Asia's top female talent


MEDIA, the marketing and communications newspaper for Asia Pacific interviewed Kumi Sato, COSMO's President and CEO in a feature on Asia's top female talent

Women in the Industry: Kumi Sato

by Staff reporters 01-Dec-09, 18:53

Kumi Sato, president & CEO of Cosmo PR.

A former McKinsey consultant, Kumi Sato is one of the best-known faces in Japan's public relations industry and something of a rare breed in a country known for its male corporate dominance.

Since taking on responsibility for Cosmo PR in 1987, she has given the agency a strong international focus and as a result, over 60 per cent of its clients are non-Japanese multinationals.

Sato has ranked among BusinessWeek's '50 Stars of Asia' and is recognised for her important contribution in developing Japan's public relations industry. She is also a professor at Kenichi Ohmae Business School and teaches MBA students about brand management.

How did you get into the PR industry?

I was a consultant at McKinsey and my mother asked me to do a consulting project for Cosmo PR. I was young and brash and the company said 'If you're so smart, why don't you do it all yourself?'. My mother gave me the chance to take over. I've seen similar cases where the son or daughter takes over from their parents, but their parents continue to hang around in the background. That is not conducive to success. I wanted to fully buy my mother out. So I brought my husband over from the US and started at Cosmo. That was 20 years ago and I'm still there.

Who was your career inspiration?

My mother has always been an inspiration to me. She's still going strong at 82 and is trying to develop the Japanese carpentry industry. She is an outstanding role model.

What is your PR philosophy?

It's more of a philosophy towards work and life in general: I wanted to get away from the Japanese stereotype that as a woman you have to be 'cute'. I believe that you can be greedy and that it's possible to have it all. This is difficult for Japanese women to accept despite being among the most highly educated in the world.

Why aren't there more women at the top in PR?

I think it depends on whether you grow up with people in your family believing that you can be at the top. But the whole system [in Japan] makes it hard for women to continue to work as they have to take time off to raise their children and are then only able to go back to work in their late 30s or early 40s.

The Government says it is keen to address the need for [a better support system] so women can work; we're starting to see results, but really rather too slowly - especially considering we're facing a huge workforce crisis with our ageing population. For women to be able to continue to work, there needs to be a strong cultural and family structure in place as well as a strong infrastructure.

Is the industry doing enough to attract female talent?

The industry is becoming dominated by women everywhere except Japan. A lot of people here are surprised to see Cosmo because the majority of senior people [in Japanese PR] are men. Smart women know they have better opportunities if they join international companies.

What advice would you give to young women looking to advance their careers in PR?

I would say hang in there; build credibility within a company - firms understand and appreciate people who stick to one company. One lady who recently got married has been with us for ten years. We will now do everything to ensure that she is able to balance work and life. We're very fortunate that we don't have anyone within the company who is going to question that.

What was your biggest challenge in 2009?

I started writing a book on strategic communications. I've written a book on CSR but this will be the next. Writing a book is very difficult; it's a challenge, but it will get published in the fall.

And your biggest achievement?

Our focus on healthcare and food science at Cosmo finally started to pay off. We picked up more business in these areas last year than we have in the last five years! We can now say that we are a strong contender. Getting into these brands and doing launches, we feel very excited going into the new year.

What are your expectations for 2010?

Hopefully we will be recognised as a leading player in healthcare. Leaders will continue to lead their sectors, but there will be opportunities if you have a unique product or service. And Japan is still here. We're at a complicated stage economically and politically, but there are still people quietly doing well.

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