Q&A: TJ Lee, Executive Creative Director at FCB Seoul, Comes Home

Image courtesy of TJ Lee

Taejay “TJ” Lee, Executive Creative Director at FCB Seoul, refers to himself as a “nomadic mutant from the Korean gaming world now questing in Ad land.” It’s a description that fits him quite well.

Born in Seoul, Lee spent his high school years in Australia and upon returning to the homeland, went to work in the game development/publishing industry for three years –until his inner creative called.

Read More: Q&A: Innored’s Min Seo on Work and Creativity in the Korean Ad World

 
 

He soon left again for foreign shores. This time for a decade long stint that saw him work in Thailand, London, Amsterdam, Belgium, and Dubai at shops such as Saatchi, Inferno, Nomads, Emakina and THEY, honing his creative skills for his return earlier this year to take up the reigns as ECD at FCB Seoul.

Branding in Asia recently caught up with TJ at the FCB offices in the Gangnam district of Seoul, South Korea.


What’s your take on Korean advertising since you left 10 years ago?

 
 

When I left Korea, it was all about celebrities in the ads. Not much about ideas. If there were any, they were mostly tear-jerkers or overly dramatic. People used to buy based on the aspirational images they got from trendy personalities. It worked for brands and advertisers so they never really felt the need more creative campaigns.

Many of my generation have lived outside of Korea and we’ve returned with different tastes and expectations, so we are the ones challenging the creative industry rather than many of the brands and agencies who are still operating in an old model following the status quo.

While I have seen some change it’s come at a very slow pace. It’s ironic to think how Korea is famous for its fast paced ‘bali-bali’ way of doing things here, but the change in creative industry is surprisingly slow and resistant to change.

This is very unique scene. If you think about where Korea’s standing in terms of economic level in the world, you’d expect to see more sophisticated creative work. Yet, the market is still dominated by celebrity-driven 15-second commercials. And, unfortunately, they do seem to work.

How about the creative scene here in general?

After the Japanese occupation & the Korean War, our parents and grandparents had to rebuild the entire country. It was very utilitarian. They had to build bunch of square apartment blocks to hold a large population –the look and the design were secondary. The creativity was, ‘how do we put all these people in a small space’.

A Lot of that utilitarian thinking still exists, I think, but things are changing now. Many of my generation have lived outside of Korea and we’ve returned with different tastes and expectations, so we are the ones challenging the creative industry rather than many of the brands and agencies who are still operating in an old model following the status quo.

What advice do you have for marketers in Korea?

Marketers and brands should keep in mind it’s the people who engage with their campaigns. A campaign idea should never be restricted or fine-tuned to the individuals in the room. Always think outside the confinements of the office and take in the bigger picture, the world is so much bigger than that. Try to understand people, not from the charts, numbers, and graphs, but by trying to think and feel like they do.

We need to reexamine how we engage & communicate with people. It’s not only about the ideas but how we evolve and adapt to survive.

That is why it’s so important for brands to really trust creative professionals to extract ideas that will not only work, but stand out from  other great content from all over the world. Brands should also always have someone on the team who understands their people to make decision on campaigns.

What are some of the challenges you see creative agencies in Korea facing in the next few years?

The challenge in our industry in my opinion is the borderless creativity. Because people are multitasking, engaging in so many different types and sizes of content every second. The way brands engage with people has become extremely broad. Ideas can’t start with just one touchpoint and be followed by another touchpoint anymore.

It’s not integrated nor digital centered. It’s about what kind of positive experience we provide, and what’s the best format to deliver that experience.

It’s that the old way of working in the Korean industry that doesn’t work anymore –for both the client side and the agency side. The way we get briefed and the way we write briefs, the way we generate and map out ideas, the way we charge the clients, the way we hire and sustain our people.

The fact, we need to reexamine how we engage & communicate with people. It’s not only about the ideas but how we evolve and adapt to survive. The scariest thing is that we all talk about innovation, but the ad industry is probably one of the slowest industries to innovate itself in Korea.

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