Culture made in Germany? Adrian Bianco is crafting culture in Japan with Sabukaru

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Everything seemed laid out for Adrian Bianco. A promising player in the German ad scene, where he led teams of “creatives” and had a bevy of resources at his disposal. And yet, three years ago, Bianco threw caution to the wind, quit his job, quit the industry, and headed east. Today, his agency Bianco Bianco, founded on a scant three square meters in Tokyo, has become the port of call for Western brands seeking a foothold in Japan. In Sabukaru, he is creating a publisher for fashion, art, manga and various subcultures. OMR spoke with the creator of what some have dubbed Japan’s Highsnobiety.

“It’s important to me that no one thinks I’m out here claiming to know everything about Japan, Japanese subcultures and that I want to share that expertise with others,” says Adrian Bianco. “I’m just the curator. But by no means an expert on Japan.” Still, global brands are knocking on the 35-year-old’s door with precisely that expectation. Adidas, Nike, BMW, Ikea, they all want to either to penetrate the Japanese market or bolster their position. In both cases, this path apparently leads through Adrian Bianco.

He had always been a fan of Japan and its numerous, very unique subcultures. But it was never his singular passion. “I was never a real nerd. Nevertheless, something always told me that I had to go there,” says Adrian Bianco.

From acts to ads?

But until it got to that point, he did what so many eventual creatives do: studied something he hated, law school, dropped out of said studies and began working several odd jobs, including at a local sneaker shop. Instagram was just blowing up in Germany at the time, so he set up a channel for the store. “That went as far as consulting stores and creating social media concepts,” he says. “This gave me more and more behind-the-scenes insight into the industry.”

A brief internship at Berlin agency Dojo followed, and then a start at Virtue, Vice’s agency. “That’s where I ended up managing the Adidas account, doing a magazine and creating content with young creatives. Even at that point, we were combining culture with business and marketing,” Bianco says. He was also building Vice’s Snapchat Discover channel. With his first real salary, he flew to Japan and immediately realized he had to move there. Nevertheless, the next 16 stays are focussed on the task at hand: video shoots for Vice, market research for a London-based agency on behalf of Adidas, consumer interviews, etc. “To find out what makes the Japanese market tick,” he says.

Going for broke

About three years ago, when Adrian Bianco was just 32 years old, something clicked. “It was a now-or-never moment. I dropped everything and went to Japan on a tourist visa.” To change his residency status and get a business management visa, he began setting up his agency, Bianco Bianco, immediately. “On three square meters,” says Bianco. At the same time, he relaunched his personal blog, where he had already spent several years writing in parallel about youth cultures, subcultures and, among other things, Japan. The new name: Sabukaru, Japanese for subculture.

The Sabukaru home page.

During the three years, the three square meters and an apartment have since morphed 80 square meters of office space. “I now have six permanent employees and at least as many freelancers. It’s a good mix from America, Europe and now Japan,” says Adrian Bianco. The team now does consulting for fashion brands, advises brands like BMW and works a lot with Highsnobiety. “Most recently, we’ve conducted shoots for Ikea and Mini. Nike and Adidas have been there. So it’s starting to pick up steam,” Bianco says.

A magazine game changer

While Bianco Bianco takes on classic agency tasks, stories about Japanese subcultures appear on Sabukaru.Online, beyond the confines of daily business. The blog covers topics as diverse, strange and banal as a nail artist, a cyberpunk manga, Japanese “gorpcore” fashion, the influence of a Japanese-Korean rap track and 30-year-olds engaging in Nintendo roleplay. “It’s the cultural depth that makes Japan so special,” says Adrian Bianco. “When people have hobbies here, it’s many times more intense than anywhere else.”

The majority of the articles and content are written by two half-Japanese people from Bianco’s team; mostly in English, ocassionally in Japanese. “It has to be said that English skills in Japan are very poor,” Adrian Bianco explains. Sabukaru also relies on many large visual elements for this reason, he adds. And yet, lengthy interviews continue to appear on the blog—counter-intuitive to a visual-first approach. “I know how attention is these days, but I don’t care,” says Bianco.

Japanese designer Verdy with US artist Kid Cudi.

This conviction to translate the deep immersion in subcultures into the length of texts as well provides a certain credibility—and opportunities the founder would not have expected. In September, Sabukaru published an extensive interview with Verdy, one of, if not the, hottest designer in Japan. “He does the really big collabos and is now maybe the most important name in Japan,” Adrian Bianco enthuses. “He loves Sabukaru and invited us. The link to the interview was in his Instagram bio for a long time. That was already an accolade.”

Sabukaru: Growth sans commercialization

Since then, big artists have begun following Sabukaru more frequently, all of whom have been very welcoming to Adrian Bianco and his team, he says. “We’ve really managed to become part of the scene in Tokyo,” says the advertiser. “I think they realize that we put a lot of passion into it and don’t want to make money directly from the content.” This awareness of and acceptance in a wide variety of subcultures simultaneously sparks brands’ desire to be associated with the Sabukaru orbit. “I’ve worked at Vice and for other magazines, and I’ve seen what happens when you monetize a magazine too quickly or at all,” Bianco says. If money is a magazine’s goal, he says, content can never be a primary focus.”

That’s why Sabukaru, which for Bianco is something like his agency’s online business card, is currently in an exciting phase, he says: They want to keep growing, but they have to slow down the commercialization. “We’re turning down a lot of advertorial requests. We’re built on culture, and we just can’t sell ourselves,” he says. “I think we’ve managed to be a touchpoint by combining agency and magazine aspects. But what’s also clear is that we’re still a startup.”

IG ok, TT no thanks

Adrian Bianco proudly displaying a feature on Sabukaru in Popeye magazine (Image: Instagram).

This is also reflected in the reach that Sabukaru generates. Almost 160,000 people follow the magazine’s Instagram account, while around 32,000 follow his personal account. Analytics tool Similarweb shows about 180,000 visits for Sabukaru.Online last November. “Instagram and the website are already the most important,” says Adrian Bianco. On Instagram, the media brand reaches up to two million individual accounts per month, and a relevant part of the traffic is generated by the site via Google.

On Tiktok, however, Sabukaru is no longer active after a test phase. “I understand how the platform works and know what would need to be done,” Bianco said. “But we decided it wasn’t a good fit for us.” Overall, he said, the entire social media sector in Japan is not yet as far along as it is in Europe or the United States. “In terms of professionalism and commercialization, we’re lagging behind. Instagram is nevertheless one of the most important tools,” says Adrian Bianco. Print, on the other hand, is much more important in Japan. Bianco wants to take advantage of this—and produce a Sabukaru print edition at some point.

Ad man and publisher by trade; nerd at heart

Until then, however, the advertiser in Bianco is continuing to rely on the appeal of its platform, while Bianco the publisher is trying out smaller events such as exhibitions or club nights to strengthen its standing in the scene. For January and June, Sabukaru is planning a showroom in Paris, and Bianco wants to slowly build a cultural event around Fashion Week. Gradually, more and more brands from Japan would come forward, in addition to Western brands. And three months ago, the team launched a Chinese offshoot of Sabukaru. “For many European brands, this is simply a sales market, but there are also many people with hobbies and a lot of culture,” Adrian Bianco explains the step.

Despite the increase in demand, orders from global brands and tailwind from the Japanese scene, the combination of Bianco Bianco and Sabukaru.Online seems to be anything but a no-brainer. To this day, expatriate Adrian Bianco creates every post for Instagram himself. And when it’s actually closing time in Japan, he often continues with calls with European or American customers and partners. “The ten- to twelve-hour day will quite definitely remain the reality in the coming two years. But I’ve never had so much fun going to work in my life.”

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Author
Torben Lux

Torben has been plying editorial chops at OMR for four years now, penning articles on omr.com and scouring the world year-round for speakers for our annual Festival. Before he joined Team OMR, Torben cut his teeth at the Hamburg daily Morgenpost, trained as a digital and print manager at Axel Springer SE and created numerous tv pieces for broadcaster Hamburg 1.

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Scott Peterson
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