Q and A: Mike Sunda
Q&A: Mike Sunda – You Can’t Rush Altruism, and You Shouldn’t Expect to Profit From It
Lee Patten talks with the Strategy Lead at MullenLowe Group, Japan about “Creator Communities”, life in Japan, and more.
Mike Sunda is Strategy Lead at MullenLowe Group, Japan and the brains behind Tokyo 20XX – a cultural insights specialism that connects brands with Tokyo’s creator communities.
Before Mike Sunda joined MullenLowe Group, he wrote about Japanese culture for global publications including the BBC, Vice, and The Japan Times, often taking on subject matter long ignored by the domestic press in Japan.
Today, he’s bringing his cultural insights to MullenLowe’s clients as an expert in forging meaningful, sustainable and supportive collaborations with Japan’s creator communities and street cultures. He’s also coming to Ad Stars 2019 next month in South Korea, where he’ll explain how non-sponsor brands can leverage the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.
You’ve been in Japan for 11 years now, joining MullenLowe in Tokyo in 2015. Do you speak Japanese at work?
It hasn’t quite been a full decade as I spent a few years back London completing a BA in Japanese, but I did indeed first move to Tokyo 11 years ago and have spent the vast majority of my adult life living here. On the plus side, that means I speak Japanese fluently (and have no excuse not to). On the downside, I’m probably still using London slang that died out in the late-2000s.
At MullenLowe, we have a remarkably diverse team for a relatively small office. The expectation is that all non-native Japanese-speaking hires have learned the language (or commit to learning), which is rare for an international agency and one of the main factors that shape our internal culture. It’s also a clear statement that although we might be part of a global network, we expect to be judged on our understanding of local sensibilities ultimately.
Our ‘official’ language in the office is Japanese, but English-language meetings and brainstormings are common. It’s a set-up that means there’s almost always going to be people contributing in their second language, on either side, but I’d say it’s worth it for the patience and empathy that it nurtures as a process.
You once wrote a piece for the BBC about the Shibaura abattoir and the Burakumin ‘untouchable’ class. When examining such a deeply ingrained story of prejudice and caste, was it easier to write from the outside as someone not brought up within Japanese society?
In a field like journalism, you have to acknowledge that while you might lack the same structural benefits (press clubs, for instance) that the domestic media have access to, you’re also afforded a lot of other privileges. The fact that I am an outsider means that I am not necessarily critiqued as harshly for reporting on what might be perceived as an ‘anti-nationalist’ topic.
Even if I am, I have support networks and opportunities outside of Japan, which local journalists might not, which makes my situation far less precarious. In that respect, I think that you can make the most of that privilege to broach taboo topics, and raise awareness where appropriate – in this case, for a group of people both marginalised within society but also rendered broadly voice-less within the domestic mediascape.
Does that transfer to your work now with MullenLowe? Does being from the outside give you insight you might not have had as a native?
Absolutely. I think the outsider perspective is always a useful one, just as people who have taught themselves a second language can often make better teachers than native speakers. You pick up on parts of the social, cultural, or even linguistic fabric that might go unnoticed if that’s all you know.
In the case of advertising, that doesn’t just apply to nationality. Especially in Japan, when salaried office work clearly represents the hegemony. We have native Japanese speakers from so-called ‘unconventional’ backgrounds – be it international education or diverse lifestyles and professions – who also have to grapple with being an outsider in a society that has historically not made it easy.
Does advertising have a responsibility to pay its way when it comes to using popular culture and creator communities to sell brands?
The reality is that the advertising industry piggybacks upon cultural and creator communities. If it didn’t, we’d never produce interesting or relevant work en masse. It’s only rarely that original work comes out of the industry that comes anywhere close to having the sort of cultural impact as what emerges organically outside of the industry.
This means there’s a responsibility to compensate the people who actually create culture, especially given that advertising struggles to embed diversity or reward maverick creativity in its own internal structures.
Long story short: put as much money back into culture as you’re able to do. Otherwise, you’re doing nothing to sustain creator communities, which increasingly struggle to monetize their work for reasons that go far beyond advertising.
A lot of neighborhoods in Tokyo will be impacted by the 2020 Olympics. How will this impact Tokyo’s creator communities?
I’m very interested in the work of cultural theorists like Michel de Certeau. He describes how a city’s inhabitants rewrite its supposed ‘rules’ through their movements.
At Tokyo 20XX, we produced a series of short-form documentary videos in 2017. The videos were made with a view to look at creator scenes through the specific lens of a neighborhood culture – in this case, Shibuya.
The interesting thing about an area like Shibuya is that it inherently possesses the power to inspire people, creatively. We spoke to dancers and skateboarders who talk about the desire not just for communal gathering spots, but also to be ‘seen’ by spectators in a dense, urban context that only a neighborhood like Shibuya can offer.
Likewise, musicians are attracted to the area not just because of its clubs and live venues, but because it has a natural energy that suits their creative process.
So will the Olympics impose on Shibuya’s creative energy?
The tension is that the Olympics is responsible for catalyzing so much infrastructural development, which upsets the organic growth of these scenes and communities. In the case of Shibuya, building over parks and implementing stricter policies towards street sports and nightlife is cultural gentrification – creator communities will be forced to make their hubs in other areas, but the fragmentation can hinder their growth and momentum in the short-term.
Given that the local Shibuya government publicly pushes a message of diversity and creativity, it needs to take care not to destabilize the very conditions that are necessary for those two things to thrive.
Do you think brands have the ability to change the world in a similar way to journalism by changing peoples’ perceptions and behaviors?
I hope so! It’s not as if journalists are necessarily trusted these days, so the challenges are similar – how do you build that trust with your audience? You can only do that if you’re consistent with your message and standpoint.
It’s why I’m impressed, not skeptical, when Nike champions Colin Kaepernick and Raheem Sterling, or Lush decides to tackle something as controversial as SpyCops – because it’s definitely not an easy win on paper.
For that same reason, it’s why I think most people don’t buy into Pepsi celebrating activism or Gillette promoting positive masculinity – because it’s not founded on a historically consistent approach. It screams self-serving exploitation, even if the people behind the campaigns have genuinely good intentions. You can’t rush altruism, and you definitely shouldn’t expect to profit from it.
Do you still get a chance to DJ? Which music scene is best – London or Tokyo?
I hardly DJ anymore, so I’ll answer the second part of that question from a listener’s perspective: I used to be more diplomatic about this, but now I’d just say that I lean towards London.
Tokyo’s music scene is stifled by a lack of diversity and the same structural issues as wider Japanese society – age hierarchies, gender imbalance, and being far too keen to celebrate visiting international artists while failing to nurture local talent. London’s scene might be capricious, but that means there are always chances for up-and-coming artists. Also, the clubs have bigger sub-woofers than in Tokyo…
You’re going to be giving a talk at Ad Stars 2019. Can you give us a sneak preview of what the talk is all about?
I’m going to start with a clip of Alex from Glastonbury, and I’ll end up by referencing Akira. Somewhere in the middle, there’ll be concrete tips for how non-sponsor brands can benefit from Tokyo 2020 via mutual growth opportunities from proximal cultural scenes and creator communities. But you’ll have to turn up to find out how that all fits together.
Mike Sunda will be at AD STARS 2019 from 22-24th August in Busan, South Korea. His talk is called, ‘Tokyo 20XX: The Olympic Opportunity for Non-Sponsor Brand Cultural Strategy.’
This article was originally published on Branding in Asia