WorkWild Geese

‘I did a big campaign for a bank about them becoming the first net-zero carbon bank that was basically greenwashing’

Wild Geese: After an unfulfilling stint in ‘normal advertisting’, Belfast man Rick Grehan founded an ethical branding company in Japan

Convincing people to buy stuff they don’t need never sat well with Rick Grehan. “Working in advertising, I kind of had this existential crisis,” says the Tokyo-based Belfast native, founder of that country’s first ethical branding agency, who was obsessed by all things Japanese since he was a teen.

Watching Bruce Lee movies was the beginning of Grehan’s love affair with Japan. “It wasn’t the newer Manga culture, but all the old-school things. I was doing Zen meditation in my bedroom, I was doing block prints in art class at secondary school, growing bonsai in my backyard in Belfast – I had this real passion to go to Japan.”

After a degree in graphic design at University of Dundee in Scotland, he spent a year in London. There followed a decade in Johannesburg in South Africa, where he founded his own advertising company.

Moving to Japan remained a long-term goal. The question was how. Joining job websites and sending speculative CVs wasn’t working. Teaching English there felt like the only way in. “The joke was, I failed the English teaching exam. I realised how bad at grammar I was. I felt like that was my last chance to work in Japan, so I gave up and started an agency in Belfast.”


When a recruiter eventually dangled an art director role with a small ad agency in Tokyo, Grehan left his newly established business, a new house and an understanding girlfriend to pursue his dream. After seven years in Japan, he established imageMILL 12 years ago. “I wanted to get out of normal advertising and start a sustainable ethical branding company,” he says.

Grehan had grown up in Belfast during the Troubles. “My father was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement. Even as a young kid, I was out with placards on the street,” he says. The journey of how to reconcile his work with his ethics began in Africa. He had driven from the Cape to Cairo, “trying to figure out what to do with my life – advertising has such a negative impact on the planet”. On the trip, he raised money for an Aids charity and it gave him a taste of the fundraising challenges faced by NGOs.

A stint in India doing meditation and yoga brought career clarity. “I had a realisation that branding and advertising, there is nothing wrong with it, it’s just consumer psychology and if you use it for good and have good intentions, you could do really good work. That was the start of my idea for imageMILL.”

With experience, he has grown wise to greenwashing. “I did a big campaign for a bank about them becoming the first net-zero carbon bank, and it was basically just greenwashing. They were buying carbon offsets and at the same time, investing in carbon. At that time I didn’t realise. I thought, as long as you put out good messages, it’s good.”

Sometimes the players in big companies don’t realise what they are doing, he says. “They think they are doing something good, but they are over-promising. Whether it’s on purpose or not, it’s greenwashing.”

Before taking on new business now, Grehan tries to get under the bonnet of a company. “It’s about making the change within the company first, and then making content about that afterwards.”

“At imageMILL, we are very good at filmmaking and advertising, but we only tell stories about real change.”

I’m a filmmaker and I love cinematic images, but more than half of our work now is vertical Instagram stories. We are doing much shorter content

Grehan counts ethical clothing brand Patagonia among his clients. Once beloved of tech bros keen to co-brand Patagonia fleeces with their own brand, Patagonia has refused business from corporations it views as “ecologically damaging”.

Working only with clients with sustainability credentials isn’t the most lucrative course. “There was this big burger company I had to decline when I first started the company and the bank balance was getting lower and lower and they had a really big budget,” says Grehan. “But I decided against taking them on and it was the best thing we ever did. The message got out that we had turned them down and it gave us credibility. We got a lot of extra work. Standing in your purpose and your values really works. But not quickly.”

ImageMILL now has a 50-50 balance of clients who are ethical and those committed to starting that journey. “If they are transparent and open, we will work with them,” says Grehan.

The days of spending six months making a TV ad and six months running it are gone, says Grehan. “I’m a filmmaker and I love cinematic images, but more than half of our work now is vertical Instagram stories. We are doing much shorter content.” On some Chinese platforms, there is less than five seconds to grab attention. “And we are constantly dealing with data, what’s working and what’s not,” he says.

Micro-influencers who are experts in their area are trumping big names. “People are getting really fed up with influential branding – a famous person holding up a bottle going, ‘this is great, guys’ – it’s not authentic,” says Grehan.

Matching a brand to an influencer and a good cause is a powerful model, he says. A recent campaign by his company paired Audi, which was promoting a new electric vehicle, with a stand up paddleboarder influencer and a charity that clears plastic from the ocean.

ImageMILL itself is a member of 1 per cent for the Planet, which means donating this amount from its turnover to an NGO. Grehan picked the Nature Conservation Society of Japan as the beneficiary. In conjunction with them, his company has made a feature-length documentary about the last of the Okinawan dugong, an endangered species, and the people who strive to protect them.

Winning new business in Japan is a long process. “You literally don’t talk about business for up to six months.” You may eventually be entrusted with a small amount of business. “It’s a very long process, but you have security because if you get the business, you are quite sure you are going to keep it and it’s very hard to lose it.”

Life in Japan is comfortable and safe, says Grehan. He is a director of the Irish Chamber of Commerce in Tokyo. “If you drop your wallet in the middle of Tokyo, you will get it back with all your money in it. Guaranteed,” he says. Safety, however, can also mean playing it safe.

“If you create something, you have to be so careful not to upset anybody. That is really becoming a problem for Japan, because they are losing competitiveness to Korea on an incredible scale. This inflexibility and carefulness is a real problem and can be very frustrating, especially for a creative.”

There is an upside to Japan’s conservativeness, however. “There is almost a spiritual common sense in Japan; everyone is polite to each other and so thoughtful. That stuff I really love and it makes up for the challenges.”

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about homes and property, lifestyle, and personal finance