Right from the onset, South Korea has a few striking stats. 94 per cent of the country’s 15 million monthly active users on Facebook have mobile access. The country is also the world’s biggest producer of free ‘massively multiplayer online role-playing games’ (MMPORGs).
K-pop, arguably the country’s most culturally significant export, is government-supported and has a global entertainment and marketing agenda, blending Korean and English language content for the widest market appeal.
However, despite all this seeming creativity and efficiency, South Koreans suffer from a deeply engrained paradox that comes with a culture of ‘high performance and achievement’. This starts at the earliest stages of society.
According to a study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), students in South Korea rank lowest among all OECD nations in life satisfaction, and they tend to suffer from stress and depression due to an ‘all work, no play’ approach to education.
For young professionals, the competitive landscape doesn’t make it any easier. The Chaebols, the large business groups such as Samsung and Hyundai, account a large chunk of the country’s economic prospects.
Realising that this is a problem, the country's president, Park Geun-hye, launched a “creative economy” plan last year to “foster startups and promote entrepreneurship” with a focus on creating more opportunities for young people.”
According to Wain Choi, senior vice president and chief creative officer at Cheil Korea (itself part of Samsung), the combined effect of these factors has transformed the way Korean brands interact with consumers as well as the role they play in Korean society.
A greater sense of humanity
“In the past, the types of work a lot of clients asked us to do focused on product benefits,” said Choi. “It was very nuts and bolts. In recent times, we’ve tried to go beyond that and look at the human insights. Now a lot of global Korean brands are also taking this approach.”
Whether presented in a funny or serious manner, brands across different sectors in South Korea—even public institutions—have followed this trend, including Reebok, AIA, Northface, K Beauty, Innisfree and Samsung. This has given rise to a distinct style of ‘socially conscious’ ad campaign focusing on issues close to the hearts of South Koreans, which integrate film, technology and cross media.
“It’s very apparent now that there’s been a shift in the consumer mindset,” said Choi. “I think a great deal of it has been driven by millennials, because they think, ‘how does that brand help me?’”
Choi added that the “trigger” for marketing trends in the past came from “daytime dramas” but that it’s now coming from “global”. Among young creatives, he has observed that inspiration can come from “something that happened at the Super Bowl, from an event in Japan, from artwork at MOMA, or from architecture in Spain”.
“I would say that Korean creativity has become very sophisticated," Choi added. "It’s as if people are picking things up and synthesising them in just nanoseconds. But I’m not saying they are copying other countries. It’s not like that at all. The trends are actually happening here, it just seems like it’s coming from other places.”
Sanghoon Lee, media group director at The Cream Union believes that technology has made Korean consumers hungry for diverse kinds of content and changed the industry.
“Users can freely acquire content that they want with a smartphone,” said Lee. “Ad content has to compete with this. Therefore we must pay attention to how we have moved from the ‘advertising age” to the ‘digital content age’.”
At the same time, client expectations have changed. Lee said a new appraisal standard has taken hold in South Korea and that “marketing is no longer being evaluated by clicks and exposure”.
“It’s gone beyond the concept of brand and product awareness to deeper points like how users actually reacted to an ad,” said Lee. “From there, clients want to actually see how those emotions and reactions are connected with the user's purchase-related behaviour.”
The need to retain
Whether it’s film directors like Chan-wook Park or Joon-ho Bong, sculptors like Kwangho Lee or fashion models such as Soo Joo Park, South Korea has produced a great deal of internationally renowned talent from a broad range of creative industries such as design, music, film, fashion and the fine arts. But Choi sees that the advertising industry has some catching up to do.
“I think the ad industry is lagging behind,” said Choi. “There are still certain stigmas about advertising if you compare the industry to places like North America. Ridley Scott, for example, has done both commercials and feature films since the beginning of his career. That hasn’t translated here.”
While Choi thinks the change is happening slowly, he sees that film talent is divided into two distinct camps: those that do commercials and those that don’t. “Filmmakers are afraid of working on TVCs because they feel it will affect their careers in film,” he added.
One of the hurdles in this area could be that TV is still a main media in South Korea. Also, advertisers generally purchase commercial spots that are about 15 seconds long, rather than 30- or 90-second slots, where more of a story can be told.
However, Choi said online film formats are helping to change this perception.
“I’ve seen that film directors are getting more interested at what they can do online and on social media,” he said. “There’s quite a lot of flexibility there.”
Lee agreed that that the rise of the digital and mobile space has helped attract new creative talent. He said that South Korea’s love of digital and mobile content and “snack culture”, which reflects users desires to “enjoy lifestyle and cultural content in a short span of active search time” has led to more opportunities for creatives working in this area.
“There is especially rapid growth in video content since it accounts for more than half of mobile traffic,” Lee said. As an agency, Lee elaborated on the kinds of talent The Cream Union seeks to hire under current market conditions.
Lee said the first kind is talent that can “analyse purchase trends and user perception of brands through consulting or big data as well as accurately analyse a client’s business”. The second kind is talent that can “produce and plan multiple forms of content across different channels and develop brand communication materials that users will enjoy”.
According to Choi, South Korea’s creative workforce has reached new levels of competitiveness. Having “a few years of international experience” and “strong English language ability” are now just basic criteria for working at an agency or brand.
“With 20 million plus people living in Seoul, there are only so many number of jobs at places like Cheil, or other top agencies and brands,” said Choi. “The people that come to Cheil are the crème de la crème and they have great passion."
However, compared to five years ago, Choi said there is less talent entering the ad industry and that keeping it is harder.
“I lost a couple of young guys to the gaming industry early this year,” Choi said. “They are applying the skills they learnt to other industries, and because advertising has such broad scope these days, they are well equipped to do so.”
Choi added that this has led to a workforce of young South Koreans that have a much more “diverse set of experiences” than before. People are also valuing “being happy and following their passion, rather than sticking to something they don’t like”.
“This is a huge step and hugely different from previous generations,” said Choi. “But this process of change is still on-going.”