A Dedicated Storytelling Organization: Advertising Talk in Japan

By Moeran, Brian | Human Organization, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

A Dedicated Storytelling Organization: Advertising Talk in Japan


Moeran, Brian, Human Organization


This paper looks at different kinds of stories told in a Japanese advertising agency and argues that, like organizations in other creative industries, an advertising agency may be seen as a dedicated storytelling organization. Based on long-term anthropological fieldwork, it makes use of three indigenous classifications-tales of the past, tales of the now, and tales of repetition-to see to what extent a non-western organization confirms, contradicts, or adds to previous analyses of storytelling organizations. Findings suggest that storytelling in a Japanese advertising agency generally conforms to what is already known, but that in certain cultural specifics connected with strategic positioning, management, employment relations, and other Japanese corporate practices, it is rather different.

Key words: storytelling organization, advertising agency, creative industries, Japan

It is now generally accepted that narrative and storytelling provide researchers with a useful entry into a general understanding of organizational cultures (Martin et al. 1983), management philosophies (Wilkins 1979), problem solving (Mitroff and Kilmann 1975), politics (Mumby 1987), sense-making (Boje 1991), strategies (Barry and Elmes 1997), and all the other structuring processes taking place in organizations by means of talk (Boden 1994).

Three concerns underlie this essay. The first is that most social science of storytelling published in English has focused on European and American organizations. As a result, academic theorizing may have overlooked different ways of practicing and thinking about narrative, talk, and storytelling, and there may be different emphases in organizational stories in nonwestern environments. It is for this reason that I present this case study and analysis of storytelling in a Japanese organization.

A second concern is that most scholars analyze storytelling in organizations that are not founded on storytelling. In other words, what are referred to as "storytelling organizations" (Boje 1991) do not-with the exception of Disney discussed by David Boje (1995)-manufacture stories as an integral part of the business in which they are engaged. This essay takes up stories told in the advertising industry, where both products and consumers take on personalities, and ads themselves have story appeal (Ogilvy 1983:14, 18). An advertising agency is thus a special kind of storytelling organization, combining stories about itself and its relations with other organizations in the advertising industry, with stories constructed as an integral part of marketing products to consumers. It is, in short, a dedicated storytelling organization.

A third concern stems from my own position as researcher. In numerous previous writings (e.g., Moeran 1996, 2000, 2006), I have outlined the organizational structure of a Japanese advertising agency and noted the importance of particular relationships involving the distribution of accounts (i.e., sums of money put aside by advertisers) and the industry's three main players (agencies, clients, and media). Here I turn my attention to stories because I believe they provide further detailed insights into the organizational, political, and even psychological realities experienced by those working in an advertising agency in Japan (Gabriel 2000:43).

Doing Research in a Japanese Advertising Agency

The agency in which I first carried out research for a year in 1990, and to which I have paid frequent follow-up visits over the past 15 years, is now very large-partly because of continuing increased turnover and partly because of a strategic merger with another mid-ranking agency in the mid-199Os. It is particularly well known for its pioneering work in televising animated cartoons-work which has taken it from its humble beginnings more than 40 years ago to being ranked as Japan's third largest advertising agency today. In 1990, it boasted a payroll of just under 1,000 employees, the large proportion of whom worked in several different buildings located at the lower end of Tokyo's Ginza area, although a few dozen were employed in branch offices in several other Japanese cities, and a further handful posted overseas in East and Southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States (Moeran 1996). …

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