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Opinion and Insight
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South Korea Unwrapped: A Discussion With Kate Hyewon Oh

LBB Editorial, 2 months, 2 weeks ago

Cheil Worldwide’s Executive Creative Director talks industry turning points, religious tech-following and how to look beneath K-Pop and ‘Hallyu’

South Korea Unwrapped: A Discussion With Kate Hyewon Oh

With Brexit weighing on the hearts and minds of industry leaders, South Korea becomes one of the most interesting case studies in terms of culture, industry and economics. Only 15 years ago, South Korea was deep in what was coined the ‘IMF Crisis’, or as the West knows it, the Asian Financial Crisis. In a record turnaround of just three years, South Korea broke out of recession and following the venture boom in 2010, now takes its place amongst the world’s most fruitful and forward-thinking countries. With rapid economic growth on the horizon, led by advanced technological innovation and a pop culture that’s sweeping across the world, the wider advertising industry could learn a thing or two from this unique market.

Intrigued to know how it all ticks, LBB’s Phoebe Siggins caught up with Executive Creative Director of Cheil Worldwide HQ in Seoul, Kate Hyewon Oh. The multiple award-winning ECD divulges the history of her career, what it takes to hold a senior role as a female in South Korea and how the world should approach working in Seoul.

LBB > What first led you to a career in creativity?

Kate Hyewon Oh > I think my insatiable curiosity played a big part. In terms of starting at Cheil, one day a friend of mine was submitting a job application and I happened to follow along. I ended up applying as well. I managed to make it through the first, second, and third round of interviews. So there began my advertising career.

LBB> How long have you been in the industry and have you always been at Cheil?

KHO> Yes. My first job was as a copywriter, I then went on to become a creative director 10 years later, and an executive creative director seven years after that.  So I've been in advertising for 22 years and counting. It may seem strange that I have never changed companies, but Cheil has been like a huge ocean of opportunities for me, and with curiosity and enjoyment for advertising, I'm still swimming in it.

LBB> How do people in South Korea view a career in advertising? Have opinions on the job changed over the years?

KHO> In the latter half of the 1990s the advertising industry was emerging as a new field of work here. At the time, it was trendy and something that young people wanted to try their hand at. From the end of the 90s right through the IMF hardships, the IT boom of the early 2000s and the venture boom of 2010 (when Korea rapidly developed) it was a hot job on the market - often glorified by TV dramas. Currently however, advertising and creative work have not been receiving much love from younger people as the jobs in this industry involve a fair amount of intense labour. Of course, those who are crazy for this kind of work haven't disappeared completely.

LBB> We loved the ‘Life Saving TV’ campaign you launched for KT earlier this year, it’s a great example of how tech can be used for social change. What other key issues in Korea are clients looking to address?

KHO> Problems with the elderly have been a big, pending issue in Korean society. We are currently preparing our next work with KT. Korean advertisers are very interested in technology that can put a spotlight on social issues, especially in regard to mobile phones, games, and other issues related to young people.

LBB> Do you feel campaigns with a social purpose are growing in importance?

KHO> As an advertiser, I feel both businesses and consumers can grow together through campaigns that increase awareness of the social responsibility of corporations. It’s a win-win situation. I think that by giving attention to social issues, corporations can recreate themselves into businesses that are loved by consumers - but this must be accompanied by consistent, long-term planning. A lack of honesty will end up producing the opposite effect.

LBB> What other campaigns have you worked on recently that have really resonated with you?

KHO> Most recently we have been planning the "Woman" campaign for Galaxy. Up until this point, we have been successful in reaching the male market, but we intend to make the brand image more appealing to female millennials. To do this we looked to ourselves to create ideas from a completely consumer perspective and have re-addressed everything from strategy to creative work by forming female teams. All of the insight and empathy that we gave each other during the process became one of the biggest reflective experiences and inspirations I have had in a long time. I'm really looking forward to what comes next in this project.

LBB> What’s the situation for women in advertising in South Korea? - You are of course a very senior female creative - is that common or quite rare?

KHO> It would be true to say that it is quite rare to see females in senior creative positions here. Although females make up 40% of the work force at Cheil Worldwide headquarters, the percentage of female senior creatives is not so high. Those who do hold senior positions, tend to be (like me) born during the baby boom in the early 70's, raised with freedom and equal education, beginning their careers in advertising around the mid-90's. Women who joined at this time have a firm background of real-world work experience and have grown with their companies, whether that be agency, production or post production, to hold key positions. There are signs pointing to females playing greater roles in executive positions in the near future as well but more diversification is needed.

LBB>  Do you feel the advanced and innovative technology in South Korea has a big influence on the creative style and ideas coming out of South Korean agencies?

KHO> I absolutely think so. The leading electronics and automotive industries have a considerable amount of control over creative style. It is an undeniable reality as our advertisers believe in the importance of technology on a religious level.

Seoul - South Korea

LBB> This year Samsung was creative marketer of the year in Cannes – within the country does it feel like you’re at some kind of turning point?

KHO> It is most definitely a huge turning point. The reverence that goes along with receiving this award is huge. If we were intent on making our name known before, we are even more so now. We want to let others know what we are good at and what we stand for. The fact that people have begun to find out about and understand our own particular philosophy is proof that it's already happening. Although some might feel we are lacking in certain areas, we’re confident about the limitless possibilities we hold as a rising star in the advertising world.

LBB> Cheil HQ has a unique relationship with client and shareholder, Samsung. How would you describe the ‘Chaebol’ relationships in Korea to someone outside of the market?

KHO > My personal opinion is that Korea's Chaebol culture is now undergoing a transition period. The staff from the industrious and self-sacrificing, self-made first generation are making way for the second and third generations. These younger generations tend to have studied overseas, and through a wealth of education and experience have grown up with the importance of communication. I think it goes without saying that our ‘Chaebol’ agencies have great interest and affinity for advertising and communicative work. From the perspective of the growth of the advertising industry, I consider it to be a meaningful relationship.

LBB > How is Cheil, in particular, evolving as an agency?

KHO> Cheil has already become a global agency with 52 offices in 43 countries around the world, but this rapid growth has also resulted in a lot of growing pains. We encounter some trial and error, but regardless we are moving forward without hesitation. We are expanding our portfolio outside of Samsung, while also working hard to be a partner agency fit for Samsung's global status. The result? We can't say for sure yet but we are putting our full effort into moving forward.

LBB> Within the local market, what is the split between big network agencies and independents?

KHO> The stereotype that independent agencies are more flexible and offer more creative freedom still exists, but you can't ignore the wealth of experience that agency networks have. Regrettably, the presence and influence of independent agencies in Korea has weakened considerably in the past 10 years. You could say that the balance of power has since been broken.

LBB > There’s a lot of interest in South Korean pop culture and advertising in the West. What advice would you give US and European creative companies hoping to work more with South Korea?

KHO> I think the current "Hallyu" boom of Korean dramas and idols sweeping over Asia and moving on to the Middle East and Eastern Europe are perhaps unrelated. Korea has, in the shortest time possible, overcome the disadvantages of a uniform and passive culture based on a history of Confucianism, and is a country that has emerged to find a unique charm of its own. Even as a Korean native, I find it amazing how the people of this country are continually moving forward and pushing the limits of everything from technological industry to cultural content. It may seem as though Korea has been following by Western example, but in reality it has had the ability to recreate its own culture and environment that is autonomous of that. My advice for those looking to work in Korea is look beyond what can be seen on the surface and gain a deeper insight.

LBB> Is there anything you find frustrating about the local market?

KHO> Meaningful campaigns from the construction and financial sectors have disappeared because of the recession, and I feel like that is a really big loss. Also I can't take any more of the beauty campaigns from the fashion industry. It's an unfortunate time for campaign diversification.

With the economic downturn, there have been less beauty and fashion advertisements. It is sad to see creative diversity disappearing in this area. The majority of ads that stand out these days are mainly in electronics, telecommunications, and automotive industries.

LBB> You’re judging this year’s Clios Branded Entertainment and Branded Content category, what will you be looking for in the work and what excites you about this category in 2016?

KHO> I started judging for the Cannes’ Cyber category in 2006, then CLIO London, the New York Festival, and others, but this is the first time I’ve judged the branded entertainment category and I'm really looking forward to it. I think it will be an opportunity to see both creative depth and width at the same time. I know that a lot of difficult judging is waiting for me, and I hope to get a more holistic perspective on creative work through this experience.

LBB> How successful is branded entertainment in South Korea?

KHO> Businesses with the required capital and reputation necessary for branded entertainment are still limited, and in the small Korean market, with marketing activity of global companies and competition dwindling, it's difficult to thrive. In Korea, I think there is still room for development for many creative sectors.

Genre: Creative technology , Digital , People , Strategy/Insight