SOUTH KOREA SPECIAL REPORT: the CEO and managing partner at Serviceplan Korea, Seoul talks to Barbara Messer about K-Pop innovation and being indie in a market dominated by in-house agencies
In the lead up to AD STARS 2019, Little Black Book chats to three creative leaders in Seoul about the Korean Wave, the challenge of two-year client contracts and the pros of being based in the world’s #1 market for innovation. We kick off the series with Serviceplan Korea’s Julie Kang.
Julie Kang has been with Serviceplan Korea since its earliest days when the network first expanded into South Korea seven years ago. As CEO and managing partner (and one of the Group’s youngest managing partners and board members), she has helped Serviceplan Korea emerge as the country’s top-ranked creative agency in the 2019 WARC Creative 100 ranking.
LBB> What’s the biggest challenge you face as the CEO of a Korean agency?
Julie> Building sustainable relationships with clients. Most of the contractual terms in Korea are two years. Every two years, clients change their ad agencies by set rules and market practices. It often hinders consistent consultancy on the brands, and stability on the agency side as well. It is also challenging to have an eye-level partnership for agencies with their clients.
LBB> Do you have any tips for doing business in Seoul?
Julie> Korea is an innovation hub, where many interesting cultural elements breathe together. In that sense, Korea’s sophistication with global citizenship allows Korea to absorb differences and diversities.
Still, we need to move away from the seniority system and rules inherited from our old Confucian culture. It can be difficult for Korean clients to make good creative selections and decisions because of the rigid top-down relationships in their organisations. I strongly believe that good creative is not only made from agencies. More crucially, good creative comes from clients – eyes that can see it and have the courage to decide and execute it. Also, we need to learn how to accept risks and failures constructively in organisations in Korea.
LBB> What are your favourite South Korean advertising campaigns that have become part of pop culture, which have shaped the industry?
Julie> Rather than advertising, I would like to talk about the powerful explosion of Korean culture and its massive potential and influences. These days, the K-waves are swiping millennial generations around the world such as K-pop, K-drama, K-movies, K-food, etc. If you want to know more about Korean culture, check out videos on Korea’s famous musical band, BTS (Beyond the Scene) and the film Parasite, by director Joon-Ho Bong, which was recently awarded at Cannes. All those attractive and flourishing cultural explorations give me seamless inspirations day-to-day to push myself forward as a creator in my field.
LBB> How does Serviceplan succeed or differentiate as a European agency in a market dominated by in-house agencies?
Julie> Serviceplan Group launched in the Korean market in 2013 by acquiring a small German agency, Liquid Campaign. Its vision was to be the largest independent network agency in the world, and Liquid Campaign, which had its roots in Germany yet had been strong in Asia, was a perfect match to launch Serviceplan’s Asian strategy.
The timing was also perfect. Right after the acquisition in 2013, we won IKEA’s launch campaign for the Korean market. It was such big news that we as a small, unknown agency beat the top five major ad agencies in Korea. It was called the battle of David and Goliath, and a triumph of the creatives.
Serviceplan is a large company with 4,000 people working around the globe in various fields including digital development and innovative solution services. But Serviceplan Korea is not in the same position regarding the size of the workforce. Our competitors are not the nation’s top 10 advertising giants. We are “small and independent” with 20 people. We move like a speedboat to do things faster and achieve more innovative work. Being small and independent is the challenge but also the beauty of our strength.
LBB> Are there any influential designers, filmmakers or artists in Korea who inspire you?
Julie> I am inspired by young artists, musicians, fashion designers and great movie directors. I am not just obsessed with a few famous people. What matters to me is to get new inspiration every day from all kinds of different people and work: artists, beautifully crafted architects, insightful novels and poems, enormously modernized shops, streets, and spaces. This diverse source of inspiration is the key for me. Once you visit Korea, you will know what I really mean.
LBB> Serviceplan Korea is perhaps best known for its work for braille-smartphone Dot Watch. Can you give us an update?
Julie> After the Dot Watch showcased its launch on the global stage in 2016, Dot's technological innovation has been steadily expanding to Dot Mini and its other product pipelines. They also achieved remarkable business results and won 4.5 billion won in export deals recently.
The Dot Mini campaign recently received two Golds and a Silver at Cannes 2018, Grand Prix at Eurobest 2018, five Golds at One Show 2019, and one Gold and five Silvers at 2019 New York Festivals. Serviceplan Korea is currently ranked #1 in creative rankings in Korea, 28th most creative agency by 2019 WARC Ranking, and 5th most innovative agency of the year by 2018 Cannes Lions Creativity Report.
Currently, Serviceplan Korea is an investor and shareholder of Dot Incorporation, responsible for digital sales and marketing in China and the United States. We are growing with Dot together step by step with this progressive business model through the revenue share.
LBB> Korea ranks #1 in the Bloomberg Innovation Index. What can other brands learn from Korean innovation? Does Korea’s entrepreneurialism rub off on the advertising industry?
Julie> South Korea is a powerhouse in the semiconductor, IT, electronics and bio-industries. We are also leading the fields of gaming, AI, robotics, and innovative startups. Korea accepts new things very fast and has strong capabilities to turn them into our own strengths. When it comes to entrepreneurship, speed and implementation capacity are the keys that move Korea to constantly innovative.
Just try and experience the extreme speed of Korea by installing an Internet connection at your home or office. Right after your order call, the Internet installation guy might be standing in front of your door already!
LBB> What steps is Serviceplan Korea taking to encourage more women to climb the ranks and achieve leadership positions?
Julie> I actually believe that women are more suited to leadership today when open communication and creativity are getting more important. Women can incubate young millennials, embrace diversity, and inspire others better while still respecting differences. Also, I don’t really think about being a woman. Be a creator. Be yourself.