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Bossing It: Ichiro Ota's Four Pillars of Leadership


Geometry Ogilvy Japan's CEO on having an action first spirit, putting yourself in the clients position and the key in transparency

Bossing It: Ichiro Ota's Four Pillars of Leadership

Ichiro leads Geometry Ogilvy Japan which was established in 2019 as a partnership between Geometry (now VMLY&R COMMERCE and The Ogilvy Group). He has more than 30 years of experience in the Japan advertising industry, both for domestic (six years) and international agencies (24 years) with multi-dimensional experience across categories (FMCG, Automotive, Sports brand, Alcohol, Telecom, etc.), as well as responsibilities (Account management, Integrated comms planning, Management board etc.).

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Ichiro> At seven years old I joined the famous KENDO club ‘Shiseikan Dojo’, a martial arts club where members study and practice the martial art Kendo, a traditional style of Japanese fencing. By the age of 12, I was the leader of the club with more than 200 members. It required very serious discipline, showing an uncompromised spirit for difficult training, and competition that reflected a tangible attitude of courtesy. It was the building ground for my current leadership style.

LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

Ichiro> Key words to describe my preferred leadership style: 'Be Humble. Be approachable. Be a Risk taker. Be stupid.' Being humble, approachable and a risk taker are all great leadership styles to have. Being stupid though isn’t something that you automatically think of when you describe a good leader. What I mean is being ‘strategically’ stupid – making sure you don’t present the idea that you’re smarter based solely on your leadership role. It’s a way of encouraging a more relaxed atmosphere where employees feel safe enough to express their feelings, no matter what they are.

In the most challenging and toughest situations though, I always want to be the front runner amongst my team, willing to face any problem headfirst.  I don’t like to be a backseat player, especially when there are challenges.

LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

Ichiro> As I’ve mentioned, I always look to learn and expand my leadership skills by putting myself in challenging positions; leading and guiding my team with tangible actions to combat the problems.

I have always had an ‘action first’ or ‘Just Do It’ spirit and that is key to growing leadership skills. You can’t just stay in a philosophical discussion or argument. You need to map out the required action steps and then lead with strong ownership, bringing clear results along with learnings for future evolution.

LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

Ichiro> Honestly, I didn’t want to take on my current CEO role. I considered myself a strong client business lead, not a general company management expert. Ultimately, I realised though that I could be the person to drive a company forward as a leader. I am a person who knows the local market, consumers, clients, and team members; a person who can make the right decision from both objective and strategic perspectives. I am also incredibly flexible and open to different opinions and points of view. So, I finally decided to take on this role, but with a very certain leadership style – one that is very hands on whether it is for client business or a specific project. I may be the CEO, but I’m also a team member here at the agency. 


LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Ichiro> I think more than 50% of leadership style comes from that natural part of your personality – the type of person that you are on a daily basis outside of work. For me, I want to be remembered for being caring and thoughtful; someone who sides with the weak to crush the strong.  But we can also ‘upgrade’ our leadership skills – make them more broad and wider ranging – through various learning opportunities, whether that be  training, coaching from mentors, other stakeholder relationships or similar.


LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

Ichiro> Japanese in general are not great at saying ‘No’ to the client, even when we feel the client's direction is not strategically right. So, one of the important requirements of leadership is putting ourselves in a partner position with the client – both professionally and strategically – so that our work together is productive on both sides. This requires solid thinking power for the brands and projects, and the ability to provide clear evidence as to why we’re moving a client in a particular direction, even if it’s not what they initially wanted.

LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Ichiro> I’ve definitely experienced several cases where I felt I have failed on the assignment. Who hasn’t? In most of those cases, it was because I couldn’t see the big picture for the project; I didn’t properly frame the entire process from the beginning against the project requirements, which then resulted in missing some important assessments during the project journey.

Nowadays though I have set the discipline for success – mapping out end-to-end the project journey, clarifying KPI/KGI, confirming the required capabilities and talents, assessing the timeline throughout each stage, and making sure to share that roadmap with the team and client to make the entire process crystal clear.

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Ichiro> I believe transparency is the key for building trust and reliability with both the team and client. But there are definitely cases where you need to be more careful and considered to help avoid unnecessary anxiety or frustration. It really is a balancing act.

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Ichiro> I had (and still have) several very inspirational mentors in agency life. I learned a lot from them about the importance of embracing creativity and diversity, technological innovations, and the importance of casual friendships, which provide a feeling of family.

As a mentor, I am passing on what I learned from my own mentors – being a casual partner, talking about my failure stories, being transparent and showing my weaknesses, providing an open and honest environment so that mentees can relax and feel free to talk about anything.

LBB> It's been a really challenging year - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?

Ichiro> It certainly has! I’ve found success in continuously organising virtual Townhall gatherings, highlighting our businesses’ progress, encouraging teams to support new and innovative ways of working, and remembering to celebrate successes – even the small ones.

LBB> This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?

Ichiro> We have unique company status in having welcomed 22 nationalities to the agency, creating a multicultural background with multidimensional points of view as our agency’s foundation. Beyond that though, we continue to organise internal trainings and workshops focusing on our DE&I agenda – a priority activity for us.


LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?

Ichiro> Culture is a key part of a company’s growth engine, bringing strong momentum and positivity. As I’ve mentioned, we’ve done a lot to connect with our people. ‘GO Journal’, our bi-weekly e-magazine, features our people as a way to introduce their personality beyond work. It also captures new campaign launches, new business wins, along with news from our VMLY&R COMMERCE, Ogilvy, and global WPP network as a way to supplement regular information sharing. In addition to that, we host a number of online events including our virtual Halloween party, year-end drinks and more.

LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

Ichiro> The people. Everyone has their own point of view and passion for the work regardless of seniority. When you’re open to listening to them, there’s a wealth of information at your fingertips.

* Geometry Ogilvy Japan was established in 2019 as a partnership between Geometry (now VMLY&R COMMERCE) and The Ogilvy Group

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Geometry Ogilvy Japan, Mon, 25 Apr 2022 08:20:50 GMT