Hill+Knowlton's 'transformation' strategy to boost business in Japan

Several new hires and departures as firm seeks to double the size of its buisness in the next two to three years

John Morgan said the agency had so far grown 20 per cent this year
John Morgan said the agency had so far grown 20 per cent this year

TOKYO – Hill+Knowlton Strategies has undergone restructuring in Japan with a view to capitalising on what it sees as major growth potential in the market.

As part of what Asia president and CEO John Morgan described to PRWeek as a "transformation", the agency has appointed a new director, Ronan Hand, a Tokyo-based Irishman who is due to join in August from a global PR role at Japanese mobile gaming company Gree.

Morgan himself relocated to Tokyo six months ago and in addition to his regional role serves as president and CEO of Japan. The move makes him a rarity among regional PR agency leaders, the majority of whom are based in Singapore or Hong Kong.

The agency recently saw the departure of Shoichi Yoshikawa, who served as managing director of the office for five years. Morgan did not refer to Yoshikawa directly but indicated that the former managing director had left voluntarily to join an "entrepreneurial project". Morgan is now responsible for his former duties.

Hill+Knowlton has also hired two account executives in response to three departures. Morgan did not disclose names but said the new recruits were native Japanese, one of whom will join from a fashion and cosmetics background and is fluent in French, and the other from the hospitality sector, having worked at Mandarin Oriental. Morgan noted that the three departures from Hill+Knowlton had also been voluntary.

Morgan denied speculation by some in the industry that Hill+Knowlton had recently implemented salary cuts in Tokyo and noted that a number of existing staff members had been promoted. Hill+Knowlton has a relatively small presence in Japan with 15 staff members, but works closely with WPP sister agencies including Wunderman, JWT and ADK, which WPP holds a stake in.

Morgan added that the agency had so far grown 20 per cent this year and said he anticipated doubling the size of the business in Japan over the next two to three years.

Hill+Knowlton has had a presence in Japan since 1958 and is now looking to differentiate itself by focusing on developing a service offering beyond media relations, which Morgan said is still the standard approach in the market. In particular, he sees opportunities in the field of activation around sponsorships, and in crisis communications.

"Japan is still more traditional in its PR approach," he said. "We’re looking to rock that boat. Media relations is still a core part of the PR world but the world is changing, and Japan is coming along with that change."

Morgan admitted that last year Hill+Knowlton's leadership reached the conclusion that the agency’s business in Japan was not "where it needed to be", hence the decision to base a regional head there. "We needed a stronger connection to the Hill & Knowlton network and the WPP network," he noted. He said he sees scope to develop business among domestic companies looking for a more internationally minded approach.

So far this year, the agency has taken on business from ANA following a major pitch, and from Nikon, which is a long-term project client in a number of markets. Hill+Knowlton has also expanded relationships with network clients Shell and IHG Hotels, and taken on a project with Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal, which Morgan describes as a "foot in the door" with a major domestic conglomerate.

In the case of ANA, Morgan said a straightforward request to generate media exposure around the sponsorship of the LPGA Tour ultimately led to a large-scale branding and activation exercise. He pointed to Yokohama Rubber’s [not a Hill+Knowlton client] sponsorship of Chelsea FC as a further example of opportunity for PR-led activation.

"You’re going to see more Japanese companies linking to international happenings. The question is, how to bring it all to life," he said.

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