Spend a little (Tokyo) time with me...

Lilli English, Head of Strategy at BBH London, on how adland can draw inspiration from Japanese culture’s special relationship with time.

I recently spent time in Japan. It’s funny how not understanding a thing makes you a lot more sensitive to how different cultures communicate differently. And it got me thinking - is there such a thing as a western approach to communicating ideas vs a Japanese approach? 

I started answering this question thanks to a brilliant documentary by Ryan Gander, ‘The Idea of Japan’. In it he investigates how Japanese culture’s special relationship with time influences the communication of ideas.

In the West, we seem to have a very binary relationship with time. The past and future are two different rooms, and we’re all stood in the corridor of ‘now’ wondering which way to face. 

We see this play out within the advertising community, as Paul Feldwick has highlighted in The Anatomy of a Humbug. “Rather than ignore history, or make up simple stories about it”, he argues “I believe the advertising industry could be both more respectful of its past and more critical of it”.

But what’s this got to do with Japan? Well, Feldwick’s view is actually very Japanese. Bear with me here.

Japanese society is intimately connected with the past in a way that makes it much less attached to it and therefore much more focussed on the now. For example, Geishas are reinvented as modern host boys, ancient and modern fuse on the street fashions of Harajuku and robots serve their masters with the deference of a traditional Samurai.1

It’s a far more organic, cyclical and respectful relationship with time - less absolute than the West’s, where progress relies more on definitively breaking away from what was or what is. The difference might look a little like this:


It’s an obvious lesson for us in the ad industry, and indeed in business, to not break so definitively from the past but use it to inform the future. As Les Binet and Peter Field only last month reminded us: “by ignoring the enduring effectiveness truths of the changing media landscape, businesses are undermining the tremendous potential of the new tools at the marketer’s disposal”.But I wonder whether there’s more to learn from rethinking our relationship with time.

One way to think about communications is as a call for people’s time. My attention is essentially my time. Could a more respectful, less ‘disruptive’ relationship with time change the way we go about getting people’s attention?

Think about the language we use to get people’s attention – it’s basically a warzone. We’re out to ‘disrupt’, ‘interrupt’, ‘cut-through’, ‘push’, ‘pull’ and ‘campaign’.

Jim Carroll has expressed a concern that these word choices will constrain our ability to attract modern talent who want different things from the world of work. I worry that it’ll constrain our ability to attract modern buyers who want different things from brands. They’re blocking us out, skipping past us, distrusting us. And we’re responding with ever more sophisticated ad tech ways to hit their eyeballs.

But what if we stopped seeing attention as an exercise in hitting eyeballs and thought of it instead as handling people’s time - precious seconds, minutes, hours that deserve some respect and care?

It forces us to scrutinise the quality of the work itself, of course. It also encourages us to think beyond advertising towards creating entertainment people actively choose to spend time with (our BBH LA office’s raison d'être).

But, critically, it also forces us to scrutinise the quality of the context we’re operating in. As brands stretch their way across an ever-expanding proliferation of channels, their ‘medium’ grows - taking up more of our space, and more of our time. ‘The medium is the message’ has never been more relevant.

Let’s embrace these new ways of reaching people but with their time in mind, not just their eyeballs. It’ll encourage us to more scrupulously question - and measure - the quality of the experience delivered by media. Content and context are one, after all.

It’ll also help us see a brands’ presence as a more harmonious and enduring whole in people’s lives, rather than a constant series of disruptions (back to my earlier scribble).

And that means embracing proper, idea-driven brand worlds again, where each and every moment of the customer journey, however ordinary or fleeting, is understood to contribute value beyond a blink. 

Gander starts his journey in Tokyo on the famous Scramble Crossing at Shibuya. “It looks like chaos,  confusion and mayhem, but underneath it all it’s all really harmonious...an order comes out of the chaos of it.”

It’s a helpful and optimistic analogy to end with. Because as chaotic and breakneck as things might feel, reframing the way we think about time can help us create our own daily order - by letting the past bring us confidence in the future and by turning this frantic, commoditised war for attention into a more harmonious, value-building fostering of people’s time.


1 Ryan Gander, ‘The Idea of Japan’.
2 IPA’s report, Media in Focus – Marketing effectiveness in the digital era, Les Binet and Peter Field, released 15 June 2017.

Last updated 21 January 2022