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Keiko Aoki

Head of Marketing, APJ

Keiko's Story

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Keiko Aoki

If you think you’ve successfully worked through your own global white-knuckle moment, you should talk to Keiko (Kay) Aoki about her unexpected eleventh-hour crisis.

It was two days before the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, when Kay worked for a Japanese multinational conglomerate corporation. She was at an official dinner, sitting next to the CEO of a Japanese international advertising and public relations company, when her mobile rang. "I said to him, ‘I’m sorry, I have to take this call’. I knew it would not be good news."

She was right. The caller’s first words were, "The rapper can’t make it tomorrow."

It was a major setback. The American rapper was supposed to perform the next night, at the company’s traditional pre-final gala dinner for about a thousand VIPs, including government officials and FIFA’s top brass.

"We were known for that pre-final party, We would always invite the artist who sang the official World Cup anthem to perform for us that evening. That was one of the biggest blows that I’ve had. During that call, a Brazilian executive  proposed instead that we use a local band from Rio that had a great international repertoire. And I said, ‘I am afraid not, we have CEOs from all over the world coming to this show and I cannot have a local band playing international songs. We need a name, even if we have to fly him or her in from New York,’ " says Kay. 

"I had to act quickly. I excused myself from the CEO of the advertising company  and said, ‘I’ll explain tomorrow’. Obviously I simply didn’t have the time to tell him what the problem was. I had to run. My mind was racing as I counted the cards I still had to play with – Can I still fly an artist in? Which artists were in town? – I found that the artists in Rio were all rehearsing that evening for the opening act of the World Cup final match. I rushed to the Maracana Stadium to speak to their managers to ask if they would fill in for the rapper. But it was already 11pm, and it was too late to fly in their respective bands, especially as this would have necessitated visas as well. Then I called a Brazilian singer. She was based in Sao Paulo but thank God I had put her in the best hotel in Rio. She agreed, but needed us to fly in seven members of her band from Sao Paulo and also said she would re-route the truck with all their equipment, but pointed out that it would only arrive in Rio with less than an hour to spare."

"It was only a glimmer of hope, but I had to find hotel rooms for her seven musicians. Seven hotel rooms in Rio, just before the World Cup final – are you kidding me? Impossible. But I found flights for all of them and I woke up members of my team and told them to check out of their hotel rooms and double up with colleagues just for one night, so that we could accommodate the singer's musicians."

"Now we have a concert. Just! The singer is one of the most popular female singers in Brazil, but I still needed an international name. An Mexican-American guitarist and songwriter suddenly offered to help. He would be happy to bring a guitar and do whatever he could, but only after 9.30pm. But at 6.30 the next evening, I go to the dressing room to thank the Brazilian singer, and there I see her and the guitarist. She is singing her songs and he is matching the guitar chords to the music. I didn’t say a word. I just closed the door and left. After about half an hour, I asked their managers, ‘What’s going on here?’ And they said, the guitarist has agreed to play seven songs, together with the singer’s band. And he was literally sitting there and learning the chords to her songs. That turned out to be the most amazing concert. The whole crowd was going wild. Everybody thought it was a plan. Nobody could ever have imagined what the real story was."

"Over the years, while leading these corporate events and activities, I learned to cope with such crises, to switch the mind instantly to think of what could still be done to resolve the situation. I am sure all of us face these spine-chilling situations, when your mind goes blank for a moment. The key is to take a deep breath, clear your mind, and focus on what you can still do."

Kay left the company in March 2015 because she wanted some time to herself – to help her husband put on his first exhibition as a professional photographer, and to bring up the new, furry member of her family – after deliberating over her decision for several months.

She says there were two major factors that drew her to SAP later that year. “I think the first thing was the people. When I was interviewed by the top management at SAP Japan in 2015, I really liked the vibe. Secondly, it was such a growing business and such a growing market. There was so much out there that could be done for SAP to grow in Japan. And whenever a business is growing, that is precisely when marketing can contribute the most. Those were the true reasons that inspired me to come to SAP.

"I always follow three fundamental priorities when I lead a marketing team – ‘People’, ‘Trust’ and ‘Growth’. I love new challenges, because they bring new accomplishments. I have a very professional team, a very experienced team. I really rely on every member of the team for the achievements that marketing has produced so far. I think on the other hand there’s still a lot more to grow. One of the areas that we have not touched in the development of the people is to utilize the globalization aspect of the company, even within the regions. I would love to do job transfers, offer shadowing opportunities even in different regions, because these create new areas of interest, they create motivation and they create fresh perspectives and ventures. Also, you can learn best practices in other regions or in other countries as well. There’s so much out there that we can learn from. There’s plenty of potential out there, and that really excites me.

The traditional business environment has been redefined and SAP is at the core of that. Everyone is pitching in to move in the same direction to grow the business. There is more alignment across the company and even the border between B2B marketing and B2C marketing is being blurred. Even as a B2B company, we have to look at the customers beyond our customers, so to speak. Which means it’s really about being close to the B2C marketing, which was previously not a part of the overall marketing portfolio.

The nature of business is changing, but it’s also about the nature of our attitude towards the business which is moving more towards purpose-driven activities. And that involves the end user, that involves the B2C customer and we really need to be aware of them in order to reach out to the end customers. Especially in the cloud era, it’s more about maintaining your trust with the customers even after the signing of the contract. And we truly walk side by side with them to support them as they go through the innovation process that they have set out to do with SAP. That is definitely becoming more relevant.

That evolution in turn means that we really need to shift more to post-sales marketing activities, like building communities, the customer advocacy programs and focusing on moments that matter. These areas are a whole new environment for us to focus on. There are two important issues here. Firstly, SAP really thinks about the customer and genuinely wants to support each customer with their innovation process. That is a very strong mindset in SAP. Secondly, and this is more internal, SAP takes very good care of its people, and maybe that links with the customer relationship as well, in terms of looking after relationships. This is a company that really focuses on the people, whether it be inside or outside the organization. And when a company cares for and thinks about its own people, those people are obviously going to reflect that attitude when dealing with our customers. That is very special."

Ask Kay about the importance of intellectual flexibility and she smiles as she harks back to her own childhood. “I had a huge learning curve, a Big Bang moment, when I was a little girl and I think that really helped shape the way I think and the way I adapt. When I was just six years old, my father took the whole family to New York. I didn’t speak a word of English and I was put into a public elementary school in a new city in this new country.

"I wasn’t even old enough to understand what was going on and that was a huge life change that I had to adjust to. But that experience gave me the flexibility and also the width of mind to accept differences and to really think about what needs to be done when changes like these occur in my life. That was a huge learning curve at a major moment of flux in my life and it has supported me ever since."

"I vividly remember my first four days in school. The first day, I just sat there silent without knowing what was going on. The second morning, I told my father that I did not want to go back because it was torture having to sit there for six hours or more without understanding anything, without knowing what was happening because I couldn’t even communicate a single word. But my father literally took me by the hand and took me to my classroom.

I remember that clearly because I screamed and shouted every step of the way, the whole way. I screamed and cried, saying that I was not going inside. My father was a very calm man and he was a very determined man. That continued for two more days. He had to literally drag me to the classroom.On the fourth day I realized that my approach wasn’t working, and that no matter how much I cried or screamed, I was going to have to sit there in the classroom and there was nothing I could do about it.

That was when I realized, okay, if this is the case, why not make the best out of it? That was the moment when I learnt the lesson of adaptability. The second reason I think I was able to adapt was that all my classmates really wanted to support me and they really felt sorry for this Asian kid. I still remember, I think it was the fourth day, that the kids gathered around me and asked me this one single question. Of course I didn’t understand what they were asking, but I understood that it was a question so I just smiled and nodded and was being nice but they didn’t seem to be satisfied, so they kept on asking the same phrase over and over again. I memorized the phrase and when I came home I asked my mother what it meant. It turned out that the question was, ‘What’s your name?’

It was a very steep learning curve. It’s funny when I look back on it now, but I thought after one month of being in the school that I had a perfect knowledge of the English language. In my mind, I spoke English perfectly because now I was able to communicate, or so I thought, 100 per cent with my friends. However, when I was in high school my mother and I were cleaning up the house to move, I came across one of the bulletin boards that was published exactly around that time in my life, one month after I had joined the school in the United States. And there was one paragraph that was written by me, in English. I read it, but I couldn’t understand one word of what I had written, it was such gibberish!

It was easy making friends in America but on the flip side, when I grew a little older, maybe in third or fourth grade, some boys bullied me because I was sort of the teachers’ pet at the time. The teachers took very good care of me because they knew that I was this Asian kid coming with really no experience of life in the States, so they all tried to protect me in whatever way they could. And that caused some envy, some jealousy, especially with some of the boys. But that in itself was another area of learning for me. And of course, my dad never had to lead me back to my classroom ever again, after that third morning.

I was almost 13 when we left New York to return to Japan. Now the same thing happens, albeit in reverse. I had to de-Americanize myself but I also wanted to remain a Japanese, even at that age. After spending a little over seven years in the States, I spoke better English than I spoke Japanese and I spoke to my father in English. The good thing is, my mother had been a Japanese teacher in Japan and she refused to speak to me in English when we were in America. Whenever I spoke to her in English she would not reply and she always said she wanted to help grow me up as a Japanese.

When the whole family returned to Japan, there were some options of putting me into an international school, because it was so hard since I didn’t even speak Japanese correctly. However the family decided – and I was also part of that decision – that I needed to go to a Japanese school. After all, I’m Japanese and I wanted to grow up Japanese. I was very much a part of that thought process.

Of course, I regretted that decision shortly afterwards, because I had to go to junior high at a Japanese public school. We all had to wear in uniforms, and it was all very strict about how we conformed. Uniforms? Really? During my years in America, I wore jeans and T-shirts to school, every single day.

Picture this. I did not own a skirt. I did not own a jacket. I had my hair down to my hips. I was wearing braces. How non-Japanese could I possibly look? My uniform didn’t arrive in time so on my first day, the only skirt I had was a tennis skirt which was naturally very short. I borrowed my mother’s jacket, which was actually longer than the skirt. And I went to school in that outfit.

I remember this very clearly and I remember that the entire school came to see me. They looked at me like a Martian that had just landed on earth. Those kids had never seen anybody who had lived outside of Japan. They had never heard a native speaker speak English live, although of course they had experienced that on television and in movies. And I spoke with a very American accent, which was even more pronounced then than it is now.

Everyone gathered around me and the only thing they said to me was, ‘Speak English, speak English.’ It was completely the other way around from my first experience in New York. But coming back was better, because I had already done it once and I was getting used to being dropped one day in a completely alien environment and striving to get along."

"I think embracing differences and adapting to changes are the two big skills that I acquired through this whole experience. Embracing differences is such a short phrase but it’s really about trying to understand that this person is from a different country, they have different backgrounds. Then it’s about really trying to understand what this person is thinking, how best to communicate – and this is not just in terms of the language alone – how to really communicate in a meaningful way with them so that we can understand each other. In order to do that, you have to trust and embrace the difference in that person, otherwise there is no real connection and you’ll just be tuned in to yourself.

And what better position am I in to execute that! I work with a team of diverse cultures and nationalities. I am happy for the opportunity to work with my team to embrace the differences and appreciate the wonderful diversity we have in APJ. That’s such an important part of who we are. It comes from within."

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