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The Tokyo agency that took on the world and won | #CompanySpotlight

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Global design-driven creative agency monopo is an independent creative agency born in Tokyo, with offices in London, New York and Saigon that helps brands be their most inspiring selves.

Their goal is to inject personality into digital design and bring graphic design into the digital aspect to help brands stand out.

To discover more about this more personality-focused creative mindset, we spoke to company co-founder and CEO, Yoshiyuki Sasaki.

How was your company born and where are you based?

Shun, who is the other co-founder of monopo, and I met at Waseda University in Tokyo. We both played the bass in the same music club with the ambition to become professional players one day. We, fortunately, were able to focus on our professional work during our university time, but it wasn’t long before realising we were not the best players, but instead, we were just good at promoting ourselves.

There were many high potential talents around us but they were not able to get a chance to play as professionals because of a lack of skill to promote themselves. That’s when we started supporting promotion and production for high potential musicians and artists. We made opportunities for them to work as freelance designers, developers, photographers, and videographers because we saw that many musicians also have the high skill-set to create something from scratch.

That’s our start-up story. I’m based in Tokyo now but expanding our offices globally whilst keeping the original passion to maximise the potential of hidden talents through Collective Creativity minds.

What was the biggest challenge to the growth of your company?

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To transform from a domestic company to a global community. Eight years ago, we only had Japanese members. In 2016, Tokyo was becoming a global city rapidly. Many people from abroad were visiting Japan including various creators. We saw their potential and realised that there was no global community for creators in Tokyo.

We got the first foreign member, Chace, who was my English teacher, and founded a new community called poweredby.tokyo, a creative initiative to tell Tokyo stories of an authentic culture through video, photography, and editorial with local communities. And since then, we’ve been fortunate enough to employ people from various backgrounds.

Which was the first huge success that you can remember?

In 2018, we founded monopo London as the first office abroad, established by Melanie and Mattijs who previously worked in the monopo Tokyo office. It was one of the biggest decisions for me because I had never been to London before so I had no knowledge or sense of the business start-up community. Once we launched it, monopo London grew rapidly, and organically with the same collective creativity.

What’s the biggest opportunity for you and your company in the next year?

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I have two plans for it and can’t rank one of them as the biggest. One is opening an office in a new city in Africa or East Asia. We are looking for a chance to take advantage of our creative community to enhance the growth of the economy from the start-up phase.

The second plan is to enrich our creative structure for tangible brands through design experiences. Our main domain is still digitally-driven but the boundaries between real and digital will be broken more and more in the future. I want to dramatically expand our creative field to real experiences.

Can you explain your team’s creative process? What makes it unique?

Our creative process is like a jam session. We embrace every unique personality and their idea to make a strong groove together. The idea comes from our clients’ side as well. No matter which position they are in, and what kind of experiences they have, we all open our stance to make the power of collective creativity.

At monopo, we are all beyond our expertise and domain of skill and position. Sometimes producers make ideas and designs, sometimes art directors work as producers. For example, two engineers at monopo Tokyo office won the Young Lions competition in Japan last year in the Media category. Challenging any boundaries by all members makes our process unique.

How does your team remain inspired and motivated?

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By keeping individuality and collaboration in mind. We use the word “groove” as a metaphor which inspires collaboration. In a jam session, the most important point is standing on the balance of harmony and keeping each component of individuals to make the team groove. Every day we are sharing a new idea as an individual to inspire each other but in a project, we all openly collaborate together to make a nice harmony.

How has COVID-19 affected your company?

I’m proud that the monopo team handled the crisis very well. Our working style was originally hybrid, between face-to-face and remote because we work with international clients not only between our branches but also with freelance collaborators from all over the world.

Having a collective creativity mindset works for team mobilisation. We are always looking for new talents from across the globe to collaborate remotely, so transforming our working style and adjusting to the covid-era was a smooth process. I learnt from this experience that our diverse culture is strong, even in a crisis.

Which agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?

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Not an agency but the company that I learned a lot from is Pixar. We developed monopo culture through taking a lot of inspirations from its book Creativity Inc. to maximise the power of collaboration.

From agencies, I’m learning the history of expansion from TBWA/ and Wieden Kennedy.   

What is one tip that you would give to other agencies looking to grow?

Differentiate yourself from other companies, not only by talent acquisition and portfolio, but by creating a unique reason why they want to work with you. Looking at not only employees, but also freelancers and collaborators, your community.

How do you go about finding new clients/business? (Pitching, work with retainers, etc.)

The way to find new opportunities is very organic at monopo. Most of them come through the website and introductions by friends in the community.

We have been trying to expand our community, not under a business context. For example, monopo night is a monthly party held mainly in our office to welcome any types of creative thinkers who drive the monopo community organically.

What’s your one big hope for the future of the industry?

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This industry was led by Western companies for a big part of its history. I hope more global companies are born from the East and would like to see a strong bridge between West and East to resolve the wider problems of the world through creativity.

Do you have any websites, books or resources that you would recommend?

Pixar’s Creativity Inc. book is one of my strongest recommendations, as mentioned.

I’d also suggest playing mahjong to get inspiration. In our industry, expertise is a fusion of strategy and inspiration. Every second, we encounter hard decision making. Mahjong can show you a lot about your character and personality and teach you how to make quick decisions in the bigger game called life.

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