All too often, crisis proves to be the only catalyst for change. Last year, at around the same time that Dentsu’s role in the suicide of an employee came to light, the Japanese government publicly acknowledged in a white paper that overwork in the country had reached dangerous levels.
The report, which covered a wide range of industries but only managed to draw responses from 1,700 of the 10,000 companies it tried to survey, found working 80 hours of overtime in a month to be standard at nearly a quarter of firms. That marks the official level at which death from overwork becomes a serious threat.
IT was shown to be the sector with the worst ‘pressure cooker’ conditions. But most who work in advertising would accept that the industry has serious problems of its own, and some—by no means all—companies are at last moving to tackle them. Campaign has maintained that the issue of overwork is an industry-wide problem rather than a Dentsu-specific one, and indeed has listened to accounts from sources at various agencies, domestic and foreign, that demonstrate unreasonable demands on staff, incompetent management and abuses of power.
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Understandably however, many expect Dentsu to lead the way. In other areas of innovation in Japanese advertising, it is common for Dentsu to take the first step and for others to follow. However, in trying to build a ‘new Dentsu’ geared around efficiency and employee-friendliness, the company admits that it does not have all the answers. As part of the Japan Advertising Industry Association, Dentsu is working with several other bodies including the Japan Advertisers Association, the Japan Advertising Contents Production Association, and the Japan Advertising Production Association to formulate guidelines for a new style of working in Japan.
In simple terms, Dentsu’s company-wide surveys have shown inefficiency to be the main cause of overwork and malaise. The absence of supporting structure—people to listen to concerns and take action—and a disregard for overtime regulations, has compounded employee stress. By 2019, the company aims to essentially eliminate overtime and cut its annual working hours to 1,800 per employee, from 2,252 in 2014 while investing more resources in staff support and wellbeing.
Achieving that while maintaining the current level of output is no easy task, and it’s very much a work in progress. Dentsu has made much of turning its lights off between 10 pm and 7 am. But the goal is for staff to be able to complete their work within regular office hours. Dentsu’s spokesperson, Shusaku Kannan, says the maximum overtime allowance is now capped at 45 hours per month, with each employee’s working time logged in a central dashboard. If a task proves unmanageable within the timeframe, “we split the work between others immediately,” he says.
Sharing the workload between more staff is one strategy, and Dentsu says it has taken on 1.5 times the number of new people that it did in 2016. But a glance at the existing system reveals blocks of time that could be put to better use. Simply put, when people are resigned to a long day in the office, they waste time.
Kannan says it’s proved possible to cut meetings that would typically drag on for two hours, to 45 minutes by making them more focused. He adds that it’s been possible to streamline work by eradicating duplication, such as unnecessary checking procedures, which previously abounded. Dentsu has also set up 20 satellite offices near its clients’ offices to avoid unnecessary travel to and from Dentsu headquarters.
Technology is also helping. The introduction of a cloud-based system means that clients, production companies and creatives can—in theory at least—interact on the same platform. And an automated system of ‘robots’ is helping to absorb previously manual procedures such as drawing up routine documents and entering data into spreadsheets, processes Kannan says could easily take up three hours of a human staff member’s time. They also play a role in campaign planning. The ‘robots’—while having no physical form—are apparently registered as employees.
“We are trying to figure out how to do it and experimenting with a flexible working style. Most who try it really appreciate it.”
—Shusaku Kannan, Dentsu spokesperson
Then there is the question of balance. (Human) employees are now obliged to take at least five days’ paid holiday every six months. That may not sound a lot, but it’s an important step forward in a culture where people tend to feel guilty for taking time off. But the company doesn’t yet have a system in place that enables people to work from home. “We are trying to figure out how to do it and experimenting with a flexible working style,” Kannan says. “Most who try it really appreciate it.” Flexibility will be especially important for creatives, who Kannan acknowledges benefit from working to their own schedule and may well not want to simply ‘switch off’ at 10pm.
Of course, progress also depends heavily on client willingness to reform. Kannan says guidelines issued by industry bodies on how to deal with agencies are helping to change mindsets and raise efficiency on the advertiser side. But it’s likely to take time. Something Dentsu can exert more control over is the behaviour of managers. It has introduced training programs to instill “more knowledge on how to manage”—a skills gap that the industry as a whole is notorious for. As of yet, however, it is not clear whether manager performance will be linked to remuneration.
Kannan says Dentsu has also introduced a network of internal and external counselors, making it easier for employees to raise complaints and, ostensibly, for the company to monitor leadership and stamp out power harassment.
There is still a long way to go, but Dentsu cannot afford another work-related crisis. Should one occur, given the magnitude of the recent case, it would be extremely difficult for the company to recover its credibility. But there is a further, more positive motivation.
“The most important thing about these new rules is the good health of employees,” Kannan says, noting that employee wellbeing (not to mention increased efficiency) ultimately leads to better quality of work.
Upcoming articles in this series will look into ADK's handling of the overwork issue, as well as how one multinational, Publicis, is managing the issue within Japan. This article first appeared in Campaign Asia.