TBWA Hakuhodo was hard at work in Tokyo the day after the shattering earthquake and tsunami last March.
With intermittent electricity and violent aftershocks disrupting the office, teams brainstormed ways that clients could help survivors. On edge amid fears of a nuclear-reactor meltdown, staffers would jump from their desk when the temblors got bad and grab emergency kits with flashlights, bottled water and walkie-talkies.
It was a critical time for the agency, TBWA Hakuhodo President-CEO Ichiro Zama said. "We don't have any product, we have to serve our clients with our ideas. The earthquake was Friday. They went to clients on Monday to propose the ideas and communications they could [carry out] during this difficult time."
The agency's chief operating officer, Luis DeAnda recalled, "We said, let's get people into the office. It wasn't a mandate but it was everybody's will, we knew there were opportunities for us to help the situation."
TBWA Hakuhodo's quick, sharp reaction helped the 5-year-old agency achieve 9% growth in a year when many marketers in Japan were slashing budgets. In addition to assignments for global clients like Nissan, Procter & Gamble, Adidas and Apple, the agency added four accounts, including Ikea.
According to clients, what makes TBWA Hakuhodo a valuable marketing partner is its unusual blend of East and West: an international outlook and resources combined with deep local knowledge. Business is about 70% international and 30% local.
"As a foreign agency, you really can't make any dent in the Japanese market unless you have the media clout of Hakuhodo or Dentsu," said Keith Smith, TBWA president-international, reflecting on the joint-venture with Hakuhodo that created the TBWA network's only agency in Japan. Hakuhodo is Japan's No. 2 agency, after Dentsu.
"But we didn't see it as a defensive posture," he said. "We saw it as an opportunity because there's a lot of great creative talent coming out of Japan and a lot of great creative talent at TBWA and we thought marrying the two would be a very interesting combination and that 's proved to be the case."
In a profoundly sad year for the country, TBWA Hakuhodo created memorable and effective work based on the agency's motto, "Think Happy."
With P&G, it developed Ariel detergent's "Cheers for You" program to provide clean laundry to earthquake survivors living in shelters. Their laundry was collected, washed in a nearby area that had water and electricity to run washing machines, and delivered back to shelters a few days later. Locals were hired to staff the effort to help boost the area's economy, including female workers since Japanese women might be embarrassed to hand over dirty underclothes to a male stranger. Retailers pledged donations as word of the program spread, and sales of Ariel more than doubled.
"Having the ability to create a strong message that can travel (across various platforms and media) is really critical to us to further build our communication capabilities," said Yukiko Tsujimoto, director of external relations for P&G Japan. "TBWA Hakuhodo has a strong ability in that area that I think is really, really helpful."
The agency also put an upbeat spin on broad energy-saving measures as Japan struggled through post-quake power shortages.
Adidas launched a line of ClimaCool apparel just as the government urged white collar workers to dress more casually in offices that suddenly had little or no air conditioning. TBWA Hakuhodo's marketing campaign offered discounts matching the day's temperature, and when the mercury reached 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), the website played a cheerful animated movie titled "Happy Hot Summer."
"People were getting excited and cheering, even around our own office, 'C'mon, it's only 33 (92 degrees F)!'...And we had no AC and it was sweltering," said Dave Thomas, VP-marketing for Adidas Japan.
"It was a quick reaction, the government was pushing cool biz (cool business attire) and we jumped on that ," Mr. Thomas said, adding that ClimaCool sales rose 32%. "Let's own the temperature and when it hits 35 degrees, let's everyone celebrate."
Other work for Adidas included the "Kutsukasu" (Japanese for "shoe rental") effort for AdiZero running shoes. Consumers could try out a pair for several days and return them if they weren't satisfied. All 2,100 pairs of shoes offered were instantly rented, and most decided to keep them.
Mr. Thomas, who had been hesitant about the idea, said the program increased market share and led to a 17% jump in sales over the previous year. Adidas is now talking about doing the program two or three times a year.
TBWA Hakuhodo also helped revive flagging interest among young Japanese in Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants baseball team, which has a licensing agreement with Adidas. The agency created a "Digital Tryout" iPhone app that let fans measure their skills in pitching, batting, running and catching. Top performers met the team and competed against real players using the app.
"It was a low-cost, high return, neat idea," Mr. Thomas said. "It was one of our first attempts at an interactive app, it's an area we've been a little slow in...this was quick, simple and fun. It got addictive."
The app reached No. 1 in the sports category, and sales of Adidas baseball gear went up 200%.
TBWA Hakuhodo now handles planning and strategic work for Adidas, as well as doing creative.
"They have given us better results by managing initiatives and categories end-to-end," Mr. Thomas said. "Sometimes we can get a little stuck in the mud and so I've given them the mandate to push us. The client isn't always right."
Other 2011 work included shifting Nissan to a more digitally-focused marketing strategy, and launching the iPad2 and iPhone4 in gadget-obsessed Japan.
The TBWA and Hakuhodo cultures continue integrating, with the staff growing to 366 from 315 last year. The agency's two-floor office is in a historic amusement complex in downtown Tokyo, where rumblings of bowling balls can be heard from the lanes one floor up. This year, the fast-growing agency will also take over the first floor, once an infamous discotheque called Juliana's where normally demure Tokyo office ladies went to bump and grind.