Sven Palys, Director for international strategy of MullenLowe Tokyo
Earlier this year we read in the news that you have been hired as the director for international strategy of MullenLowe Tokyo. Congratulations, Sven! Could you tell me about your new job? What does it entail?
I am currently the international strategy director at the Japanese arm of the global advertising agency MullenLowe. What that actually means is that I oversee all the projects in Tokyo that involve bridging culture between Japan and the rest of the world. This can mean helping to find the right angle on how to talk about beauty in Japan for a foreign shampoo brand or helping a Japanese manufacturer find the right way to tell its story abroad. While the world is becoming more and more globally uniform, there is still considerable power in brands communicating not just in a foreign language but through local culture. It is only in that way that a brand can tug at the heartstrings of its consumers.
You only graduated in 2010, and I remember that you had plans to do a Master’s degree in Japan. So, your career has progressed rapidly, even though it was not perhaps what you had initially planned. Could you tell us about it?
I came to Japan shortly after the earthquake that shook Tohoku in 2011 to study for a Master’s degree at Tokyo University. Due to the immense cost of the disaster, scholarships were suddenly cut and I was no longer able to simply rely on the scholarship to keep afloat. Through the Cambridge Careers Website, I saw an opening at a research and strategy consultancy in Tokyo and applied immediately. I was offered a job a week later and kept pursuing my Master’s degree at the same time as working as a cultural researcher.
The company was going through a rough time as the world economy was focusing on the opportunities presented by growth in China. China seemed like a better place to put your bets on. It had just become the second largest economy – overtaking Japan – while Japan was grappling with the aftermath of the earthquake, rising national debt, shrinking population and a high yen. It just didn’t make sense for multinationals to spend their research budgets on Japan. The boutique consultancy was not doing well and within a year of joining the team shrank to just three employees.
I needed to choose to concentrate on either my degree or my job. I wasn’t really enjoying the experience of being at Tokyo University, and I was certain that my career path was going to lie in business. What I loved about my academic years was learning and coming up with theories of why social systems work the way they do, and working for a cultural research agency allowed me to do just that.
I decided to drop out of Tokyo University just six months before graduating to commit to my career. Difficult choices have a tendency to pay off and so, as the business picked up, I was able to grow with the company. In just three years I was an associate director leading large-scale research projects that led to some very successful results for my clients.
Through a mix of luck and making the right decisions along the way, I helped MullenLowe win a large account, which allowed me to move to them into a senior position.
But that is not to say that I have turned my back on academia, as it remains the only true space where you can deepen your understanding of a given subject without the distractions of business needs. As such, I am now also an adjunct professor at Keio University, teaching branding and market entry strategy to undergraduates, which allows me to marry practice with theory.
Apart from language and knowledge about Japan, could you tell us what else you learned at Cambridge that was useful for your career?
I found my time at Cambridge immensely valuable in so many different ways. Sure, learning the language helps but it was more than anything the opportunity to spend time with immensely intelligent people (from teaching faculty right through to fellow students) that helped shape the way I see Japan and find my personal view on how things work.
Studying at Cambridge is hard. You are inundated with more work than you have experienced before. It sometimes feels like your back will break under the load but believe me, that is a good thing. It teaches you how to prioritise, juggle, how to focus and how to structure. These skills are essential for anything you want to do in life and no ‘how to’ book can teach you.
But even beyond the classroom, Cambridge is a surprisingly good model of the real world. It’s a student ecosystem that echoes everything you experience in life afterwards, but in a more bitesize fashion. This can be the politics of the Cambridge Union, the journalism and business of the newspapers, the friendships, and also the animosities. It’s simply training for how to conduct your life thereafter. Throw yourself into it and see what comes of it.
Is there anything you would like to tell young people who are thinking of applying to enrol in Japanese Studies at Cambridge? Any advice you want to give to your kōhai?
Japanese Studies is not for the faint-hearted. You are doing a complete degree with an immensely challenging language on top. This means you have to commit wholeheartedly to the challenge ahead. Read around the subject. The faculty can provide excellent recommendations for what books to read (through it I discovered the incredible author Tanizaki Junichiro and also Mishima Yukio!). Learning Japanese before enrolling can give you an upper hand as a lot of the first year is spent on language acquisition. Certainly, getting the basics of the syllabic writing system out of the way before arriving helps!
A degree in Japanese Studies doesn’t have to end up with a career in Japan. Actually, many of my fellow students did not make Japan their home. As the degree is wonderfully broad (Literature, Politics, History, Sociology etc.), the degree allows you to discover yourself over the span of the four years.
Being one of the smallest degree programmes in the university, you will grow very close to your lecturers and fellow students. You are part of a family of people driven by passion. I have found that to be a real strength of Japanese Studies. You can easily approach your lecturers when you have questions, and amongst the students there is a sense of camaraderie that you don’t see as much in other subjects.
Japan remains one of the most fascinating cultures. It is full of quirks and oddities and never ceases to amuse and amaze. With a history that is intricate and rich, and a unique art and design history that has produced some of the greatest works humanity has created, learning about Japan is simply an enriching experience.
Questions asked by Brigitte Steger, November 2016