DJ Brand Exec: Koki Yamashita knows his audience, spins the right mix

“It’s the same Ikea bookshelf that everyone has,” jokes Koki Yamashita (MBA 2000), pointing to the ubiquitous white cubed storage unit in his home office in Tokyo.

But his bookshelf is more interesting than average—it holds stacks and stacks of vinyl records. “Oh, those,” says Koki over Skype interview. “Back in the 1990s in Atlanta, I used to DJ. It was the ‘So So Def’ era, but I also liked house music. And acid jazz!”

It’s not what you might expect from Japan-born Yamashita (MBA 2000), whose corporate advertising resume sparkles with pedigree: Nearly a decade with advertising giant TBWA\Chiat\Day, where he was the account director for Apple. Leadership roles in Los Angeles and Tokyo. And now, a post as the group manager of content excellence at Coca-Cola, where he’s focused on its brand communication, including the sponsorship of the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Found his way to Foster

Yamashita was raised in Japan, where he studied international relations as an undergrad. A post with the Japanese consulate in Atlanta brought him to the US in his early 20s. “I led a lot of tours for Japanese visitors,” says Yamashita. “I went to the CNN building many, many times.”

As he began to look toward the future, the MBA program at UW appealed to him. “I knew an MBA would broaden my options,” he says. “I’m thinking, here’s this great school right in this interesting city”—not to mention the peak grunge-music scene.

Yamashita admits that he felt out of his depth in some of the first-year core classes, like finance. “I was always more of an arts guy,” he says.

Of course, this is a person who taught himself to DJ by watching instructive VHS tapes that he got from a local record store. “There was no YouTube then!” says Yamashita.

In marketing, a match

It was Elizabeth Stearns’ marketing class at Foster that really sparked Yamashita’s interest, and from there he started to consider a career in advertising. He remembers when Stearns invited an ad exec to class, an instant connection who ended up helping Yamashita get his first post-grad job at TBWA\Chiat\Day in LA.

It wasn’t the traditional path at the time. While many of his peers were pursuing investment banking and consulting, advertising seemed like more of a gamble. Stearns proved to be an instrumental mentor as Yamashita evaluated his options. He recalls her insight—that when she listened to him talk about taking the advertising job, his whole face lit up. That passion, she advised, would serve him well.

Koki Yamashita and his family visit the Foster School and Senior Lecturer Elizabeth Stearns last summer.

Looking back, Yamashita is grateful for that guidance. His eyes still light up when he talks about his work, an impressive career where he was the director for the Apple account during the “Think Different” campaign, not to mention the rollouts of the iPod, iTunes and the iPhone.

“It’s true what they say! Steve Jobs demanded complete and absolute attention to detail,” says Yamashita of his days working with Apple’s senior leadership team.

That’s another life experience he’s grateful for: those steep expectations. “It absolutely pushes you to get better and better at what you do,” he says.

Now at Coca-Cola, he is thrilled to be managing its brand communication and sponsorship of the upcoming Olympics in his home country, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and beyond.

A thoughtful mix

The stewards of iconic brands are not in an easy position. They have to deliver cutting-edge creativity, but they have to consider return on investment. To their audience, they have to be familiar but surprising. In that working environment, Yamashita says, everyone is encouraged to bring their eclectic interests and passions to the table. It’s a business that depends on collective wisdom.

Yamashita is a guy with plenty of interests, that’s for certain. But the real magic comes in finding the right avenue or moment to share those passions, another dimension Yamashita is clearly getting right.

He knows his audience. You know, like a really great DJ.

– Carolyn Marsh