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Yasuharu Sasaki Is Looking Forward To “Diverse Displays of Creativity”
Advertising Agency
Tokyo, Japan
As Dentsu Inc.’s chief creative officer leads the Brand Experience & Activation category at Cannes Lions this year, he speaks to LBB’s Nisna Mahtani about living in digital spaces

“It is not enough to just use a digital platform. It is not enough just to voice a social purpose. If the relationship between brands, people, and society does not evolve, and if it is just a buzzword, it will be forgotten six months from now.”

Yasuharu Sasaki, chief creative officer at Dentsu Inc is travelling out of Japan for the first time since the pandemic to preside as jury president for the Brand Experience & Activation Cannes Lions category. He’s keen to see work that transcends categories and celebrates “new connections between brands, society, and people.”

Sharing his thoughts on this year’s Cannes Lions festival ahead of winners being announced, Yasuharu speaks to LBB’s Nisna Mahtani.

LBB> How do you prepare for the Cannes Lions jury rooms?

Yasuharu> First of all, I may have forgotten how to fly since I’m travelling out of Japan for the first time in two and a half years.... I'll have to remind myself of that before I head to Cannes. Also, I need to make sure I can join conference calls from the plane!

As for the judging, I would like to clarify the criteria for the Brand Experience & Activation category with all the judges. Many great works these days win awards that transcend categories. There are cases that we should celebrate as humans regardless of category, and there are also complex cases that are difficult to evaluate because of the mixture of categories. That is why I would like all the judges to have a set of criteria that is unique to this Lion, so that we do not miss anything that is good, even if it is not famous. I can't reveal it here yet, but I have already shared some of the criteria with the judges. And I am sure that the criteria will evolve further as we go along.

LBB> What is it about Brand Experience & Activation really excites or interests you?

Yasuharu> We’ve seen a lot of evolution in various platforms due to digitalisation, as well as that of storefronts and distribution. This has enabled creativity previously demonstrated only in advertising communication to be demonstrated in a wide variety of areas. For example, we can change packaging designs and sell them in near real-time, we can have users enjoy digital experiences in combination with products purchased on the spot, or we can create a framework for users to join brands and participate in a social action... the possibilities for how creativity can contribute are endless. The Brand Experience & Activation category is a very interesting category because it is the place where we can enjoy the most diverse displays of creativity.

LBB> And what are the current big debates within the Brand Experience & Activation category - or more generally across the industry - that you expect to see coming through in the judging?

Yasuharu> Since the pandemic, many people are spending more time living in digital spaces. In terms of the evolution of platforms mentioned earlier, we are seeing more and more cases of metaverse and game spaces, which I believe will be a point of discussion. I don't think it is enough to use the metaverse space just because it’s the thing now and it’s attracting attention, based on the thinking of traditional media and measuring it with media impressions. I hope we can discuss its intrinsic value without being distracted by its novelty.

LBB> It’s the first in-person Cannes since the start of the pandemic, it’s a pivotal moment for an industry that’s been massively disrupted - how do you think that’s going to shape your thinking about your category in particular?

Yasuharu> The human race has experienced a pandemic, and irreversible changes are taking place. One is that the purpose of companies is being questioned, and it is becoming harder to accept the idea that only brands can gain profit. Under these social conditions, no matter how interesting an ad is, if it is not clear why the brand exists in society and how it can help people's way of life, people will drift away from the brand.

The second change is on the user side. People who could not go outside are now deeply immersed in the digital space and have gained a ‘digital self’ that is as big as their real selves. And the power of that ‘digital self’ is very strong. One person's small comment can reach the world, and a few core brand fans can join forces to move the brand and the world.

In this context, brand experience and activation is more than just creating interesting sales promotion ideas. It is about creating new connections between brands, society, and people, and having the brand and people work together towards a greater purpose. Ideas that bring benefit to both the brand and the people are required. This is one of the reasons why I am very much looking forward to this year's judging.

LBB> Are there any overarching trends that the winners in this category tend to have and is there anything specific you look out for?

Yasuharu> In this category, it is important to get people to take action, not just to provide information. In the past, we might have prepared experiences and activities that were easy to participate in and that became topics of conversation, and then asked people to participate according to the scenarios we had prepared for them. I feel that the way to make users participate and take action is changing.

Specifically, I feel that the trend is to provide room for involvement and open space for users to participate. Rather than having users participate in a one-way experience prepared by the brand, it is important to leave room for users to interpret the experience in their own way, to have users re-communicate their ideas, and to have users act in their own way.

Speed is also important. In traditional advertising, it was normal to design everything in detail to perfection before launching an experience. However, nowadays we should strategically take advantage of the current trends and release the product with priority on speed, even if it is still incomplete. I think it is becoming more important to work together with users to improve the level of perfection.

LBB> Can you tell us about a previous campaign that you resonated with and felt really hit the mark of having experience design, activation, immersive, retail and 360-degree engagement?

Yasuharu> I personally like Heineken's brand experience and activation over the past few years… it's a 360-degree, holistic view, embodying the role the brand should play in a variety of ways. From understanding the feelings of users during the pandemic, to helping bars in need, to providing entertainment, to market support measures, to utilising the metaverse, they are all connected to create a single brand purpose and brand personality. It is a great example that makes me very jealous. 

LBB> On the opposite side of things, are there any mistakes that can be easily avoided?

Yasuharu> Now that the scope of creativity has expanded, I believe that we must once again be careful that the means do not become the end. It is not enough to just use a digital platform. It is not enough just to voice a social purpose. If the relationship between brands, people, and society does not evolve, and if it is just a buzzword, it will be forgotten six months from now. For the sake of our creative industry, I think we must avoid this with a sense of self-discipline.

LBB> Do you have any predictions for campaigns that will do well this year, either in your category or outside of it?

Yasuharu> As of the time I am answering this, we are still in the preliminary voting process and have only seen some of the entries. I look forward to finding great work, other than work that is already well-known. These past couple of years, a lot has been about purpose. But this year, I hope to find great work that not only achieves purpose, but also coexists with the interests of brands and people, as society has suffered due to the pandemic.

LBB> Are there any topics or speakers that you’re eager to catch this year at the Cannes?

Yasuharu> Yes, this is a bit of a sales talk, but I would really like you to see Dentsu's seminar on Friday. We plan to connect artists remotely and have them perform in real time at the venue. This is not just a tech presentation. I am sure you will experience how important it is to increase the diversity of creators.

LBB> Outside of the jury room, what do you think will be the big talking points of this year will be?

Yasuharu> First, I would like to know what everyone around the world thinks about how to maximize team creativity in the remote era. Creatives have been deprived of the collaborative space of the office and the friends they can chat with every day. Things may be slowly getting back to normal, but the relationships are no longer what they used to be. On top of that, how can we enhance the creativity of the team? Actually, I think perhaps there are unique ways to enhance it because of this situation. I also want to discuss ideas on how can we make the industry more vibrant in the future? It would be nice to chat about such things with the people I meet at Cannes.

I would also like to discuss international issues. What can we do as a creative industry to deal with difficult international issues? This is something I would like to discuss specifically at Cannes, where the best creatives from around the world get together.

Work from Dentsu Inc.
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Tokyo Mobility Foundation