How Meilyne Tran Started an Agency with the Biggest Anime Youtubers in the World
The COO of GeeXPlus seeks to change the status quo of the Japanese anime and manga industry’s global marketing strategies.
My Journey is a series of interviews with industry leaders examining their career paths, influences, and goals for the future.
If you are a fan of popular anime Youtubers The Anime Man, Gigguk, or CDawgVA, you may have seen Meilyne Tran pop up in one of their videos or guest on Trash Taste Podcast (which she also produces). While the talent often refers to Ms. Tran as their “manager,” she wears many hats as the Chief Operating Officer of GeeXPlus, Inc, a Tokyo-based otaku influencer marketing agency. Japan Times called GeeXPlus “partly the brainchild” of Ms. Tran, who is originally from California. With a love of anime and Japanese pop culture coupled with tenacity and initiative, Ms. Tran’s many experiences paved the way for a one-of-a-kind career path
The Road to Japan
Long before she moved to Tokyo, Ms. Tran sought opportunities to do anything related to anime and Japanese culture. In high school, she served as the president of the anime club and organized trips to Fanime. From attending and making friends to participating in the Maid Café, Ms. Tran got a part-time gig supporting a company that brought Japanese artists to anime conventions throughout the U.S. She also worked part-time at Japanese fashion boutique MARUQ in San Francisco. In college, Ms. Tran studied abroad in Tokyo for a year and had a summer internship for a Japanese-owned startup in San Francisco.
A few weeks into her first post-college job, Ms. Tran quit to pursue her anime dreams. She immediately booked a flight to Tokyo to find a job that would sponsor her work visa. Thankfully, the staff from her summer internship who had returned to Japan were able to hire Ms. Tran for business development. She spent six months working on projects such as a dating app and recruiting services for foreigners in Japan. Ms. Tran then joined a digital marketing consulting agency where she assisted a variety of clients with targeting overseas customers or foreigners living in Japan. While searching for a bicycle on Craigslist, Ms. Tran stumbled upon a job listing for a “large well-known anime/manga publishing company located in Chiyoda-ku.” With a bit of searching, she found the posting on Kadokawa’s website and applied directly. In September 2015, Ms. Tran joined Bookwalker’s global marketing team one month before they launched their global ebookstore.
Bridging the Gap
At Bookwalker, Ms. Tran tried a variety of tactics to promote their releases—from social media ads to collaborations with cosplayers and artists to providing products to anime clubs. She learned about The Anime Man and by extension, anime youtubers in general, through Japan vlogger Sharla in Japan. From there, she spearheaded YouTuber partnerships to promote sales of new releases and the positive effects were undeniable. These efforts led to Kadokawa creating GeeXPlus as a subsidiary under Bookwalker in July 2019 with Ms. Tran leading as Chief Operating Officer. As the head of a small team., Ms. Tran oversees everything from sales and accounting to consulting with legal to acting as the talent manager and producer. While GeeXPlus’s website states a goal of “connecting Japanese brands with global influencers,“ clients from the U.S and Europe currently make up 80-90% of their business. Although they recently brought on a team member to specifically handle Japanese clients, Ms. Tran is mindful of how many of their projects they take on. Because of how much more work is involved, working with Japanese clients is an ongoing challenge.
With high-profile Japanese Youtubers represented by large agencies and working with advertising firms on major deals within the domestic market, the influencer marketing landscape is well-established within Japan. However, anime and manga companies in Japan have little to no experience dealing with international influencers according to Ms. Tran. In fact, most global marketing teams that she encounters have never worked with anime YouTubers like the ones on GeeXPlus’s roster and are reluctant to pay the fees that they routinely command. Ms. Tran often fields questions like “Does it really work?” and “Is it really okay to work with anitubers?” as well as concerns like “Can these superfans present the brand well?” or “Won’t they say something horrible in another video later?”
Japanese clients’ expectations also do not align with how international influencers tend to be more open and honest, which is often a part of their appeal. While 70% of a video may consist of positive comments, the talent might share personal opinions or preferences that are not viewed favorably by clients; however, they are also not necessarily negative criticisms either. Ms. Tran cites art style as an example: if someone says they do not like a certain art style as a personal preference, that does not equate to saying the art style is inherently bad.
For Ms. Tran, the biggest challenge when working with Japanese clients is time: the time needed to greenlight, review, and approve a project. With long timeframes, talent may lose interest or get busy with another project. Additionally, projects with Japanese companies are rife with more requirements, restrictions, and rounds of revisions for one-third to one-half of the typical rates paid by U.S. clients. What makes working with Japanese companies appealing, however, is that they can offer more exclusives such as access to events.
Some companies, however, try to exploit content creators and influencers by appealing to them as fans. Ms. Tran disapproves of merchandising companies that offer $200 or so worth of products for work that might be worth thousands of dollars. But PR boxes and gifts for influencers are not necessarily bad. For Ms. Tran, this strategy is more suitable for influencers with fewer than 100,000 subscribers. For GeeXPlus talent whose subscriber bases are in the millions, however, such offers undervalue their work and reduce their future potential earnings.
Future of GeeXPlus
For now, Ms. Tran wants to stay focused on her strength of working with anime and otaku-based influencers. This focus is further complemented by having Kadokawa as a parent company, through which GeeXPlus “can get many interesting and unique collaboration opportunities.” In terms of expansion, Ms. Tran is waiting for the Japanese government to issue visas again to bring four more people to work under GeeXPlus.
Currently, most projects with Japanese companies are initiated by GeeXPlus. Ms. Tran hopes this will change in the next two to five years, as she would like to work with more Japanese publishing companies. She wants to change the perceptions of content creators and show the value of working with influencers through the data that she has gathered during her time working with Bookwalker and GeeXPlus.
For aspiring content creators who hope to be a part of GeeXPlus in the future, Ms. Tran says consistency and professionalism are key. “Make deadlines and have a consistent upload schedule [with] high-quality content.” From an agency perspective, having a regular schedule of posting a video every Thursday, for example, is easier to work with and plan around. “Be good at communicating. Reply to emails within 1-2 business days.” There are two ways in which GeeXPlus works with content creators: talent who are sponsored by the company to live in Japan have exclusive contracts while talent who live outside of Japan have non-exclusive contracts and may receive jobs via GeeXPlus when there is a good fit. Ms. Tran says she looks for creators who have a history of monetization and sponsorships for a minimum of one year. Due to Japan’s visa requirements, creators must also have a college degree to be considered for an exclusive contract.
For those interested in working in the anime or manga industries, Ms. Tran recommends going to Japan. With just a handful of anime and manga companies in the U.S., competition is fierce. In terms of Japanese language ability, she believes it is most important to be able to convey your thoughts adequately. With a history of focusing on global marketing efforts, Ms. Tran’s perspective is that JLPT certification or full fluency is not necessarily required to get a job in Japan.
Scratching the Itch of Curiosity
What excites Ms. Tran the most about her role at GeeXPlus is “working on new projects that no one else has ever done before.” She relishes in taking on new challenges and working on projects that cannot be compared with anyone else’s work. “Doing the same routine every day is too boring,” says Ms. Tran. She also enjoys meeting new people and working with them on new projects. Ms. Tran has even been able to tap into contacts from her days working part-time at MARUQ and conventions for various projects in her current role at GeeXPlus.
Upon reaching a satisfactory level of expertise, Ms. Tran takes everything she has learned, then packages it together in guides that can equip successors and clients with the tools and knowledge to continue her work. With that said, Ms. Tran has been training new GeeXPlus team members so that she can move onto other yet-to-be-announced projects.
For Ms. Tran, staying curious drives her pursuit of knowledge and new experiences. She is grateful to have a good work environment at Bookwalker, calling it the most innovative division of Kadokawa. When it comes to trying new things, Ms. Tran is always on the lookout for the best mid-priced restaurants in Tokyo. She prides herself in being among the top 5% of Google Local reviewers and often gives restaurant recommendations to talent, friends, and colleagues. One of her top picks is Sushi Ishijima in Ginza. Coincidentally, the head chef is also an anime and manga fan.