Interview: Steve Martin

This month we’re bringing you an interview with Steve Martin, one of the founders of the well known agency Eat Creative , who you’ve probably heard of if you’ve ever googled “Tokyo” and “Branding” together, and also Project Esin, a series of inspiring creative workshops.

Steve has 20 years experience living and working in Tokyo and shares some great insights into the local industry and the challenges of running your own agency. We hope you enjoy it!

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Steve Martin, I’m British and I’ve lived in Japan for 20 years. I’m a founder and director of Eat Creative, a branding and communication company based in Tokyo.

What did you do before you moved to Tokyo and what was it that made you want to live and work here?

Like many people I came to Japan because I was curious, never planning to spend more than a year or two here. One thing led to another and now it’s been 20 years… Prior to coming I was a production editor for a magazine called Screen Digest, helping them move from traditional layout to digital with an SE/30 and a very early copy of QuarkExpress!

After three years as an Art and Creative director at Paradigm you founded Eat Creative along with Alison Jambert and Ayako Chujo – tell us a little about what inspired the founding of Eat and some of the challenges you faced starting your own agency in Tokyo.

I wanted to publish a magazine, specifically a magazine on food culture, it was something I wanted to read and something that was not on the market. It wasn’t going to be recipes and restaurant reviews, rather a way to look at the science, the politics, the social and cultural side of food. And we did. We got some initial funding, set up the company and published our first issue in 2000.

Basically if you believe there is something interesting in everything, it’s then just a question of finding it and sharing it in the right way.

I’ve always been interested in storytelling, how to talk about something in a way that engages with people. I studied astrophysics as college and found it interesting that so many people assumed it was a subject they wouldn’t understand or wouldn’t be interested in – how could you communicate it in a way that would be fascinating for everyone? You can see how science journalism has changed over the last few decades, has become more populist and that’s a very good thing. Basically if you believe there is something interesting in everything, it’s then just a question of finding it and sharing it in the right way.

That’s what we wanted to do with Eat, as well as being a great magazine, it would be our research and development platform for great communication and storytelling and provide a showcase for potential clients as we built up that side of the business.

We worked with editors, writers and photographers from around the world. Each issue had a theme – ‘Rotten’, ‘Pig’, ‘Gender’ etc. and we approached each theme from the different cultural perspectives. The magazine was bilingual, which meant we had to think about how you tell the same story in different languages – you can’t just translate. We had to rethink layout, typography. A lot of stuff we hadn’t fully imagined when we started out.

We managed 16 issues and built up a small but loyal following around the world, but ultimately we couldn’t make it profitable and moved 100% on to client projects.

Starting up an agency in Tokyo in 2000 was hard. Luckily we had an established Japanese partner to endorse us. Naively, I think we thought there would be some excitement and support for a new agency trying new things – sadly not. So the first few years were quite difficult. Then when people realized we were still there and not going anywhere, we got more interest and work began to pick up.

At Eat you have a focus on localising international brands to Japan and helping Japanese brands reach out to global markets. In my experience this work can be very challenging due to the huge cultural differences both from consumer and organisational perspectives – what have you found to be some essential learnings that helped you become specialised in this area and overcome these challenges?

Yes, there are a lot of challenges. An ideal scenario with a client would be to consult, agree together what is needed and then produce. It’s remarkable how little many international companies really understand about Japan. An assumption that they can apply the same approach as the rest of Asia, and we’ve all seen how many big names have been burnt here. Our advice has always been that things take time and you need to invest for the long term.

The digitisation of everything over the last decade has meant that nothing is ever truly finished and it’s important to keep refining based on solid data.

We also stress taking a holistic approach to communication, especially with Japanese companies, where their approach tends to be very fragmented, departments are often siloed. It seems obvious, but you should be sending the same message through your different communication channels and they should reinforce each other. There also needs to be some kind of KPI in place. The digitisation of everything over the last decade has meant that nothing is ever truly finished and it’s important to keep refining based on solid data.

Another area where there are big differences is with the concept of ‘brand’ – while you could argue that Japanese consumers are some of the most sophisticated, brand-savvy people in the world, the Japanese corporate approach is somewhat different. A lot to talk about here, but basically, the western approach is that a brand defines the philosophy or DNA of a company and therefore dictates what you can and cannot do. In Japan ‘branding’ can be much more superficial. It’s about recognition (a logo and some key colors) and is ‘responsive’ to situations – adapted by different stakeholders subjectively and therefore diluted.

I should also say that Japan is a country of contradictions. Say it’s one thing and you’ll immediately find examples of it being the opposite. It’s something that always keeps you on your toes.

What do you value most about the skills and perspectives international creatives bring to your team and conversely, what have you found that Japanese staff bring that you couldn’t do without?

Let me approach this in a different way. Over the last few years we’ve downsized significantly (although we’ve never been very big) – from around 16 to 7. We’ve done this, because, as I mentioned earlier, we do a lot more consultancy work before we produce anything. When we understand the scope of the creative side we’ll put together a custom team to execute the project. Team members tend to come from a network of creative specialists, many of whom we’ve been working with for many years. They are people with tried and tested skills and attitudes that fit with the Eat way of working.

So we appreciate foreign creatives who understand Japan, yet can bring their own style and thinking to a project. With Japanese creatives, we tend to work with people who also have some international experience.

Eat Creative has been in business for 15 years this year, congratulations! What have been some of the major milestones of this journey for you and the team?

Well, Eat magazine was one. It gave us a reputation for being a little different. Designing and moving into our own space made us feel very grown up. The projects where clients have trusted us to do something different and we’ve delivered something special are always high-points: A magazine for Volkswagen, A four-day Swiss event in Roppongi Hills, Working with a brand like the Peninsula Hotel to set it up here etc. etc.

I think the 3/11 earthquake had a big effect on all of us here. Devastating for the country and all the individuals directly affected, but also for small businesses across the country, the recovery was very slow.

Setting up rep offices in Zurich and Hong Kong has proved to be very interesting – not because they’ve generated a pile of work, but because it allows us to discuss approaches to the Japanese market from the outside, see the influence of Japanese culture in other markets and help people make decisions before they arrive.

Many of our projects do focus on NPO and non-governmental issues. Back in 2006, we worked with ONE (Make Poverty History) and Bono in preparation for the Tokaido G8 Summit, We recently produced an event in Sendai for the UNISDR / Sasakawa awards for disaster prevention. We supported FIT for Clarity (Financial Industry in Tokyo) and TEDxTokyo for many years and are now running our own Esin project for creative thinking. Things like this, where your work has a direct impact are important to us.

How do you feel the design and branding industry has changed over the last 15 years in Tokyo and Japan?

I think in some ways it’s become more international, but not nearly as much as it should. I think the Lehman shock was a big wake-up call for many companies, who realized that they might need to start looking abroad to grow their business. I still think that, with a few honorable exceptions, the industry here is 5-10 years behind the West in its thinking. I don’t think Japan needs to follow there West, but I do think it needs to take some risks and become more confident internationally.

While there are notable agencies in Tokyo founded by international creatives, there aren’t many who work in the branding space. Do you feel there is something particular to Tokyo and Japan that makes it difficult for international creatives to work in this space compared, for instance, to advertising.

I think there are challenges and there are many reasons why. I often say we’re an agency based in Japan rather than a Japanese agency. I would like to think that any agency, wherever they are based, if they are creative enough, can be successful internationally. I think western English speaking brands go with agencies close to home. I think Japanese brands go with the big Japanese agencies, Dentsu / Hakuhodo etc. because it is low risk. The smaller Japanese agencies get their work most often from the bigger agencies, the smaller English speaking agencies are seen as useful for Japan and Asia, but growing beyond that can be challenging.

I’d like to focus now on your new venture, Esin, which was initially founded in 2004 and begun with Steve S. Baker from Tomato, and Alison Jambert from Eat. While the original idea came from a series of workshops run by Tomato, Esin has now taken on an identity of its own.

Could you tell our readers a little more about what Esin is and what you hope to achieve with the project?

The idea behind the original Tomato workshops was to create an environment where participants made a lot of work in an environment where they had permission to be creative, try new things and make mistakes. It was run by some very high-level creatives, but they were there to facilitate, push and critique. It was about you doing, not listening and taking notes. It was all about the process, rather than the end-result. Changing your thinking, breaking down the barrier you’d built for yourself. It was two weeks of hard work, but people came out of the end of it with a new confidence. Some people even changed their jobs, went off in completely new directions.

We live in a world where the barriers to creative tools are getting lower and lower, to the point where the only thing between you ending something great is your imagination

With Esin we’re working with many of the original Tomato team to apply that approach in today’s more digital world. I think there is even more of a need to boost creative thinking – whether you are a traditional ‘creative’ or involved in something completely different. We live in a world where the barriers to creative tools are getting lower and lower, to the point where the only thing between you ending something great is your imagination and yet it’s amazing how we stop ourselves from exploring new things, don’t think we’re good enough, can’t find the inspiration.

So basically Esin is there to give people a kick up the bum to get out there and do something amazing. We’re also looking at corporates too. We think it’s possible to give managers and executives the tools to think more creatively about the challenges they have in their companies and find more innovative solutions.

What drew you to Esin and what do you hope to gain from it professionally and personally?

I’ve known Steve Baker (Founder and original manager of Tomato) a long time and it’s something we kept coming back to. It’s something that’s needed, is missing at the moment and can make a difference. The aim, hopefully, is to create a sustainable business and ultimately a school. For me, to apply my experience, and that of others to something, that can hopefully make a difference is important.

You mention (on the Esin website) that Esin is a place to connect with your creativity and that creativity itself is at the heart of growth and innovation. It can’t be denied that design lead innovation is an important and growing force for change in the world. Universities and even creative agencies like IDEO, through IDEO U, are moving into this sector through a design research approach. How does Esin tap into this movement and how are you differentiating yourselves from more formal learning environments?

Yes, I think the work that IDEO is doing is very interesting and we see the move by various groups and organizations into this area as very positive and complimentary. I’m not sure we are consciously tapping into a ‘movement’ – we are what we are. I think what makes Esin a little different is that we are focused on stimulating thinking and exploration in our participants. When we start one of our public workshops, we don’t know how it is going to unfold. We provide participants with tools, approaches, tasks, and push them to do more and more. It’s that journey, that environment that builds confidence in people.

With our corporate workshops we start with this and then have the participants apply this thinking to challenges they have in their companies. It’s very much up to them to find solutions with us constantly questioning and pushing back.

So a little plug for our upcoming events:

We have three workshops coming up: Tokyo (at Makers’ Base) at the end of October, Sapporo (at ICC), first week of November and Hong Kong, the week after that. All workshops last 5 days and take place in English. Please join us. Full information on the website (

Alongside the workshops we’ve been running monthly Creative Lounge sessions at Makers’ Base in Meguro. We invite a top Japanese creative to come along and do a ‘Show and Tell’ with Toru Yoshikawa, one of our creative leaders. These events are in Japanese. The next one is on Friday October 23 and Toru will be talking to Kotoko Koya, who represents Neville Brody and D&AD in Japan. You can sign up on the website and get more details here.

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us and our readers. I would like to finish up with a question that I know many of our readers would be very interested in hearing your perspective on.

You must see a lot of folios and resumes come across your desk from creatives looking to work in Tokyo. What are some of the qualities that stand out to you and do you have any advice for creatives who aspire to work in Japan?

Yes, we get a few every day, mainly from overseas, mainly young designers wanting to get experience in Japan and 99% we say no to. I think the thing to remember is that as a person with limited experience, without Japanese language ability or cultural understanding, you will require a lot of ‘baby-sitting’ to get you up to speed and that’s a big investment from us. The question you should be asking yourself and telling me is how you are going to make Eat a better place in the first month you are with us. If you can convince us you are worth the investment, then we’ll certainly talk to you. It’s a bit harsh, but a reality.

If the upcoming Esin workshops have caught your attention then we’ve got some good news for you. The team at Project Esin are offering a generous discount to anybody who joins through TGD for any of their three upcoming Autumn workshops!

All you have to do is go the the Project Esin website and when you sign up put “Tokyo Graphic Designers” into the notes field. Then you’ll receive an email with more details about the workshop and payment details. Easy!

Places are limited and while you can register up until the event, you must sign up before the cutoff dates below to get the discounts, so be quick!

The upcoming dates are:

Tokyo: Makers’ Base
19 to 23 October: ¥120,000 (Normal rate: ¥150,000)
Discount cut-off: Tuesday 13th Oct.
Sapporo: ICC
26 October to 6 November: ¥96,000 (Normal rate: ¥120,000)
Discount cut-off: Monday 19th Oct.)
Hong Kong: MakerHive Kennedy Town:
11 to 15 November: HK$6,000 (Normal rate: $7,500)
Discount cut-off: Friday 30th Oct.
Tim O'Hanlon

Tim is an Australian born Communication Designer with passion for applying design and strategic thinking to all of his work. Tim moved to Tokyo in 2014 and has been working as a freelance designer since. In his spare time Tim loves to travel around Japan hiking, cycling, eating and snowboarding.

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