How to Hire the Right Digital Marketing Agency in Tokyo

Updated: Jul 19, 2021

Agency Search Success Tips


In my nearly ten years of working at a domestic marketing agency in Japan, there are more academic materials on digital marketing now more than ever. Keeping this in mind, there was one thing that continually struck me in Japan. On both the part of our Japanese clients and the account executives themselves, few involved actually had first-hand experience placing ads online. Quite a surprise when there's so much content out there that you can easily access to learn the foundations of these things. This issue is also something that our digital agency is looking to change.


Instead, much of this work was farmed out to smaller and smarter partner firms like our digital marketing agency in Tokyo who would do the media buying on their behalf. Of course, for this odd arrangement to make business sense, sometimes agencies need to charge an additional margin thereby further driving up the costs of the campaign.


Extra charges aside, one other byproduct of this bizarre arrangement was that the ones doing the media buying had no direct responsibility to the client themselves.


Instead, these entities were beholden to the agency doing the outsourcing. As a result, the companies to which the jobs were entrusted to were financially incentivized only to keep their own partners happy. Time and time again, I noticed that what was proposed (and then subsequently delivered) was not actually in a client’s best interest overall. Given that the outsource vendors had no skin in the game though, this shouldn’t really be surprising.


Now, lest you think that this was only just an oddity of my previous employer, know that the practice is indeed systemic.


In fact, the top agencies in Japan are notorious for doing none of the actual work themselves- as we sometimes review in our newsletter when covering trends. As a result, few people managing a client’s account ever get any dirt under their fingernails. Sure, they might understand how things like advertising and funnels work in theory but they themselves can’t execute without outside assistance.


Honestly, it’s very much like a teacher who has never made their own business educating people about entrepreneurship.


As far as I can tell, things are no better client side either. Especially in a country like Japan (where few people have solid understandings of digital marketing), this creates some curious situations. For example, I vividly recall an occasion where both the client and the account executive were confused about whether an impression on Facebook was the same as an impression on a display network. Had either party even a modicum of first-hand experience placing ads online themselves, they would understand that few people are actually “seeing” that banner ad.


Rather than try to justify unnecessary upsells with vanity metrics, we instead concentrate on creating actual business results. To achieve this, we adopt an integrated, omni-channel approach. Instead of hawking whatever is the flavor of the month in marketing, we are agnostic in our approach; If it works, we’ll leverage it. Additionally, we are also sticklers for marketing effectiveness. In all projects we are involved with, we’re always diving deep into the various attribution and analytics tools out there in an effort to discern what is and isn’t working.


Here's How to Fix It

In light of everything I’ve stated thus far about the outsourcing issue, we’ve put together the following guidelines to keep in mind when choosing an agency partner in Japan. Whether you work with us or another firm, we urge you to thoroughly vet your vendors to ensure that you don’t fall victim to the outsource carousel described above…


1) Have You Met the Person Doing the Work?

The first thing you want to do before onboarding an agency is meet your publisher (the person who will be placing your ads). While a senior level account manager is an important bridge between you and the rest of the team, you also need to be able to gauge the skill level of the marketer behind the wheel. Admittedly, vetting this person will require that you possess some degree of technical understanding yourself. In the long run, the small investment of time that’s needed to acquire the requisite knowledge will pay many times over.


2) Has this Person Actually Done the Reps?

When you meet your publisher, the key thing you need to find out is whether or not this person has put in the work or not. Try to ascertain how nuanced their knowledge is. Are they merely glorified “Boost Post” button pushers or do they really know how to run integrated advertising campaigns? Are they up to date with the state of digital marketing such that they can confidently drive cost-effective conversions? Best practices in this industry are changing on a daily basis and anyone not constantly trying to push the limits of what is possible is woefully behind.


3) Are They Only Promising Impressions?

While it need not be as extreme as a pure revenue share model, is the agency willing to guarantee some sort of return on investment? Top of funnel branding is indeed extremely important but impressions and engagements alone aren’t going to pay the bills. Given all the options available now, any marketer who won’t commit to creating tangible results is simply either being duplicitous or isn’t up to snuff. After all, we do live in an age where the effectiveness of any marketing campaign can be measured if you know how.


4) Will All Your Budget Be Spent on Ads?

One thing that constantly upset me while working at my former agency was how opaque a lot other staff ran things. Frankly put, it often seemed like our customers were pitching ad spend into a black hole with no guarantee all of that budget would be actually spent. With all my clients, I was always more than happy to provide access to any ad accounts I worked on. Alas, others in the industry aren’t that open it seems. When selecting an agency in Japan, you need to be extra careful that a firm isn’t just delivering “good enough” results and then pocketing the rest of your ad budget.


5) Are the Marketers in Charge not Overloaded with Clients?

This might come as a surprise for many, but it's important to be aware of the approximate range of client accounts that the marketer in charge is currently managing. The reason for this is simple; the more accounts that's being managed, the less the person can use their time for your business, which will, 9 times out of 10, result in lower performance due to a shallow approach for the marketing strategy. We know many agencies have their marketers manage 40-50 accounts per person, which makes it close to impossible to prepare a remarkable strategy that will create a big positive impact for your business.


6) Is Some of the Staff Fluent in English?

This final bit of advice is one that we’ll likely catch some flack for. Still, we’re of the mind that you need to be able to understand at least some English to keep up with the pace at which digital marketing is evolving. Due to how the algorithms that power the various platforms work, new features are initially given a bit of extra oomph. Unfortunately, these bleeding edge practices can take several months or even years before they gain widespread adoption in Japan. By then, the algorithms have already evolved again and any first mover’s advantage is lost.


What to Do Next

In closing, while finding the right agency is never an easy task, the challenge is even more difficult in Japan. Not only do you need to navigate the language barrier but things are also just different here. Unless you really know the lay of the land, you can quickly find yourself partnered with the wrong company. As mentioned in 3 Steps to Marketing Planning Success, we founded AdVertize with the goal of raising the bar and bringing more transparency to the ad agency in Japan. By cutting out all of the fluff and focusing only on what works, we are able to offer our clients incredibly effective solutions at a fraction of the cost. If you want to learn more about AdVertize, consider checking out our in-depth article on Why Digital Marketing in Japan is Perfect for Global Brands and learn how to get the most of our your marketing in Japan.


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