Cheil’s Thomas Kim on exporting ideas, how Samsung moves so fast and why he worries about ‘the Psy effect’ on brand Korea

Thomas KimMumbrella was in Cannes recently to catch up with Thomas Hong-tack Kim, executive creative director of Cheil Worldwide, the only Asian agency to win a titanium lion.

In this interview with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, Kim talks about Korea’s punishing work ethic, the idea behind the Bridge of Life campaign and why some Cheil executives use Apple products.

What’s your favourite piece of work that you spotted in Cannes?

I didn’t have much time to see as much work as I would have liked. Every day I spent either in a seminar or doing a media interview. But I do love Dumb Ways To Die. It’s an interesting approach – tackling a serious problem in a lighthearted way. And Dumb Ways has stronger, wider power than a single target group. Anyone who hears or sees it, remembers it.

At the Mumbrella 360 conference in Sydney three weeks ago, after Cheil presented its anti-suicide idea Bridge of Life, one agency boss said he wanted to bring the idea to Australia. What do you think about your ideas being used in other countries?

I don’t see any reason why not. Advertising is about creating shared value, not just driving sales. I dearly hope that Bridge of Life, and other ideas like it, will be exported to other countries, enrich societies and save lives. But I’d hope that we are notified before our ideas are used. That way we might be able to help ensure they work.

Where did the Bridge of Life idea come from?

It was very simple. Every day we watch many TV ads that raise awareness about suicide. But they’re just a messages – they’re not a call to action. We wanted to find a solution on the site itself, where most suicides happen. And we wanted the solution to be interactive, so we could physically talk people down from the bridge edge.

But didn’t the people who wanted to kill themselves simply go to another place to do it?

We found that the total number of suicides fell overall in Seoul. Because of the publicity generated by the campaign, people began to realise how serious an issue it had become. Suicide rose to the top of the social agenda, and the suicide rate fell as a result.

Cheil has spent a lot of money branding at Cannes, plastering posters on the walls of the Palais des Festivals and sponsoring the delegate bag. Why is it important that ad agencies advertise themselves?

Cannes is not just an advertising festival. It’s an ideas expo. It is a place for agencies to set the marketing agenda. If we showcase our ideas, people will know about Cheil without us having to pitch them our work. They will come to us.

What is the most special thing about Korean advertising?

Korea’s ad industry is still heavily focused on TV ads. Since korea is small, TV is very effective. But our real strength is in how we use technology.

We try to find practical solutions to real problems, then present these ideas to the client – I don’t think anyone else uses this kind of approach. Most of our best ideas, such as Bridge of Life, the Homeplus Virtual Supermarket [which won the media grand prix at Cannes in 2011] and the Dunkin Donuts exploding app, are rooted in an understand of technology.

The usual approach agencies take is to focus on the client, and the result is a campaign that highlights product features. Yes, this approach can raise mind share and market share, but it can’t solve real problems in real life. I try to find real problems then present solutions to clients proactively.

We write the brief, not the client.

When we present our ideas to the client, they’re often surprised and, more often than not, happy with what we come up with.

Who is the most powerful person in advertising in Korea?

There aren’t too many advertising agency people with much power in Korea. Clients have more clout. And in this case the client happens to be ours – Samsung. The most influential person right now is Lee Young Hee, the executive vice president of Samsung’s mobile division.

Korea is said to be a country where business decisions can take a while, because corporate structure is so hierarchical. So how can a company like Samsung move so quickly?

It’s in their DNA. It’s only 60 years since the civil war, and now South Korea is a highly developed country. There’s an ongoing quest for newness and innovation, and that’s at the heart of Samsung’s culture.

There’s a desire to do what needs to be done now, to prepare for the future. If something is deemed necessary for Samsung to stay ahead in the future, the company will hire the right people to fulfill that need without hesitation.

Does anyone at Cheil dare to use Apple products?

Some of the younger guys do. Their excuse is that they should try out Apple products to size up the competition.

Where I come from – the UK – there is little real understanding of Korea. Most people know it for K-Pop, Psy and Park Ji-Sung, the former Manchester United (now QPR) footballer. How do you feel the world perceives Brand Korea?

These days, in a very specific way – the Samsung phone and high quality design. Enterprises like Samsung and Hyundai are like government representatives. They’re ambassadors for Korea.

Culture wise, K-pop and people like Psy have spread globally. Which is a good thing. But I do worry about that, because they are essentially fads.

It’s very important for us to have a concrete base, a solid platform of understanding. And I believe this should be based on speed. We can develop things quickly. We can innovate fast.

Korea is famous for its tough work ethic. Do you think it is healthy for people to work so hard?

No, absolutely not. People are burning out, and this is pushing society to the point of crisis. Our work culture needs to change. But I think it will change, albeit gradually.

Young Koreans know how to enjoy life. It’s the older generation that doesn’t. These days, there are music festivals every weekend and youth is embracing the better things in life. Culture is changing, but it will take time.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella Asia newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing