After previously working at Interone, the Digital Arm of BBDO, and prior to that Seoul-based Grape Communications, Julie Kang joined Serviceplan in 2009 where she was tasked with managing clients including IKEA, Absolut, BMW and local Korean brands.
Last year Kang was instrumental in developing strategy and creative-partner status for the globally-acclaimed DOT Braille Smartwatch campaign which racked up awards such as Golden Lions at Cannes, CLIO Health Agency of the Year, and a Grand Prix at LIA.
Kang recently spoke with Branding in Asia about her work, her career climb in Korea’s patriarchal society as a working mother, and the evolving business world in Seoul.
You majored in French studies. How did you wind up on your current career path?
In university, I was mainly into French, liberal arts and literature. I kicked off my career as a professional sales rep and marketer on the client side, but I was never satisfied with what I was doing and was always eager to move on to what would come next in my career.
In Korea, women face glass ceilings and many restrictions that prevent them from moving forward. Since I have worked in a creative environment, I could work more freely than others since creativity is independent of gender or age.
Luckily, in 2002, I had an opportunity to join one of the most creative independent agencies, Grape Communications. My experience there was the starting point of my advertising career.
It’s been less than a year since you took the position as Managing Director. What’s your assessment of things thus far?
Previously, Serviceplan Korea’s financial maintenance depended on a single client as it was the source of more than 80 percent of our revenue. The company was dependent on our clients, and I was eager to bring about a revolution.
Being independent means being able to make one’s own decision & hold a creative hegemony solitarily so that there is no need to rely on others. Being heavily dependent is unhealthy for an agency as it hinders creative innovation.
Now, I am completely changing this dependency and trying to build up a healthier and more sustainable business model that will last long. So far it is not so easy, but I expect satisfactory performance soon as I have put much effort into achieving this goal.
When you were hired, it was noted that your appointment was part of Serviceplan’s “culture focused on glocalization.” Talk about that and how it manifests itself in the Korean market.
Serviceplan Group is a very open-minded agency that seeks a life-time relationship with its colleagues. The company highly values passion and commitment. In that sense, it gave me a clear sign of trustworthy commitment and respect by appointing me as the lead in Korea. Also, I admire the company’s policy of hiring based on capability as I was appointed at a young age and as a female leader, not having to experience any discrimination.
You were named the first female CEO in your position. How does that feel as a person who grew up in Korea’s patriarchal business culture?
I know that gender inequality in C-level positions is still an issue in Korea. Funny, out of my whole career path, I never perceived myself as a female or a counterpart for males in the realm of business.
“Being heavily dependent is unhealthy for an agency as it hinders creative innovation.”
I know that at many of the big chaebols (conglomerates) in Korea, women face glass ceilings and many restrictions that prevent them from moving forward. Since I have worked in a creative environment, I could work more freely than others since creativity is independent of gender or age.
I had more difficulty trying to work efficiently and take good care of my son at the same time. Thus, myself and my friends, who are in female leadership positions, pay attention to solving these kind of parenting issues that come face working women and try to offer advice for younger people who might face similar pains.
Having worked in the Korean business world for over 15 years, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the way of doing business there?
I have sought more transparency in our working environment and have tried to create a friendly environment. Even though a CEO knows someone, these days, he or she needs to respect certain processes and rules defined internally.
It is about mutual promises and trust to carry out a fair culture in that company. In that sense, a better way of “Entrepreneurship” is now quite well established.
What advice would you offer to a brand looking to create resonance and engagement with Korean consumers?
Venture off in a new way. Becoming a different kind of pioneer is not achieved by simply following the same paths that others take.