What if you could run an advertising campaign for just $10?

Words: David Willoughby/Workers U


It’s no secret that Dentsu is the dominant force in advertising in Japan. The agency controls around a quarter of the domestic market, a huge share in an otherwise fragmented industry.

A big reason for Dentsu’s success lies in its integrated services. It’s the only agency that can offer everything from brand strategy to creative services and media buying to public relations.

As the dominant player, Dentsu has the power to make or break any brand in Japan and can therefore charge a premium for its services.

But what if entrepreneurs could apply the same strategies as Dentsu on a small budget? A really small budget of, let’s say, $10, or ¥1000?

Dentsu’s unique strength is its ability to control all communications activities. But small business owners who can’t afford the services of big advertising agencies also enjoy ‘complete control’ over their communications.

Let’s look at a few of Dentsu’s strategies that can work equally well on a small budget. With Dentsu as a guide, this should also be a masterclass in how to market a product or service in Japan.

Point #1

Advertising is meaningless without a core idea

Dentsu starts every campaign from the premise that consumers couldn’t care less. In other words, the huge growth in the volume of information competing for our attention means that most of us have put up barriers to filter it out.

So, regardless of how, when and where it is delivered, advertising has no hope of success unless it carries a compelling message, what Dentsu calls the CORE IDEA. A core idea should be interesting and powerful, but most importantly it should be something new.

The starting point to find a core idea for your product is to gather customer insights and discover unmet needs or hidden desires. But an innovative core idea is probably one which your customers have yet to imagine for themselves.

A strong core idea on its own will not guarantee the success of a campaign. But a campaign without a strong core idea is bound to fail no matter how much money or ingenuity is poured into it.

For entrepreneurs, the good news is that anyone can have a core idea. It’s about knowing your customers and following a creative process to arrive at the optimal message to earn their attention.

The $10 Campaign

Invest the first $1 in a cheap notebook and the remaining $9 in three cups of quality coffee. You’re going to need some stimulation. Alternatively, pick up a second-hand copy of ‘Positioning’, the marketing classic by Al Ries & Jack Trout, which is full of ideas for getting your product seen and heard.

Point #2

People discover brands through scenarios

Most advertising creates a message about the product and then identifies the best media to deliver that message to consumers, known as the media mix. But Dentsu uses a method it calls ‘cross switch marketing’ to move the target towards the desired action through a series of contact points called a scenario.

For example, a potential customer first learns of a new fast-food craze from a morning news show (PR) before seeing reminders on the journey to work (outdoor advertising). She’s finally tempted into a restaurant by a discount campaign (sales promotion).

Rather than the breadth of a campaign, Dentsu focuses on the depth: the steps that lead the target towards purchasing the product. While this would usually involve a large advertising spend, that’s not always the case.

The secret is to begin with an image of the target as fundamentally lacking interest in the product, and take it from there. Instead, too many new businesses start with an overly optimistic view of the customer’s level of interest.

Mapping out the steps required to actually earn that interest is known as SCENARIO PLANNING in Dentsu-speak.

The $10 Campaign

Your customer’s purchase journey is probably going to be some combination of offline and online activity. Invest in physical items like postcards or flyers that prompt your customers to take some kind of action later on your website or social media pages.

Point #3

People choose when to pay attention to advertising

Recall how consumers have put up information barriers to filter out most marketing messages. Traditional advertising tries to break in using ever more powerful or frequent messages. But this isn’t an option for small businesses lacking the resources for a sustained marketing campaign.

Search engine marketing is based on the idea that the best time to advertise is when the target is searching for the very thing you’re selling. But what if you can’t rely on the target to search for the thing you’re offering?

Dentsu understands that pull factors are the most effective and often uses psychological tactics to draw consumers outside their information barriers. The idea here is that consumers will only engage with a campaign when they themselves choose to.

One tactic is an INFORMATION GAP, in which only part of a message is revealed. The remainder is revealed over time, or in another location like a website. The psychological drive to complete a puzzle or understand something fully is what attracts the interest of the target.

The good news for entrepreneurs is that curiosity-based campaigns depend more on ingenuity than budget. They’re also a great way to generate a conversation that can travel far beyond the initial target group.

The $10 Campaign

Draw up a profile of the customer you assume will be most interested in your product and list some other things they like. Then use Facebook’s ad targeting to show these people ads with a strong curiosity appeal. Include insider information that your targets will want to pass on to other people in their interest group.


While you’re here, let’s look at some ways in which thinking like Dentsu can help you advertise your business in Japan.


You own a private language school. You invest in stylish facilities and a well-designed website. You also devote a lot of time to training instructors and keeping students happy. By this model, you could steadily grow your customer base via a combination of word-of-mouth marketing and people actively searching for a school in your location.

However, while this may represent good marketing, it targets only people looking for your product. In other words, the same people targeted by your competitors. It’s unlikely to result in people travelling long distances to attend your school or suddenly developing an urge to study English.

That’s because the school lacks a core idea. It may have a good reputation, but it offers nothing new. According to Dentsu, the best core ideas are always innovative. An example of real innovation in the private school sector would be a freemium model in which students only have to pay for extra or individual tuition. That’s the kind of offer that can break through people’s information barrier and earn significant attention.


You recently invested in a food truck to supply the best pastrami sandwiches in Tokyo. You want to advertise as much you can afford to people who fit the demographic of your ideal customer. So you use low-cost options like Facebook and Instagram advertising to target pastrami lovers or even people who have lived in New York (clever!)

However, when speaking to your customers, you soon realise that almost all of them discovered your food truck because they were just passing. Advertising online doesn’t appear to be working. So how can you use advertising to get more customers?

As you’ve hit on an important insight that most customers find you by accident, you could map out a scenario plan that leads from brand discovery to brand ambassador. You could invest more in the visual impact of your food truck and packaging, creating more opportunities for customers to photograph and share your brand. As a result, people start to see your brand in their friends’ Facebook or Instagram posts, or on the packages their coworkers bring back to the office.



You’ve secured a licence to import and sell ultra-comfortable bicycle seats made by a family firm in Italy. This is a high-end product of interest only to true racing bike obsessives. You plan to sell it out of a pop-up store in Tokyo’s Meguro neighbourhood and through an online store.

The surest way to bring your product to market would be to hire a PR agency to secure coverage in specialised media, in return for advertising in those publications. However, you have no budget left for advertising after opening your store.

When marketing to obsessives, try using an information gap to turn customers into a source of free advertising. So while fitting out your pop-up store, you keep the contents well hidden but place certain hints on the shop exterior that would be recognised by true fans of the product. These fans then gain social capital by breaking the news of your impending launch to other obsessives in their community. Eventually, news of your market entry reaches the right audience by word-of-mouth marketing alone.

Workers University

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