Perfection of the Imperfect: Shiseido Global Copy Director Dimitrios Petsas On Forging an International Identity

For Dimitrios Petsas, Japan is “a sensory overload—graceful, gentle, brilliantly disciplined, maddeningly creative.” It’s that “idiosyncratic world that thrives in juxtaposition,” as he states, that guides his work.

Petsas previously honed his skills at agencies including Leo Burnett in Singapore, Grey Group in New York and Saatchi & Saatchi in London. Then, the globe-trotting creative director made a move—to Japan, a country with which he’s had a love affair since watching the film Lost in Translation (and immediately buying a plane ticket to Tokyo), and to work within a brand.

Now, as global copy director at Shiseido, the 2017 Clio Fashion & Beauty juror spoke to Clios.com about being among the proud stewards looking to evolve the heritage brand with the balance of both tradition and futurism for which the country is known.

After working your way around the world on the agency side, what prompted your move to Shiseido’s Japan headquarters?

I had been in Singapore for almost a year and a half; it’s a lovely place to live and work. But I was approached by Shiseido for the role of global copy director across a portfolio of star-brands, including Shiseido and Clé de Peau Beauté. Being handed the opportunity to work for the crown jewel of corporate Japan and give it a new voice? Well, you don’t say no to that.

Shiseido was from the get-go very open in terms of the possibilities, but also the challenges, short- and long-term, as the entire organization is moving towards realizing its vision for the future. There was a mutual respect and understanding that was almost automatic: They got me and I got them; we shared the same ideas in terms of what needed to be done and how.

What is unique about creativity and culture in Japan?

Japanese creativity is rooted in execution and detail. It’s not that much about creating or coming up with an original idea, but rather, taking an idea to the next level, turning it on its head and making it infinitely better.

The other big difference is the way the Japanese understand perfection. Perfection and symmetry are Western ideals that owe a lot to ancient Greece. But the Japanese concept is all about the perfection of the imperfect. There is beauty in everything, even in things that are seemingly ugly.

The Japanese mind is not about black and white; it’s about all the shades of gray that lie in between. I joke sometimes that in Japan, “maybe” means “yes,” “yes” means “no,” “no” means “maybe,” “I’ll think about it” means “definitely no.” You have to constantly read between the lines, read the room. It can be confusing in the beginning, but once you get the idea, you realize that ambiguity leaves a lot of breathing room for creativity, maneuvering and necessary course correcting. It’s quite refreshing.

What are some of the challenges and advantages of rebranding a global company like Shiseido in Japan?

It’s important to grasp how tightly woven into the social and corporate fabric of Japan Shiseido is. It’s more than just a company, it’s a Japanese institution. The name Shiseido has been around since 1872, and it’s considered an extreme honor and a privilege to be part of it. But at the same time, being around for so long comes with the danger of being perceived as old. We have to keep evolving, transforming, overturning perceptions and winning over younger audiences.

The second challenge is that, up until recently, both Shiseido and Clé de Peau’s marketing efforts were very much focused on the Japanese market. Their communication often had cues and codes that were obscure to outsiders. So the challenge lies in forging that strong globally recognized identity. Shiseido is unmistakably Japanese, Clé de Peau Beauté is right at the intersection of Japanese craftsmanship and French elegance, so the challenge is how do we look, feel, sound and behave global without becoming generic, without losing our essence?

As we move our brands onto the global stage, we also need to rethink and modernize our modus operandi. We need to be faster and more nimble. Japanese companies are very hierarchical and the Japanese don’t feel comfortable with the idea of making a mistake. We’re trying to change that and encourage people to speak up more, take initiative or leave the office early and go find inspiration wherever it is they find it. To rebrand our brands successfully we’ll need to rebrand ourselves, too.  

How are Shiseido and Clé de Peau incorporating both tradition and innovation in their campaigns?

Up until recently, most of Shiseido and Clé de Peau’s communication had TV and print at its core. That’s because it was geared mainly towards the Japanese market, which is still very much hooked on traditional media. We are moving towards a full-scale, 360 ecosystem with social and digital at its core. We’re very much focusing on content creation and establishing and solidifying our presence in social channels.

Shiseido has done some amazingly bold work on that front. “High School Girl?” is the perfect example. I remember seeing it and being, like, “Damn, I wish I had done this!” It’s all about creating engagement, weaving in work that ignites conversations and strikes a chord. It’s not about being everybody’s darling. People crave provocative. It’s phony they can’t stomach.

SHISEIDO "High School Girl?"

How does the creative world outside of beauty influence your work?

There are very few brands that are so tightly linked to the arts as Shiseido. This heritage and connection is a source of inexhaustible inspiration. At the same time, it also creates a great sense of respect and responsibility to infuse this artistry into everything we do. There is a double-height, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookcase at the Advertising & Design Headquarters in Ginza, where I’m based. It’s a pretty impressive structure; to me, it’s a reminder that we can’t separate art from Shiseido.

My second or third week with the company, there was an exhibit of original Hokusai prints in the Hanatsubaki Hall on the third floor (“hanatsubaki” means camellia, the logo of Shiseido). The temperature was specially adjusted and we had to wear gloves and breathing masks because the works were so fragile. It was a near mystic experience to be just inches away from those masterpieces.

What can we look forward to from Shiseido in 2017?

Shiseido is undergoing an amazing transformation these days. It’s a traditionally Japanese company on its way to transforming into a true global powerhouse. Our president and CEO Masahiko Uotani-san is the steering force behind this. He came from Coca-Cola and his arrival created ripples—the good kind of ripples. Industry leaders and thinkers have recently identified Shiseido as the most dynamic company in the industry today. There is tremendous potential for growth and even more tremendous resolve and readiness to reach it.

Be on the lookout for an onslaught of initiatives and a dramatic shift towards authenticity; work that not only will it showcase their science and innovations in a compelling way, but also manifest both brands’ philosophies, outlooks and values.  

As a juror for this year’s Clio Fashion and Beauty awards, what do you think will define winning creative work this year?

I’ll be looking for intelligence and emotion. I’ll be looking for work that doesn’t talk at me. Work that punches me in the stomach. Work that doesn’t bore me. Work that doesn’t insult me as a consumer.

Entries for the 2017 Clio Fashion & Beauty Awards are now open. The final deadline for submissions is April 14. For more information, please call 212.683.4300 or visit clios.com/fashion-beauty.