It all began with a word. And the word was Uniqlock. The nifty gadget that took the ad world by storm.

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And yet, to the uninitiated, Uniqlock is surprisingly hard to explain…At least not without getting bogged down in internet jargon. Is it a ‘down­loadable blog part’, ‘a viral marketing campaign’, a ‘blog widget’? All of these have been used to describe it, when in fact, at its most basic, Uniqlock is simply a clock.

While the ad world was busy fathoming out what this latest internet phenomenon was, they were also pondering who had made it. Who was Projector? Again, adjectives abounded. Terms such as ‘boutique advertising agency’ or ‘production company’ have been used to describe the small Tokyo-based company, yet, according to Koichiro Tanaka, who co-founded Projector in 2004 with Daima Kawamura, it is actually a bit of both.

“We are neither an agency nor a production company, but we stand between the two,” he explains. By this he is referring to Projector’s unusu­ally hands-on approach to making campaigns, where one person firmly leads all aspects of a project, be they creative, production or even pr. “If you are to carry out a project in a completely innovative way – not in the way we have always been doing – I think it is very important that there is one person who is completely committed to the project,” he continues. “The important thing is not to have a large number of staff, but one person who is committed.”

In the case of Uniqlock, this one person was Tanaka. His initial idea of making a branded clock – where films of Uniqlo-wearing dancers intercut a digital clock face counting down each second – came out of an awareness of the need to approach online advertising in a new way. “In the case of Uniqlock, I wanted to create a new circuit, or a new path, to connect Uniqlock and consumers across the world…. I focused on the blog, because every­day I read blogs. One thing I realised is that when there is interesting content, it spreads across the world very, very quickly. However, it is not sufficient just to create blog content that is entertaining, because if there is something else interesting on the blog, it will disappear very quickly. So I thought what was needed was not just interesting blog content, but something that would remain as a fixture on the sidebar, something that has utility. Unless it has utility, people don’t want to see it for a long time – for instance, would you watch the same film hundreds of times? So that’s why I came up with the idea of the clock.”

After hitting on ‘Uniqlock’ as an apt name for the branded clock, and doing a quick search of Google to make sure it wasn’t already in use, Tanaka drafted two project papers and took them to Uniqlo, which rapidly gave him the go-ahead to begin work. This is testament to the good relationship he has with the client, although he also acknowledges Uniqlo’s eagerness to embrace new ideas.

From there, others became involved, including the commercial production company who made the dance films, freelance web developers, and also a pr team, who were brought in unusually early in the process to help Tanaka focus his ideas but also to alert him to what might be missing. As is the Projector way, Tanaka oversaw everything. Around 100 dance clips – which are used across the year on Uniqlock, with the dancers wearing different Uniqlo outfits for the different seasons – were filmed in just two days, while the technical team also hit on splitting the dance clips with the clock interface, which both breaks up the action and allows the clips to pre-load, meaning no irritating loading bars or pauses. Tanaka worked hard to develop a unique system for the music too, feeling that “without sound it doesn’t really work”.

It didn’t end there, and Tanaka acknowledges now how much he demanded of the web develop­ment team. “I overwhelmed them with a vast number of development briefs, so the team leader was frightened by me,” he says. Among these demands were that Uniqlock could be set to the local time of any one of 282 cities across the world (previously clocks used on blogs only displayed the pc’s local time), and also that a map of Uniqlock users could be displayed visually on the home site, “to enhance Uniqlock users’ awareness of sharing the same experience, but also to encourage other people to use Uniqlock”. Later developments also included a screensaver, allowing other content or commer­cials from Uniqlo to be downloaded to desktops.

It was, of course, all worth it, with the Uniqlock website attracting over 68 million views (and counting) from 209 countries, and consequently cleaning up at the awards ceremonies internation­ally, picking up such coveted awards as a d&ad Black Pencil and both a Cyber and Titianium Grand Prix at Cannes, alongside many others. All of which was a touch overwhelming for Tanaka, who comments of Uniqlock’s massive success that, “I think this sort of thing can happen perhaps just once in a lifetime!”

Ah yes, the difficult second album. Not, it should be clarified, that Uniqlock is the only project that Projector has done – the team has also completed projects for domestic Japanese fashion brands and Daima Kawamura was technical director of the hugely successful Sony Rec You and Sony Big Shadow projects, which were creatively spear­headed by another ‘boutique’ Japanese company, GT Tokyo. Projector has also created other successful campaigns for Uniqlo, including Uniqlo Jump, where 696 Uniqlo employees jumped to advertise their 2007 autumn and winter collections, and the beautiful Dry In Motion website, which set slow-motion imagery of dancers wearing Uniqlo Dry clothes to music by Steve Reich. Yet it is Uniqlock that has brought Projector to the international ad industry’s attention and that places any future work from the company under particular scrutiny. When questioned whether he now feels under pressure to create something equally impressive, Tanaka says simply, “Yes. I’d like to spend about half a year completely alone!”

There is no time for such luxury however, and Projector is instead looking to expand. However, Tanaka is determined to maintain the company’s philosophy of hiring only those able to become a ‘projector’ – someone who is solely responsible for the whole development of a project. “There are art directors and creative directors but a projector has to be able to do everything, the whole project, which can be tough work,” he explains. “I need people who are extremely talented, who are almost too good for us. When we recruit people our ultimate aim is to find people who can work independently…. If I think of myself, I don’t think I have very great skills purely as a producer, or a copywriter, or an art director, or a video director. If you look at each individual skill I’m not a great technician, perhaps I’m just a very skilled amateur. But I am able to keep an eye on everything, the totality of it. So on every project there are things that I have to learn – I learn from art directors, producers. Every project is a learning process for me.”

Tanaka is also learning to speak English fluently, in order to be able to accept some of the work from international brands that may come his way. “The communication with clients is very important,” he says. “To come up with an idea is just the first step, in order to implement the idea we have to have a very close relationship with the clients and the staff.” Despite language barriers, he speaks highly of UK production and digital companies and acknowledges that meeting with the likes of Passion Pictures and Nexus Productions five years ago inspired him to quit the television production company he was then working for and to start Projector. He has also recently worked with UK digital agency Hi-ReS! on a project, and, despite the opportunities that Japan’s superior broadband speed offers, feels that London is still ahead when it comes to digital creativity.

Interestingly, Tanaka is moving slightly away from digital with his next project for Uniqlo, which will involve the Canadian circus company Cirque du Soleil. Continuing the idea of exploring Uniqlo clothes in motion, Projector is making a docu­mentary of the performers during their training and rehearsals, where they will all the while be wearing Uniqlo clothes. These films will be used in TV commercials and online, and will culminate in a live event, where 2000 lucky viewers will get to participate in a Uniqlo-Cirque du Soleil live event, taking place in Tokyo next year. The live aspect of the campaign is of particular interest to him. “Of course, if you experience something digitally you can repeat it, you can play it again and again, you can copy it,” he says. “But a live event is a one-off thing, and this one-off nature is something I’m very excited about at the moment. I’m trying to think about the way to spread this experience digitally. For instance, if you have a video of your wedding, it’s very exciting to see it again and again, but you get excited because you were there. It’s not the quality of the video itself, it’s the participation.”

What is clear is that whether it be digital, live, or even an old-fashioned tv spot, Tanaka is searching constantly for new ways to interact with people and to get them excited about being involved with a brand in a way that is beyond typical advertising. “The advertisement has become an end unto itself,” he explains. “It’s not just some­thing that is inserted between two different things, like being inserted into a television programme, but it now has its own, independent, ultimate purpose.” It was this approach that made Uniqlock seem so fresh and exciting, and which now makes Projector a company with a lot to live up to.