Successful Hire of an Executive Creative Director for a Startup Team
BuzzFeed is a U.S.–based native advertising and content business that set up shop in Japan in 2015. They create original content and are well known in North America and Europe, receive 200 million unique visitors per month and reach most oftheir users through Facebook. While the “listicle” model had some traction, native advertising is still a relatively new concept in Japan, and BuzzFeed had almost no footprint here.
Modeling Without a Head
Like some startups entering Japan, BuzzFeed decided to go with the partnership model to establish credibility locally rather than hiring a country head. They chose Yahoo Japan because of the latter’s strong user base and connections with top advertisers and brands here.
Divergent messages and cultures can often bring conflict when following Japan’s more traditional approach to effectively penetrate the local market while still respecting the approach from HQ. To bridge the two corporate communities and generate momentum without a country head, BuzzFeed appointed Yahoo Japan’s Tomotaka (Tom) Mizukami to head up the joint venture. We’ve known Tom for quite some time, and worked with him as a hiring manager at Mediabrands, global ad agency McCann Ericsson’s digital arm. We were able to kick off a hiring project for him shortly afterward.
Challenges Right Out of the Gate
We faced several immediate challenges, some expected and others specific to BuzzFeed’s business model. Many candidates in Japan were skeptical about the latter, for example, despite BuzzFeed’s $300 million in Series E funding. Tom asked us to find one of their first hires—an executive creative director, who would be responsible for creating all of the digital assets for their content. The core task would be adapting and introducing BuzzFeed’s ad product to the Japanese market, but the CD also had to be a thought leader who determined how BuzzFeed’s creative solutions would successfully address the challenges that brands face in the Japanese market.
Swimming Through a Large Pool of Candidates
We identified roughly thirty people in our network who were bilingual and had worked in multinational advertising agencies and in-house creative teams. Our screening process focused on gauging culture fit, management experience, successful projects, and evaluating how they handled conflict and communication with overseas offices.
English fluency was crucial, because all interviews after Tom’s initial screening would be conducted with U.S.–based executives. Ultimately we had seven solid profiles to offer, and two entered the final interview round. Because the brand was so new to Japan, we spent significant time meeting candidates and selling them on the opportunity, since they often wanted to hear more about competitors and Buzzfeed’s expansion plans. Tom supported that, meeting candidates casually to answer specific concerns. In the end, one of our candidates won out.
Companies entering the Japanese market shouldn’t underestimate the hiring challenges here, where your key selling points might be different. In Buzzfeed’s case, we put emphasis on their joint venture with Yahoo, which gave them substantial credibility locally. Japanese candidates are typically risk-averse and very detail-oriented, so a partnership like this can be the difference between attracting or not attracting the best talent.
Since this was a JV, having somebody accountable like Tom was invaluable. He acted as a communication bridge and internal advisor about Japan hiring policy, structured the hiring process and ultimately played a lead role in bringing on the first few hires.