Ross Rowbury’s long sojourn in Japan started back in the 1980’s. After graduating from Australian National University, where he studied Japanese and Economics, he landed his first job in Japan’s banking industry.
He spent over a decade there before going into the PR field, first as managing director in the Tokyo office of Swedish firm Gavin Anderson and later with Japan’s largest independent PR agency, PRAP.
In 2009, Rowbury was tapped to head Edelman Japan, where he still serves today as President & CEO.
In his time living in Japan, Rowbury has seen a lot. Having arrived before the bubble and then witnessing the effects after it burst and the country’s “lost decade”, Rowbury has an expansive perspective of life on the ground in Japan
Branding in Asia recently caught up with Rowbury to talk about his life in Japan, how Edelman is helping more Japanese brands become global players and his favorite work from two decades of PR.
What’s been keeping you busy lately?
Many Japanese companies are now globalizing their brands and we have been assisting them in both strategy and implementations.
Japanese culture is highly structured in terms of etiquette and “face”. How does that manifest in the approach to PR?
I don’t think there is any direct impact in the approach to PR. There is definitely an impact in messaging and articulation as the etiquette and face aspects of the society are clearly reflected in the Japanese language.
How has being non-Japanese affected your PR career in Japan? Any advantages or disadvantages as a strategist?
Up until about 5 years ago, the inability to speak Japanese would have been a major disadvantage. However, recently many Japanese clients are quite willing to conduct meetings in English, as long as the person has something valuable to say.
Japanese consumers are very demanding. Just translating a program into Japanese will not bring success.
I think being able to understand both the context of Japan and of outside Japan has been a very valuable advantage. Particularly now as more companies are globalizing their brands.
Where do you think Japanese brands could do better in their PR strategies?
Much PR tends to be focused on the traditional media and at the tactical level. I believe there are a lot of opportunities for Japanese brands to elevate their PR thinking to a more strategic relationship with marketing for better impact. Looking beyond the press release and experimenting with a multi-channel approach would also benefit many brands.
How about foreign brands vying for Japanese consumers?
There are many successful foreign brands in Japan. I think the key success drivers are understanding the unique aspects of the Japanese consumer, tailoring the campaign and message so it is relevant for Japan and persistence and patience. Japanese consumers are very demanding. Just translating a program into Japanese will not bring success.
Can you share with us some work you’ve done over the years that you are most proud of?
The launch of Peach, Japan’s most successful low-cost carrier airline. We were involved right from the beginning and it is a brand that was built from zero using only PR.
Another is the amplification of Paul Allen’s discovery of the sunken battleship Musashi in the sea of the Philippines. It was such an epic story and the emotions around the discovery from people who survived the sinking or helped build the ship were both deep and inspiring.
What do you love most about your life in Japan?
What is there not to love about Japan? I guess the thing I love the most is the surprise and new learning that this country manages to deliver on almost a daily basis. It is inspiring and means life here is never boring.