Why The Ad Industry Must Embrace Kaizen Culture

In Japanese business culture, there is a concept called kaizen, which means continuous improvement.

Coming out of WWII, Japanese manufacturers needed to compete on the world stage again. Toyota famously applied kaizen in its Toyota Way. Managers could run a seemingly perfect factory, perfect production line or perfect sales record, but would have the discipline to reflect upon ways to improve by 5%.

This focus on incremental gains led the Japanese manufacturing industry to be associated with quality and reliability.

Contrast this with today’s business environment, which prizes rapid speed and scale, with disruptive companies exploding from conception to multibillion-dollar IPOs in a few years. In an age of shortened attention spans, the word "improvement" doesn’t really grab headlines.

There is nothing wrong with disrupting one’s industry. We need to, or we’ll eventually become extinct. Our industry is facing multiple competitive threats: from clients in-housing specialists to the large media partners bypassing agencies to the threat of newer entrants, such as consulting firms.



In such a dynamic environment with multiple unknown variables, we should always be looking to future proof our businesses and our industry.

However, even with the perfect pitch, the perfect ad creative, or the perfect campaign result, there is always a way to embrace kaizen and improve by 5%. It could be as simple as taking the time to personally reflect on what went right or wrong. Or asking each team member for one thing to improve the process for next time. Or (gasp) humbly asking a client what they really think of your work and what can be done to make it better.

This won’t come easily to an ad industry that celebrates individualism and big personality. After all, we have an industry-wide tendency to continually promote one’s achievements while brushing over and ignoring weaknesses. Further, in America (and my home country of Australia) the attitude of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” encourages complacency and the status quo.

This is a fallacy.

Encyclopedia Britannica had this attitude in the 1990s. Same with the automotive industry in the 2000s. I could go on…Borders, Blockbuster, et al. Is the advertising media industry traveling these same roads into 2020?

With the luxury of hindsight, one could argue that a disruptive mind-set is what was needed to save these companies from despair, not incremental improvement.

But it’s actually a kaizen culture that would have prevented these companies from becoming redundant. A kaizen culture continuously tests new innovations and allocates resources to successful enterprises. It prioritizes listening to customers and their needs/hopes/desires, over lecturing them on what companies think they need. A kaizen culture is disciplined in taking these insights to improve the innovations being tested.

For our industry to embrace kaizen and remain relevant in the future, we need to adopt an attitude of curiosity and eternal learning. For leaders, this means asking the right questions and challenging assumptions. It means deliberately putting oneself out there to be open to feedback. This takes humility and admitting that one is not perfect. These are traits that may not come naturally to industry leaders, but frankly, they don’t have a choice.

The days of the flashy presentation saving the day are numbered, an era of constant improvement through innovation is at hand. This is good for clients, for businesses and the talent that fuels our industry.

3 comments about "Why The Ad Industry Must Embrace Kaizen Culture".
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  1. John Grono from GAP Research, May 21, 2019 at 5:58 p.m.

    Good column Jeff.

    I could add NetScape, MySpace, Second Life to the list.

    No-one is exempt.

  2. Benny Radjasa from Armonix Digital, Inc., May 22, 2019 at 9:07 a.m.

    Sometime company just do fall from grace, we can't save them all, Hitachi & Toshiba comes to mind.

  3. Jeff Tan from Dentsu Aegis Network, USA replied, May 22, 2019 at 12:49 p.m.

    Yes, agree John! Kodak, Xerox, Nokia, Atari, Blackberry.'s too easy with hindsight to be an armchair critic!

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