The term ‘content’ is of course subject to many different interpretations. For Dentsu PR, it doesn’t mean creating flashy videos or work that is likely to wow the cynical panels at Cannes.
Kazunori Azeyanagi, who replaced Takehiko Chikami as president in February (Chikami retired), says the main focus when it comes to content is on short movies. But "we are not an advertising agency or creative agency, so we don’t focus on the very creative or invest in this area of expertise".
Rather than execution, "the main task is strategic planning but we also do creative brief writing," he explains. "If the client needs more, we work with creative agencies."
Still, the agency thought it prudent to invest in this area. Azeyanagi does not specify the exact investment made, but it involved the establishment of a content distribution division with a staff of five to ensure content is transmitted "relevantly to new media".
It also won some awards, including two Golds in the PRWeek Awards Asia: one for ‘Rocking out with miso soup’ for Marukome, the other for ‘The shut-down island’ for Miyakojima City.
Dentsu PR remains Japan’s largest agency in terms of net sales, and while it does not disclose revenues, the figure of 11 billion yen (US$97 million) was an increase of 11 percent on the previous year. Headcount also rose by seven to 260.
Due to a non-disclosure agreement, the agency is unable to name its commercial clients. Azeyanagi explains however that growth came predominantly from the expansion of existing accounts, which include clients in the beverage and IT sectors.
In the public sector, it took on work from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cabinet Office. Assignments ranged from supporting services for foreign visitors to conducting research to monitor the impact of "harmful rumours" following Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster.
While Dentsu PR does not have a global network beyond affiliates, Azeyanagi said inbound business was expanding, with foreign clients in some cases coming on board via the Dentsu Aegis Network. He claims the agency did not lose any major accounts.
Overall, while not expecting dramatic transformation in Japan’s PR landscape, Azeyanagi is optimistic about the prospects for his company and the industry in the run-up to the 2020 Olympic Games. The economic climate is "not bad", he says, and clients are turning more attention to PR where in the past they would have bet all their chips on advertising.
"Advertising has its target audiences, but it’s becoming more and more difficult to deliver messages to these audiences," he says. "What PR can do is deliver messages with social context." That understanding of context can also help support advertising to make it more effective, he says.
Like Vector, Dentsu was criticised in Japan’s business media for apparent ‘stealth marketing’, or lack of transparency in media placements. The accusations were made under Chikami’s tenure, and Azeyanagi does not list the issue as a challenge. Judging by the buzz in the industry at the time, it does seem likely that the activities of leading players like Dentsu PR will come under closer scrutiny over the coming year, however.
Unsurprisingly, Azeyanagi lists the hunt for top-level talent to meet the needs of a changing industry as the agency’s biggest challenge. It’s not unique to Dentsu PR, and he does not have a clear solution in mind.
"Once we’re recognised as a capable content creation agency, we believe we’ll be able to attract more talented people," he says, referring to the recruitment challenge.
"For that reason we must publicise ourselves. In addition to that, we’d like to show our ability for strategic planning." Winning awards will ultimately help attract more talented staff, he believes, who in turn have their own networks of talent to draw upon.
Looking ahead, as PR and marketing become more closely aligned, Azeyanagi envisages closer collaboration with the mother ship.
"We are a member of the Dentsu Group, not an independent PR agency," he says. "While Dentsu [Dentsu Inc.] mainly supports clients’ marketing divisions, we at Dentsu PR mainly support clients’ corporate communications divisions.
"Even though we do collaborate on and jointly pitch clients together with Dentsu in the area of marketing communications, our main focus is the corporate communications side of the business."