Julie Kang CEO/MP Serviceplan Korea: We are all on this journey as experimentors together

Julie_Kang_Serviceplan Korea.jpgAs CEO and Managing Partner of Serviceplan Korea, Julie Kang has emerged as one of Korea's highest profile creative leaders, and she's refreshingly candid when it comes to explaining how Korea's ad industry differs from other markets in Asia and beyond.

Serviceplan Korea has enjoyed immense success over the past 12 months thanks to Dot - an invention that has won accolades around the world, most recently at Ad Stars, where it won the Innovation Grand Prix.

"A few Korean agencies are doing excellent jobs but somehow the Korean ad industry itself has a way to go. When people outside of Korea look at Korea's 4G and 5G, they expect our advertising sector to be equally innovative. Yes, we have perfect infrastructure, but when it comes to the advertising industry ecosystem, it's quite closed," said Kang (pictured above).
She spoke to Campaign Brief Asia to explain how things are changing in South Korea's unique ad market...

You say the industry ecosystem is quite closed in South Korea, why?
Korea's dominant in-house agency system is a chaebol system that began to emerge in the 1970s and 80s. But since 2005, this trend got heavily transferred to the advertising industry and right now, Korea barely has any agencies that aren't in-house anymore.

Being independent means you can make your own decisions. Once you are dependent on your client's dollars, you often sit in comfort zones. Overall, in-house agencies bring stability and economies of scale but as a creator, I am not really a big fan of it unless those agencies restlessly try to encourage and boost creativity and innovative culture.

How did the in-house agency system come about?
The phenomenon comes from complex areas. It was influenced by the rapid development of the ad industry that came along with the fast economic development of Korea. It was caused by a TV-driven media environment along with the dominant domestic portal sites, which made creativity focused on TV channels and certain typical formats of display banners rolling at big portals.

For the last 67 years after the Korean War in 1950s, Korea has made such fast development. The ad industry had to catch up with the fastest speed and flow. Everything had to be done 'PaliPali' - quick and fast.

You can clearly see this PaliPali pattern from the growth of digital agencies starting from year 2000. Those earliest digital agencies started to boom when the IT era arrived with the new millennium. To catch up with clients' speed, the digital agencies grew up without employing creative directors. Concepts were left up to account managers because accounts know best what clients want - but it means the concepts tended to be not super creative.

How is the market changing today?
Gradually since 2012, the market has become dominated by big ad agencies focused on TV, and digital agencies focused on typical banner creative executions. This later trend was caused due to global new media developments such as Facebook and Twitter, and emerging video ads on digital channels such as YouTube.

DOTWatch sml.jpgClients realised that they would get similar results by spending 10-20% of their TV budgets on digital channels, so they started to look for fresh blood. Neither big ad agencies nor typical digital agencies could answer their needs perfectly, since none of them had proper creative teams and resources in-house who could think of ideas first, rather than channels.

Big ad agencies rushed to hire in-house digital creatives & experts, launching innovation centres and data labs, or investing in specialist digital agencies - it's a big shift.

At the same time, while typical digital agencies collapsed, innovators such as Innored and Adqua became dark horses proving their creative innovations in digital creative field, even crossing over to ATL areas these days. It is their proud success stories since they tried to think and act differently and to keep moving forward without staying in comfort zones.

What does the future hold for Korea's ad industry?
No one's model is perfect yet - we are all on this journey as experimenters trying out new things together, but it's the big agencies that are struggling most to adapt.

We hope young creators will come into the game and change things. It starts with education. My global counterparts think about holistic ideas conceptually regardless of channels from the beginning because it's something they are taught at school. In Korea, the education still has a top-down culture: we learn to memorise, versus discussing and having ownership of our opinions. This becomes part of our advertising culture - we follow previous practice, it's hard to become an innovator here.

You seem optimistic that things are changing for the better?
Yes, Korean brands want to set the bar high, and they're beginning to look beyond in-house agencies for all around expertise.

What's your vision for Serviceplan?
I am interested in the sustainable healthiness of our agency in Korea. To me, sustainability means that our agency can hold our own creative hegemony and decisions right. We don't want to be daily commodities but partners with our clients. We want to consult them at their eye level and be able to say 'yes' or 'no' to our clients freely.

To make it happen, we have to think about our business models differently, which will sustain us financially and keep us mentally happy in the mid and long term.

Our agency wants to be more like the cluster of smaller-sized innovators emerging in Seoul who are tackling global creatives. After the success of Dot, we won several clients who want to go to the global stage with us. That is a very positive sign that we can partner with clients from the beginning and participate in real business growth and successes with them.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?
As an independent network, I hope Serviceplan will continue to prove itself in order to retain independence - financially and creatively.

This is my dream: to introduce this philosophy to Korea and set the bar very high with my team. I want to create an environment where thanks and love are virtuous and where happy people grow around me. With a great team x great client who believe in each other, you can move a mountain.

My team say, 'Will this day ever come?' I say, 'Yes, When the eagle flies above the clouds, no one knows what this bird is looking at and trying to catch. But for sure, we are looking far ahead and acting ahead. Not so many agencies in Korea can do this.

ยท      Julie Kang judged the Direct, Media, Promotion and PR categories at Ad Stars 2017. Serviceplan also collected four Pencils at D&AD for DOT this year, on top of a sweep of trophies at Cannes, CLIO 2016, Epica, Eurobest, and Spikes Asia awards.

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