came to the agency to tell the personnel people I was not going to accept the job they’d offered me, but was going to join another agency instead. But when I got here, the office was as busy as a bee’s nest, with people coming and going all over the place, and I thought how exciting the agency looked. And then the chairman-he was CEO then-came into the room where I was sitting and said a few words to me. He was so unassuming. I mean, he basically asked me to come and work for him. So I ended up telling the other agency that I wasn’t going to work for it.

Although tales of the past contain all the manifestations of the leader-follower relation noted by Yiannis Gabriel (2000:197), by not setting the CEO-chairman up as “god” (Gabriel 2000:191), this type of story provides those working in the agency with a strong sense of corporate identity and organizational philosophy. Moreover, by giving employees a sense of what it means to be an agency man, tales of the past help link organizational with personal identity (cf. Czarniawska 1997:46):

When I started out, I wanted to be a copywriter. But instead I was put into account services because, apparently, there weren’t enough people to carry out the necessary tasks there. So I very reluctantly did what was asked of me, even though I spent most of the time asking myself why I was doing such a horrible job when all I wanted to do was be a copywriter. After a year, therefore, I went to the CEO and asked him to release me from being an account executive. He said: “Oh dear. Do you really want to be a copywriter? Fm so sorry. But it will, of course, be very difficult for those you leave behind in account services. Don’t you think you could stick it out for a little longer? You see, if you leave, the others will be in a real mess.”

So I found myself doing a second year in a job I hated, and at the end of it I went back to the CEO who said: “Oh dear. Do you really dislike being an account executive so much? And just when you’re getting so good at it. Why don’t you do just one more year in account services? By the end you’ll have mastered your job, and you can then move on to copywriting.”

So I stuck it out for another year. And it was during that year that I suddenly appreciated the joy of working as an account executive. And now I ‘ ve been doing the same job for the last 29 years. I never became a copywriter, after all.

Second, and as practical support to the above, those in senior and middle management positions often recount cases of the agency’s successes (and occasional failures) in the advertising business. Here talk tends to stress, for example, a junior account executive’s perseverance against all odds (Hower 1939:231), an account planner’s ability to come up with a “Big Idea” (Ogilvy 1983:16; Rothenberg 1994:117), or even the beads of perspiration that visibly transformed an account executive’s face as he “gave his all” (isshokenmeisa) during an important presentation to a blue chip client.

Sometimes, such tales are told to provide background to ongoing events, like when a prestigious European car manufacturer decided to review its account with the agency and called for a competitive presentation:

We were really quick off the mark. Back in the summer of 1986, somebody noticed a small newspaper article reporting that PKW, which had previously been selling its cars through the major dealer Yanase, was going to set up its own subsidiary company. We found out who the president of the subsidiary was going to be and used our networks to approach him.

We’d had plenty of experience in handling the Toyobishi car account, of course, and that helped immensely. But we weren’t used to the luxury end of the car market. And we had very little experience of foreign clients. So we conducted a really expensive survey to find out about it. It was these two things that put us in a good position when PKW invited us to participate in a competitive presentation the following February.

The agency devoted a lot of energy, manpower, and money to winning that account. The CEO pulled out all the stops on that one, and no expense was spared. Well, there was one exception. In those days, the agency was housed in an old building where the men’s and women’s toilets faced the elevators on each floor. Somebody realized they wouldn’t make a very good impression on our European visitors as they stepped out of the lift to go to the presentation, so enquiries were made about hiring a gold screen to be placed in the elevator lobby for the day. When it was learned this would cost $2,000 an hour, the CEO put his foot down. He wasn’t going to pay so much for so little. So we all formed a human screen, with everybody lined up along the wall opposite the lift from which the PKW people emerged. That way the presence of the toilets was hidden. And the agency’s manpower really impressed the client.

Nobody knows what really happened-apart from a very few people at the top, of course. But anyway, we won the account. They say it was partly the know-how the agency had developed with the Toyobishi account. But it seems like the fact that nobody in the agency really spoke fluent English, and yet still managed to get their ideas across, also had an influence on PKW’s decision. They were impressed by our ability to communicate our own ideas-unlike Dentsu, which brought in fluent English speakers to present other people’s work and creative ideas.

Such talk of the past is designed to support by actual examples the philosophical principles underpinning the agency’s organization, and serves to remind all concerned of the qualities expected of them as employees, as well as of the CEO’s loyalty to established clients. At the same time, this particular Tale of the Past grappled with another ongoing problem: how to deal with foreign clients and get them to accept that the Japanese market and Japanese business methods are different.

Mostly, however, tales of the past stress principles generally seen to be characteristic of Japanese corporate organization: hard work, perseverance, trust, doing one’s best, working together, and long-term relationships, although agency employees are also expected to use their initiative, creativity, and individual judgement as appropriate:

There was a prestigious account we were trying to win. And it all seemed to boil down to account management. So I was detailed to get behind the scenes and find out as much as I could about the client. One day I managed to get an appointment with the sales manager there, and when I went into his office I spotted a rival agency’s presentation plan on his desk. As I talked to him, I kept glancing down and trying to read upside down the one-page executive summary of that agency’s proposal. I think I must have got most of it right because the AE in charge of our account used what I told him to reposition our own presentation, and we won the account.

Third, during the decades in which he led the agency as CEO, the chairman developed his own management philosophy. This includes an emphasis on learning (to enable his employees to come up with creative ideas), on personality (since advertising success depends very much on good personal interrelations), and on individual judgement. With regard to the last he has promulgated a particular attitude toward his subordinates’ decision-making processes that flies in the face of virtually everything that has ever been written about Japanese management style. Rather than insist on business-related matters being referred back to management for authorization of action, he advocates what he calls a “total management system” (zen ‘in keieishugi), which permits any employee at any level to make decisions while negotiating with clients:

The other day, I was having lunch with PKWs sales manager when he asked me whether / could take over the account from the present account manager who he hasn’t been getting on well with. I had to make a snap decision. So I promised to do so, in spite of all the other work I’ve got on my plate, because I knew it might make a difference to the client. I could do this without consulting my divisional boss because of the CEO’s philosophy of total management.

The fact that even the most junior employee can, in theory, make a decision instantly without having to worry (too much) about what his immediate department head or divisional chief might have to say about it, has often been used in tales of the past to explain the agency’s historical success. Without such a rapid decision-making process, goes the rationale, the agency would never have been able to win certain accounts or to make such headway in the advertising world. Only with this kind of decision-making process are employees allowed to develop and give full rein to their individual judgement.

Although total management is generally mentioned in positive contexts like this, there has been the very occasional oblique criticism, usually in a time of crisis:

Total management has its downside, too, even though it’s been the driving force behind the agency’s success during the time I’ve been here. I mean, if a guy does make a wrong decision that jeopardizes agency-client relations, like Mr Automobile did with PKW, top management can’t take him off the account totally. That would go against the CEO’s philosophy of total management. So we end up having to make do with half measures-like shift him from above-the-line to below-the-line activities-and hope for the best.

Generally speaking, therefore, tales of the past are used to link organizational philosophy with corporate practices, on the one hand, and to provide bearings for employees as the agency continues its journey into uncharted territories in the advertising world, on the other. In serving these two overall purposes these stories have three important aims:

1. They help employees differentiate the agency from other advertising agencies. In this respect, tales of the past are concerned with the creation of an overall corporate culture and thus with “corporate branding” (Jones 1999:138,145).

2. They incorporate the agency into a family of major Japanese corporations that practice particularly Japanese styles of (lifetime) employment and Confucian management practices (including an emphasis on learning). At the same time, they are used to distinguish the agency from such corporations since it does not strictly adhere to seniority promotion; nor do its employees form an (enterprise) union (Dore 1973:264-279).

3. They promulgate the agency’s business practices as the best and most ethical in the Japanese advertising industry. This is a necessary element in this kind of talk because advertising relies to a very large extent upon interpersonal relations among people employed in agencies, clients, and media organizations, and because advertising people can as a result become involved in such questionable practices as bribery, corporate blackmail, and the doctoring of media information.

Tales of the Now

Tales of the now focus on emergent, unfolding events in the everyday working lives of agency employees. They aim, first, to disseminate information that can be acted upon (and thus made into experience) within the agency. Such talk emerges in the form of ongoing projects, problems, strategic issues, and the lessons to be learned from what is currently going on in the advertising world. Some of it takes place in all the different kinds of formal meetings in which agency personnel participate, from the CEO’s monthly address to the Media Buying Division’s weekly update on unfilled advertising slots in print and broadcast media. A lot more occurs, however, as employees from different divisions of the agency (Account Services, Marketing, Creative, Promotions, International, Media Buying) share information, relay gossip and rumor, and maintain carefully massaged networks of contacts in the advertising, media, and entertainment worlds, as well as among (potential) clients. Here tales of the now focus very much on day-to-day events and are used as an integral part of the agency’s strategic positioning both vis-à-vis (potential) advertising clients and the media organizations with which it works. Take, for example, the unfolding of the following fragments of talk that together constitute an intricate story with plot involving four main characters and all sorts of potential subplots:

Have you heard the latest? You know Katsu Shintarô, the actor who plays the blind swordsman Zatoichi? Well, he’s just been arrested in Honolulu airport for possession of 1.75 grams of cocaine and 9.75 grams of marijuana hidden away in his underwear. He paid a $ 1,000 fine and he’s expected to be deported from Hawaii in a few days’ time.

The thing is, Katsu’s just completed a series of TV commercials for Kirin Beer-a series that was due to be aired throughout the year in a major campaign designed to help the company rake back some of the market share that it lost in the wake of Asahi’s launching of it Super Dry beer. Katsu was seen to be the celebrity best suited to Kirin’s marketing riposte of nama-“raw” or “live”-draught lager because his performances as the blind swordsman were invariably energetic and “raw.” Six different commercials have already been completed and the first was shown on TV only two days ago. But Kirin’s now cancelled the whole campaign because it’s afraid viewers will react negatively if the brewer continues to use a celebrity who’s been found guilty of possession.

The first newspaper ad went out a couple of weeks ago and Kirin had already booked space in all four main media-all through Hakuhodo which stood to make a lot of money from handling the year-long campaign. But now the whole thing’s cancelled. The question is: who’s going to pay for the six commercials already finished?

Those commercials cost several hundred million yen, you know. What’s worse, they weren’t one offs, but were designed to follow one another and make a dramatic story. Hakuhodo was the agency involved and it persuaded Kirin to spare no expense. So a famous scriptwriter was hired for the campaign, as were several well-known actors and actresses. A lot of money.

I heard Hakuhodo really pushed the idea of using Katsu in the Kirin commercials, even though some people inside Kirin thought this might be risky, given Katsu’s past record. He’s been questioned before, you know, though not charged.

The thing is, an agency is usually responsible for all expenses incurred during production of a campaignpayment of actors, cameramen, studio sets, sound, stylists, and so on. It also has to pay the media in cash once it places an ad or commercial, and it’s only later that the client will pay both media charges and expenses. It’s then that the agency can take its percentage and make a profit. Even so, hardly any clients-banks and financial institutions are welcome exceptions-actually pay cash. Instead, they send a credit note that can only be redeemed for cash after 90 days. What precisely’s going to happen in this case is hard to tell. I somehow doubt agency-client relations will be completely severed, even though Kirin may be understandably annoyed at Hakuhodo’s misjudgement of Katsu. Still, a new TV campaign has to be worked on now and it may be that Kirin will ask another agency to handle the draught lager account. It’s just possible, too, that we may get asked to help. After all, we have an account with Kirin, though it’s for another product. But one thing I tell you we won’t do is: we won’t approach Kirin and offer to help, just because Hakuhodo’s made a mess of things. That would be in very bad taste.

In all probability, Hakuhodo signed a contract for the campaign with Kirin Beer and Katsu Promotions, the production company owned by the actor. And in this contract there should be a clause covering this sort of problem, where a celebrity for one reason or another fails to behave in an appropriate manner. The trouble is, along with Takakura Ken and Mifune Toshiro, Katsu is known as one of the “three crows” (samba karasu) of the celebrity world. In other words, he’s really difficult. Which means there’s no knowing what parts of the contract Hakuhodo may have shelved in its attempt to secure Katsu’s agreement to appear in the Kirin campaign.

The problem isn’t really one of Hakuhodo’s standing to lose $6 million, the way the newspapers presented it this morning. Kirin has something like 70 percent of the Japanese lager market. That comes to about $7 to $8 billion a year. But it might lose something like $ 1OO million in revenues because of this Katsu drug business. Given that its own annual billings are in the region of $5 billion, Hakuhodo won’t even consider the financial implications of what’s happened yet. Rather, they’ll move rapidly into damage control mode. So far as the agency’s concerned, a train has merely been derailed. What it needs to do, therefore, is send out a task force to mend the track and send the express on its way again. That’s the way Hakuhodo sees things right now. After all, Kirin Beer is a very big account.

As for Kirin, it’ll sit tight and say nothing. It’ll watch how Hakuhodo reacts to the whole situation, and it may be a month or two before anything’s said, or negotiations are begun. So it is how Hakuhodo behaves now that’s of real interest. Funnily enough, if things go well, the agency may actually be able to /«crease its stock with the client, rather than lose the account as some people anticipate. You never can tell. That’s the way the advertising business is. But I can tell you we aren’t going to do anything…. We’re comparatively small fry and it’s highly unlikely Kirin would ask us to take over from Hakuhodo. So there’s no way I’m going to start preparing a speculative presentation, or anything like that. To tell you the truth, I’m uneasy about what’s happened, if only because our own business depends on the prosperity of our clients. If Kirin’s sales go down-and it’ll take a couple of months before we know for sure how consumers and retailers are reacting to the Katsu business-then the agency will suffer, too. So I don’t feel like thumbing my nose at another agency, just because it’s been tripped up in what might otherwise have proved to be a very successful campaign. After all, the same thing could have happened-might one day soon happen-to us. Maybe I’m being a bit generous here, but that’s the way I feel.

Katsu’s wife has been appearing in a skin-cleaner TV campaign that we’re handling here in the agency. Our client has asked us to lay her off for three months until this business blows over, although it’s been good enough to continue to pay her fee (gara) during this period. Another point that might interest you is that Kirin’s shares have been falling on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. We had a phone call from an American investment banker earlier this morning, asking whether we ‘re in any way connected with the Katsu business. He knew we had an account with Kirin and was trying to work out whether our own stock market position might be adversely affected by what has happened.

These fragments of talk are clearly “part of an organizationwide information-processing network” (Boj e 1991:106) and bring to light a number of different issues. First, they point to the perils of the so-called synergy effect created by the celebrity endorser between a corporation and its product (Kaitaki 1987; McCracken 1989; Miciak and Shanklin 1994; O’Mahoney and Meenaghan 1997-98), and the negative effect on share prices (Agrawal and Kamakura 1995; Mathur et al. 1997). second, they highlight corporate fear of negative publicity and the fact that, in the world of business, everything must seem perfect and proper. Here, impression management (Goffman 1969) is a crucial part of advertising professionals’ everyday conduct (Moeran 2005a). Third, they promote an otherwise unformulated code of honor among agencies which are otherwise in direct competition with one another for advertising business.

Like many other agency conversations, these tales of the now include three sources of talk which, in Japanese, are carefully distinguished: information (joho); stories pertaining to information (hanashi); and gossip (ura-banashi, or backstage stories). The distinction between fact as information and fact as experience, however, is not as clear-cut as Gabriel (2000:27) suggests, and it is often hard to tell which fragments of a story, like this one about Katsu, are factual description, individual interpretation, opinion, or mere gossip. What matters is the mutual influence they bring to bear on one another and their overall importance in the advertising world. Similarly, it is hard to tell which details are relevant and which are not, but what is clear is that employees feel the need to cover all angles of a story, and to consider all their implications to frame an appropriate stance and plan, or not plan, appropriate action. It is those who provide an overall vision on the basis of this stream of events and accompanying stories who tend to emerge as the agency’s strategists (Barry and Elmes 1997:444).

The Katsu story is no isolated instance of the business potential created by tales of the now. Every afternoon, from about five o’clock, the internal telephone lines of the agency are in constant use as people come back from their meetings with clients, media organizations, production houses, and so on and proceed to let their relevant colleagues know everything that has happened during the working day. At the same time, they relay pieces of information, stories, or gossip that they have picked up: a potential client’s sales manager unhappy with a rival agency’s handling of an advertising campaign; a television company worried about the ratings of one of its prime time programs and on the lookout for a replacement program that will satisfy the sponsoring corporation; a client pharmaceutical company said to be developing a new sports drink; a government commission likely to lay down more regulations limiting television advertising by tobacco companies; the marriage of a client advertising manager’s son to a rival ad agency CEO’s daughter.

Such information is important because it might affect overall agency activities and strategic planning where (potential) clients are involved (Barry and Elmes 1997:432). Thus, senior management can use such evolving stories to target the unhappy sales manager, if it feels it appropriate, in the hope that the agency will be asked to participate in a competitive presentation and take over the account in question. The Television Programming Department can bring off the back burner a program idea that didn’t quite make the cut when the television network concerned was trying to decide at the beginning of the season which new program proposals to take up. A smart account manager can get to work on a sports drink brand name and sales concept that he can then propose to his client in a speculative presentation. A marketing executive might think of creative ways to rechannel his tobacco company client’s advertising money effectively. An account planner realizes that he should solicit accounts from clients other than the one whose advertising manager’s son has just married a rival agency’s CEO’s daughter. If successful, plans like these stemming from tales of the now are later transformed into tales of the past, stressing opportunities perceived and taken, creative thinking, smart initiatives, the value of interpersonal networking, and so forth.

Third, tales of the now bring to the surface a number of organizational tensions within the agency, as well as between the agency and other players in the world of advertising. These tensions include, besides Japanese and Western ways of conducting business, difficulties faced by women employees in a male-dominated work environment, management decisions, and corporate shareholding. These reinforce the general point that there is rarely any single story in the agency, but a potentially unlimited number of them circulating around an event (e.g., Boje 1995). Tales of the now can be quickly extended, expanded, countered, or contradicted. They tend to be told with particular purposes or interests in mind, varying according to audience and context as individual actors (re)position themselves vis-à-vis one another. Such talk, therefore, always has its alternative versions organized around different plots (Czarniawska 1997:18).

Tales of Repetition

Tales of repetition are a kind of present-perfect mode of talk, bringing together stories of both present and past in such a way that agency members can reproduce and thus actively structure their working environment, the organization to which they belong, and the other organizations with which they come into daily contact. Tales of repetition recycle particular issues that are central to the operation of the advertising business and keep them at the forefront of employees’ collective consciousness. As such, they contribute to a discourse that helps people working with all kinds of different colleagues on numerous disparate activities to create and sustain the agency and the broader advertising industry as an “imagined community” (Andersen 1983).

The focal point of this kind of talk is the advertising account. It is the continuous circulation of accounts among agencies that fuels talk among those employed in the world of advertising as they take stock of positions and position takings (Bourdieu 1993). One of the best examples of this kind of tale emerged in the ongoing discussions surrounding the agency’s apparent failure to hold onto a prestigious account involving a prestigious European automobile manufacturer, PKW.

How the agency had won the PKW blue chip account was one of the success stories relayed to the new recruits during their training induction at the beginning of April soon after the start of my initial fieldwork. By early summer, however, several people in the Marketing and Account Services Divisions were shaking their heads glumly. It seemed that all was not well and that the client had invited the agency to take part in a competitive presentation in October, along with two of its main rivals, Dentsu and Hakuhodo. The agency hadn’t the slightest hope of winning the presentation, it was said, and the International Division was about to lose its prime account.

The stories that were told during the next weeks varied. One emergent theme, recounted under tales of the past, highlighted how, against all odds, the agency had originally won the account. Another dominant theme concerned what had gone wrong and why the agency had been ordered to participate in a competitive presentation together with its main rivals. Here two story strands emerged, both focusing more on the ongoing present, than on the past. One highlighted the foreignness of the European client, the special nature of the Japanese market and Japan’s advertising industry, and foreigners’ presumed failure to come to terms with or accept cultural difference. This tale was reproduced as a means to sustain the idea that the Japanese market was different from other markets and therefore required the expertise of specifically Japanese advertising agencies like the agency.

PKWs a hard taskmaster. It doesn’t really understand or appreciate all the time and trouble that the account team’s been taking on its behalf.

It’s a pretty arrogant company and really “bad mannered” (gyogi ga warui). It’s pushed the account team-especially those on the creative side-into working so hard that most of the people there are suffering from stress in one form or another. And that doesn’t help either agency or client.

PKW spends its whole time complaining about the fact that we’re handling a large proportion of the Toyobishi Motor Corporation’s business. It won’t accept the fact that that’s the way things are done in Japan. And anyway, Toyobishi’s recently signed a tie-up agreement with PKW to share certain sales outlets and to develop engine technology together. So what’s the big deal? The agency keeps its two clients’ businesses in different buildings and there’s no interaction between the separate account teams that I ever heard of.

The other homed in on the account manager and his perceived failure to target the right person (that is, the person with real power) in the European automobile manufacturer’s Japanese office. This part of the tale of reproduction thus highlighted what an ad man ought to be. It also brought out agency staff’s subconscious preference for Japanese employment practices (permanent employment rather than job hopping), and, by implication, notions of trust and corporate loyalty that such practices were seen to encourage.

The trouble is the PKW account manager isn’t an ad man at all. He’s really no more than an automobile businessman. He was brought in from Toyobishi when the agency first won the PKW account because people here felt we needed someone who really knew the car market in Japan.

“Mr Automobile,” as some of us call him, made a crucial mistake. He targeted the wrong man in the client company. An account manager’s job is to find out who the decision maker is and then cultivate him assiduously. That’s what human chemistry’s all about. And then, if something for some reason does go wrong, the target man can put in a good word for the agency and bail it out of difficulty.

In the case of PKW, Mr. Automobile targeted one of the subsidiary company’s vice presidents. And it was this Japanese guy who he proceeded to develop relations with. But-whether consciously or not, I’m not in a position to say-Mr. Automobile ignored the European sales manager working under the vice president. This was a costly error of judgement. After all, it was the European who was in charge of day-to-day business matters. And it was the European who had a direct line back to his HQ in Frankfurt, or wherever. Mr Automobile mistook authority for power. The vice president may have been senior in rank, but he didn’t make the important decisions.

I guess the European sales manager felt personally slighted at being ignored by the agency’s account manager. And then he transformed it into a general dissatisfaction with the agency’s work on behalf of PKW, and persuaded his bosses back in Europe to call for a competitive presentation.

This recycling talk was produced and reproduced throughout the hectic five weeks during which the agency prepared for the presentation, in the full knowledge that it did not stand a chance of winning its client’s approval. Not only did the story emphasize the perceived importance of the ad man. It provided crucial ideological back-up to senior management’s decision to spare no effort or expense in its preparations for the competitive presentation, so that the client might eventually come to realize just how hardworking, how businesslike, and how ethically steadfast the agency was. In this way, the account itself became a source of pride for all those working in the agency-especially when PKW, clearly impressed by the agency’s presentation, was unable to award the account to either of its rivals without ordering the other two agencies to compete again. Thus, what it may have lost in financial terms, the agency recouped in corporate pride and public relations, because word of what was going on became the talking point of other agencies and media organizations alike (Moeran 1996: 72-98). This is what recycling talk and stories are all about: they are ethical reflections on the world of advertising as a whole.

Japanese Peculiarities?

I started out by noting that there were three reasons for my writing this article. The last-about my own motives for investigating organizational storytelling-needs no further comment. The other two need clarification.

First, do the stories told in a non Western organization provide material for renewed theoretical reflection? The answer would appear to be both yes and no. On the one hand, the very structure of this article into three different kinds of tales reflects a classification made by my informants, but not hitherto adopted in the theoretical literature. Is this peculiarly unique to Japan and/or to the advertising industry? I somehow doubt it. After all, as Gabriel (2000:9-29) points out, almost all organizations make use of past (folkloric), present (modern), and repetitive, fragmented (postmodern) stories.

On the other hand, this article has also shown the more generally remarked organizing processes out of which actors’ sense of organization emerges and is acted out (Schwartzman 1993:36), and how the agency, like many other organizations all over the world, is “a collective storytelling system in which the performance of stories is a key part of members’ sense making and a means to allow them to supplement individual memories with institutional memory” (Boje 1991:106). Talk enables agency employees to discover and affirm “their shared goals, many agendas, environmental uncertainties, potential coalitions, and areas of actual conflict” (Boden 1994:8), and so to structure their organization.

The kind of structuring that goes on, though, covers a number of different fronts that are partly particular and partly more general in their application. On the one hand, it concerns the identity of employees and a notion of an organization’s corporate culture in the sense of what distinguishes it from other organizations and players in the industry, thereby (as with stories about total management) playing on claims of uniqueness (Martin et al. 1983:439). This kind of structuring, therefore, aims ultimately at organizational positioning vis-avis other organizations. On the other hand, it lays bare certain potential points of conflict (e.g., gender relations, management shareholding, and tensions between Japanese and Western business methods) and tries to work them back into the everyday lives of employees in a way that the latter can come to terms with the ongoing anomalies they encounter. These points of conflict may be seen as more characteristic of Japanese, perhaps, than of European and American organizations, but the sociological function of the stories told is general, rather than particular to either a national or industry culture.

This point is borne out by the fact that the forms taken by such stories and talk, and the functions they perform (foreign versus Japanese business methods; advertising versus other professions; male versus female employees), are as varied as the particular interests and purposes they are designed to serve (Boje 1995:1030). In this context, the agency is no different from other storytelling organizations. An unlimited number of relations exist between the different forms of talk outlined here (Herrnstein Smith 1981 ). It is in these relations-or “nets of collective action” (Czarniawska 1997:41)-that the very notion of an organization emerges.

At the same time, stories also clearly constitute “micropractices of power” (Boje 1995:1002). Not only is there management by particular individuals in the telling of stories (Boje 1991:124). Those with access to information (primarily through personally cultivated networks) are respected and, depending on their ability to transform informational content into strategic practice, gain authority as a result. Thus, even those in subordinate positions jostle for control of what is being said. This is the subject matter of the ethnography of speaking (Hymes 1962).

Although I have so far argued that the stories presented here uphold general organizational principles, there are some differences in which Japanese peculiarities come to the fore. One obvious difference in stories told in the agency from those previously analyzed is to be seen in their content typology. For example, while obstacle stories tend to be common in the agency, other types of stories highlighted by Joanne Martin and her fellow authors (1983) are either totally absent or considerably played down. For example, “Will I get fired?” and “Will the organization help me when I move?” are not issues because the agency, like many other large Japanese corporations, practices lifetime employment and generally believes in looking after its employees. “How will the boss react to mistakes?” is also not a story type found in the agency, because the management philosophy of zen’in keieishugi precludes this kind of fear. “Is the big boss human?” is to be found, but what characterizes stories of this kind told in the agency is the fact that neither the chairman nor the current CEO sets himself up as a big boss, but acts as one of us-thereby conforming to the principles of harmony and ingroupness established as an ideal in most Japanese companies. By the same principle, “Can the little person rise to the top?” does not make sense, because all employees are seen to be coequals and able to rise through the ranks through a combination of hard work and professional skills.

Martin et al. (1983:447-9) argue that their seven story types exist because of particular sources of organizational and general social tension, which themselves stem from three dualities of equality versus inequality, security versus insecurity, and control versus lack of control. I would contend that the stories analyzed here reveal two other major dualities that influence the organization of Japanese social relations, but which are not mentioned by Martin and her coauthors in their discussion of American (and, presumably, Western) organizations.

The first of these is the inside-outside (uchi/sotd) dichotomy (Bachnik and Quinn 1994). The distinction between inner- and outer-directed, front- and backstage, behavior acts as the primary reference point for Japanese in their social relations (and is clearly present in most of our social interaction in Western countries; Goffman 1969). It is to be seen very obviously in Japan versus the West stories, but also in agency versus client, account versus creative personnel, us versus them, and so on. The Katsu Shintaro story illustrates the sliding scale of such in-group identification, where Hakuhodo can be a competing ad agency in terms of the account, but “in the same boat” as the agency in terms of its predicament vis-à-vis its client. As part of the inside-outside duality, we can include the tension surrounding immediate short-term profits versus long-term relationships which underlies many of the stories concerning Japanese, as opposed to Western, business methods.

The second duality-a tension that has continuously preoccupied those conducting research on different aspects of Japanese society (e.g., Nakane 1970)-surrounds the relationship between the individual and the group to which s/he belongs (from corporation down to project or account team). This tension plays in particular on the hierarchical structure of the corporate organization, on the one hand, and on the “flat” egalitarian nature of business networks, on the other, both of which are seen to be crucial components in the Japanese economic system (Moeran 2005b). It also brings to the fore issues of success and failure. Unlike in Western companies, individual agency employees do not “attribute causality for success to themselves personally;” nor do they blame “failure on external forces that are beyond their control” (Martin et al. 1983:449). Rather, both success and failure are seen in large part as a collective responsibility.

Thus stories stressing the (in)security duality discussed by Martin and colleagues extend far beyond the sphere of an individual employee’s relation to an organization and focus on his or her membership in a profession and what it means to be a professional; on the relation of one organization (the agency) to another (the client) and its position within the broader business context of the industry in which they both function; as well as on an organization’s position in a broader cultural context that includes other national corporate organizations. Similarly, the issue of control emerges rather more as an issue between organizations rather than within one. Stories focus a lot on situating an organization (the agency) vis-à-vis other organizations in an industry, rather than individuals within an organization. In this way, they contribute to the organization of the advertising industry as a whole.

A Dedicated Storytelling Organization

Second, might an advertising agency be a rather more comprehensive example of a Storytelling organization than most have suggested? In his analysis of organizational Storytelling, Gabriel (2000:240) suggests that “organizations do not appear to be a natural habitat of Storytelling.” Certainly, almost all the terse stories cited by Boje ( 1991 ) fail to arouse interest in terms of plot, characters, narration, poetic elaboration, and so on (cf. Gabriel 2000:20). At the same time, however, Gabriel’s definition (2000: 239) of what constitutes a story is perhaps too comprehensive and therefore exclusive. Some of the tales outlined here, especially tales of the past, meet Labov’s (1977:370) criteria of complete narratives by starting with an abstract, followed by orientation, complicating action, evaluation, resolution, and ending with a coda. Many others, however, do not. Nevertheless, I think it reasonable to suggest that-like a number of other creative industries (Caves 2000) producing animation (Fjellman 1992:299-318), fashion (Skov 2003), film (Boden 1994:vii), popular music (Negus 1992), and entertainment generally (Boje 1995)-an advertising agency is founded on Storytelling. As such it may be termed a dedicated Storytelling organization.

What makes an organization dedicated is the fact its Storytelling activities emerge from and highlight both its corporate organization and the productions in which it is engaged. Pop singers belt out stories, film stars act in stories, fashion designers fashion stories into clothes, and magazines publish fashion stories as well as stories about the celebrity and entertainment worlds. Like other creative industry organizations, then, an advertising agency is a Storytelling organization focusing on three interrelated themes: industry, people (both producers and consumers), and products.

First, people talk about accounts themselves and the intricate and difficult relations that accounts create between agency and client, as well as between client and media, and agency and media. This, as we have seen, is the central subject matter of tales of the past, Tales of the Now, and Tales of Repetition.

Second, the kind of marketing analysis carried out by an agency prior to an advertising campaign also tells a story about, and builds up a picture of, targeted consumers defined by age, gender, socioeconomic level, ethnicity, class, tastes, and so on. Thus we get lines like C’mon Colman s, light my fire (Colman’s Mustard), or Maybe she s born with it (Maybelline). Stories about consumers can create social tableaux and become grand parables (Marchand 1985).

Third, the creative strategy and images adopted tell stories about the corporations and products being advertised: We try harder (Avis), or Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach. As David Ogilvy (1983:18) has remarked, “there are no dull products, only dull writers.” The product or corporation, therefore, has to be turned into a hero-ideally linking product (and/or advertiser) to (the idealized) consumer (Reach out and touch someone [AT&T], or Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet). These kinds of stories are accompanied by visual images that themselves-like the eye patch sported by the model for Hathaway shirts, or Absolut bottle objects-have story appeal and attract attention. They can be found in every advertising campaign, even though it is often hard for us to recognize that the images we see are formulated on the basis of stories that emerge from marketing research.

So, talk about industry, products, and targeted consumers should be seen as an integral part of agency organizational storytelling. For example, ideas forwarded by creative teams can fail to win client approval, lead to review of an advertising account, and thus initiate all kinds of stories connected with personnel, organizations, and the advertising industry as a whole. There is thus an interconnectedness between all three areas of the agency’s storytelling activities that make it far more dedicated a storytelling organization than, say, an office-supply firm.

The suggestion here is that other organizations working in the creative sector of the experience economy-including fashion houses, cinema and TV film production companies, sound recording studios, book and magazine publishers, the visual and performing arts, advertising agencies, and media corporations-are all dedicated storytelling organizations. This raises the question of why this should be so. Although fuller analysis is impossible here, the dedicated storytelling nature of creative industries may well stem from the logic of their economic organization. Included among the basic economic properties of creative activities are the facts that demand is uncertain and time is of the essence. Creative workers care about their product (“artfor art’s sake”) and display skills that are both diverse (“motley crew”) and vertically differentiated (“A list/B list”), while creative products themselves are varied (‘infinite variety “) and durable (“ars longa “) (Caves 2000:1 -10). In other words, these economic properties highlight precisely those issues raised in this discussion of stories told in an advertising agency: the intricate relationships between professional people, the organizations in which they work, and the commodities they produce. Together, these economic properties would seem to establish an environment in which talk-about creative people, their products, and their organizations-becomes a crucial component in the ongoing operation of a creative industry. Who is producing really creative work these days, and for whom? Which organization is ahead of its competitors? What is hip?


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Brian Moeran is professor of culture and communication in the Department oflntercultural Communication and Management at the Copenhagen Business School. A social anthropologist by training, he has spent approximately 15 years in Japan where he has conducted research on advertising, art marketing, media, popular culture, women s fashion magazines, and fragrance culture. He has published widely in the fields of economic anthropology, media studies, and creative industries. Books include A Japanese Advertising Agency (1996), Asian Media Productions (edited, 2001), Advertising Cultures (edited with T. de Wool Malefyt, 2003), The Business of Ethnography (2005), anc/Ethnography at Work (2006). I would like to thank Barbara Czarniawska for her trenchant criticism of an early draft of this paper.

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