Member Focus - Simon Farrell

Simon Farrell

Publisher at Custom Media, an award-winning bilingual, digital integrated marketing, content-creation and strategic communications agency in Tokyo


So what do you actually do?

Apart from overseeing and proofreading our three business and lifestyle magazines—for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (The ACCJ Journal), the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan (BCCJ ACUMEN), and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan (The Canadian)—I help our teams on video, social media and other marketing; monitor progress, and approve or amend such work before it goes to clients.

As a multiple award-winning creative digital media and market-entry agency, Custom Media specialises in innovative integrated marketing solutions, websites, apps, videos, podcasts, social media strategy, and other key communications. Fortunately, I am supported by the most loyal, skilful and hard-working team and business partner, Robert Heldt.

Aside from the odd HR, accounts and other issues associated with being a founding partner of a busy SME with about 25 staff, I also serve as a director on the boards of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, the South African Chamber of Commerce in Japan, the Japan Market Entry Competition, and Animal Refuge Kansai.  


And your Irish link?

My late father was born into abject poverty with seven siblings in Newbridge, Co. Kildare and moved to Bristol age 14 in the 1950s. He married my English mother and they worked in carpets, hospitality and property, before he retired to Wexford in the early 2000s and later returned to Bristol. I have fond memories of family holidays to visit his Curragh roots and cozy country pubs. One of my most memorable—and slowest—vintage train trips was from Shannon to Dublin in 1992.


Tell us about the award your company recently won.

Yes, we were surprised and delighted to hear in late September that the UK-based Best Business Awards had gonged us with their 2020 Best Corporate Social Responsibility Award, for our Connect initiative to help local businesses and charities affected by Covid-19. Connect is a free dedicated digital shared marketplace for SMEs, NPOs, volunteers, entrepreneurs, independent businesses and other organisations in Japan. In early September, it reached 100 offers and positions since Custom Media CEO and Connect creator Robert Heldt launched it in March 2020.

More details here:

And here:



Who or what inspired you to go into journalism?

The fathers of two high school friends were career journalists. One was the late Syd Young, a 37-year Fleet Street veteran and The Daily Mirror’s man in Belfast during The Troubles, and New York correspondent in the 1970s. He also provided news coverage for the left-wing tabloid during the 1980 St. Paul’s riot in Bristol, England, and the 1982 Falkland Islands conflict with Argentina.

The other father, a photographer for the Bristol Evening Post, would take us behind the scenes and goalposts on match days at Ashton Gate stadium, the home of the Bristol City football club. As a top-tier team, it hosted the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United. What I saw and heard from these two journalists hooked me for life.


Tell us about your background

I’ve spent about 23 years in Japan, over three stints since 1987. After graduating from the London School of Journalism in 1992, my first job was as a stringer in Havana, Cuba, for a London broadsheet. Unfortunately, after just a few months, it was clear that Fidel Castro was stronger than his East European comrades, so the foreign desk in London soon tired of my stories on dwindling rations, decimated sugar crops, and crumbling colonial infrastructure.

During a seven-hour stopover in Dubai, I asked a local newspaper to employ me as a reporter on the local news beat, and I threw away my onward ticket.

After a dry but intriguing 12 months of dodging busy government censors who banned certain words at The Khaleej Times, the next stop was South Africa, as it was soon to stage its first democratic elections. Staying longer than I had planned, I was there about eight years.

Experiencing—with the global media—the Rainbow Nation’s relatively peaceful transition from apartheid to writing the world’s most progressive constitution was an honour. But once it became clear there would be no racist bloodbath, my foreign-based commissioning editors soon went silent again.

I then settled into a soft job on the lifestyle desk at a Cape Town weekend newspaper and, as the opportunity arose, sold occasional travel, adventure, lifestyle and crime pieces to UK and US publications. I was also Reader’s Digest magazine’s Southern Africa correspondent, mostly writing about crime, travel and politics, and wrote two books: Top Getaways in Southern Africa, published by Reader’s Digest in 2000 and South Africa Chic published by Didier Millet in 2008.

After having endured umpteen burglaries, car thefts and other close shaves, I was relieved to return to Tokyo to take a steady page editor’s post at the Yomiuri Shimbun’s English-language daily, now called The Japan News. By 2009, my business partner Robert Heldt and I had established Custom Media and here we are.


What attributes do you need for your job?

Thick skin and a forgiving nature, while being organised and punctual. Further, it is crucial to have an obsessive eye, ear, nose, heart and pen for detail, accuracy, clarity, creativity and consistency. Being open to fresh ideas, new contributors, trends, gossip and laughs is also important. The fact that I quit smoking, walk more than ever, and drink more water than coffee or alcohol these days, has put me in control of my health, which helps, too.


What are some of the challenges of your role?

Understanding digital developments and convincing advertisers that hard copy is here to stay, if only as a key niche product.


What are the best parts of your job?

Putting to bed on time and on budget another monthly magazine and meeting selfless people who do good for others or create great things. Few other jobs open doors to meeting the likes of Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Richard Branson, James Dyson or Tim Berners-Lee. But the most interesting people are often the unsung individuals, who keep a low profile and never expect recognition or reward.


What do you think are the major challenges facing the publishing sector?

  1. Biased media and readers, viewers or listeners who can’t tell—or won’t acknowledge—the difference between real and fake news.
  2. Convincing advertisers that click rates are not all they appear to be and that niche hard copy can put them ahead of the digital herd.
  3. Keeping readers engaged with original, interesting and useful content.
  4. Satisfying a sceptical public.
  5. Achieving the right balance between digital and traditional.
  6. Lack of trust, transparency and governance in business and politics.
  7. Declining revenues and increasing costs.