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Creative Agency Collaboration of the Year: Dentsu Inc. & East Japan Railway Company

Dentsu Inc. wins ‘Collaborative Award’ for D&AD Awards 2020

The D&AD Collaborative Award celebrates brave, innovative, and long-lasting collaborations between agencies and clients alike. This year, the award recognises Dentsu’s collaboration with East Japan Railway Company on the campaign, ‘Get Back, Tohoku’.

It is an ongoing, nine-year campaign developed for the East Japan Railway Company after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s Tohoku region. Launched in the wake of tragedy, it required close client-agency collaboration and a relationship of trust to make daring decisions in unprecedented circumstances. Presenting trains as heroic figures that unite people and communities, it has lifted the spirits of a suffering nation and contributed to the recovery of the railway and the entire Tohoku region. Here, we spoke with Yoshihiro Yagi, Creative Director at Dentsu Inc., on this collaboration.

When did the collaboration with East Japan Railway Company begin, and can you tell us about your first project?

I first joined the team as Art Director in 2010, a year before the Great East Japan Earthquake, and worked on a launch campaign called ‘MY FIRST AOMORI’ for Shin-Aomori Station, a new terminal for the bullet train. The brief was to enhance tourism to Aomori, located in the northernmost part of Japan’s main island. Our work were the results of thinking about the fastest and newest bullet train as a product, how to portray the hearts of travelers who took the train, and how to involve the people of Aomori. I witnessed how a new bullet train station was built in a place where depopulation was a problem, how a town developed around it and people came together, and how East Japan Railway Company (JR East) helped local areas thrive. It was also an educational experience for me, to learn about the dynamics of a social infrastructure business based on railways.

2010: ‘MY FIRST AOMORI’ Posters

Dentsu’s relationship with JR East goes back a long way, and it was always the creative stars that got to work on the account and produced brilliant work. I was aware of this client’s work when I was still a student, and one of their campaigns called ‘Traing’ even inspired me to take the Trans-Siberian Railway from Vladivostok to Moscow. When you travel by rail and physically feel the time and distance, it also helps bring back your humanity. I always felt railways carried more than people or goods. They also carried emotional values, and I think this sort of guided me to join the advertising industry.

How have the briefs developed over time? How would you describe your work and creative process?

Right after the ‘MY FIRST AOMORI’ tourism campaign, the earthquake and tsunami hit the area on March 11, 2011. The ‘Get Back, Tohoku.’ campaign was launched to promote tourism to the Tohoku area, which includes Aomori, and support its recovery from the devastating impact of the earthquake and tsunami. JR East Japan business is to build the social infrastructure that covers the Tohoku area, and recovery from the disaster was its sole mission. 

From that time, our agency stopped receiving briefs, and both the agency and the client started presenting a vast range of ideas to each other. Tokyo was also in a power-saving mode, and everyone was thinking how we could each contribute, and this naturally led to us sitting on the same side of the table. We all agreed that in order to attract attention of the wider society and help support the area, we needed to invite people to come, and came up with the concept of ‘The best way to support recovery is to actually go there’, which eventually transformed into the copy, ‘Let’s meet by rail. It’s better than mail.’ So, to ‘get back’ the people, the colour, the energy, to the towns, we started the campaign with the copy ‘Get Back, Tohoku’. The posters were coloured with the symbolic colours of the new bullet train that connected Tohoku and Tokyo, as if they were all flags raised in hope of recovery.

2011 Get Back, Tohoku. “The Restoration Flag” Posters

We started out by communicating how the railway infrastructure had been restored, and how it connects people. Then, in accordance with the actual local progress, we showed the Tohoku landscape on its gradual road to recovery, and the true value of train travel. Throughout the ‘Get Back, Tohoku.’ campaign, we brought out the goodness of Tohoku that even the Tohoku people didn’t acknowledge. We reinforced the role of the railway physically connecting big cities and local regions, aiming to increase population exchange and rejuvenating the Tohoku region. 

After the earthquake, a lot of companies launched so-called ‘recovery campaigns’, but most of them concluded after a year. JR East has watched the region closely and has determined what should be done in each phase. As a result, the campaign is now in its tenth year. I strongly feel that it is also the fruit of each small endeavor with our earnest client, sometimes involving heated discussions.

2013: Get Back, Tohoku. “Let’s meet by rail. It’s better than mail.” Posters
2013: Get Back, Tohoku. “Let’s meet by rail. It’s better than mail.” Posters

What are you most proud of about your work with East Japan Railway Company?

One of the objectives of this campaign was to appeal to a wider audience, not just to a small group of trainspotters, and change their mindset towards the Tohoku region. In the past five years, we’ve been focusing on local trains. When I visited the train maintenance facility and chatted with the mechanics, I found that they had nicknames for different trains. For example, an old orange-coloured train was called ‘Cod Roe’, and a red train with a graphic face was called ‘Red Demon’. The mechanics talked about the trains and their features as if they were their children.

The railway services that are crucial to the daily lives of Tohoku people run 365 days a year, rain or snow, on time, under strict safety regulations. We worked on a challenge to show these trains as content. If a local, daily train transforms into art that touches people, it will lead to richer experiences for both dwellers and visitors. 

We learned that there is gold in our most mundane subjects like local trains, but you won’t be able to find it unless you search slowly and carefully. Your trip doesn’t have to be getting first class seats and drinking champagne. If you find something in Tohoku that is unique to your point of view, then it makes that trip special, and it leads to the true value of travel. The local trains made us realise how beautiful Tohoku’s nature was throughout the year. I hoped that it would inspire local people to see their everyday landscape in a new and different way, and bring back their pride for the region.

(Left) 2014: Get Back, Tohoku. “Train as Heroes” Poster - Red Demon. (Right) 2016: Get Back, Tohoku “Slow Train, Slow Life.” Poster - Cod Roe

I think I was lucky to work on this campaign with JR East during this specific period when social media emerged. The campaign itself is in the most traditional form of posters, launched regularly, but at the same time we could see the audience’s response online, and the campaign would evolve like it was a conversation with the audience. 

As stations were the media space for the campaign, it changed my way of thinking about poster designs and visual designs. Flowers, for example, are designed to attract birds and insects for their survival, but they also have positive effects on people who see them as they pass by. I stepped back and saw my work on a larger scale. Instead of trying to design a poster, I decided to design a flower that would bloom in this public space, which also motivated me to try harder.

2016: Get Back, Tohoku. “Graphic Design Made by Nature” Posters

What's the secret to a lasting partnership?

Winning the D&AD Collaborative Award may lead you to think you have this ideal partnership between the client and the agency. But it’s not like we’re best friends. You have people working together who all want to create good value, so oftentimes you have to collide, and deal with resentfulness, remorse, and other bitter emotions.

You wonder why you have to go through all this, and you remember that you’re working for this one and only brand. Both the client and the agency are serving the same purpose. When you can see that each member of the team with different roles is working so hard for it, you understand how you are all comrades regardless of disagreements. It’s almost a miracle that the brand is running for so long beyond this long and winding railroad.

For four gruelling weeks this year, 260 judges across eight time zones convened in 80 judging sessions to review 20,000 pieces of work and awarded 500 Pencils. Explore the D&AD Awards 2020 Pencil winners.

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