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

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Photos courtesy of Innored.

Last year at Cannes, among the dozens of presentations and seminars that take place annually, there was one presentation in particular that caught more than a few people’s attention.

Conducted by Min Seo and Sehgeun Choi, from Seoul-based digital creative agency, Innored (이노레드), the talk was entitled, “Less Work, More Creativity”, and it’s theme was putting the needs of employees first when deciding whether to work with a client.

That’s quite progressive thinking; all the more so in Korea’s “workaholic” culture where the common joke amongst ad people in Seoul is, “I work 9 to 6” —meaning 9am to 6am.


 

Read More: Interview: Patrick Tan – Senior Art Director HBO Asia

For Innored, “Less Work, More Creativity” is not just another creative brand slogan, they actually walk the walk; even when that means watching lucrative jobs walk out their door.

And the creative culture they carefully cultivated has worked.

Most importantly, Innored says its average “quit” rate remains below five percent for the past eight years. And one only need look at their client list to see that globally recognized brands like BMW, Reebok and North Face have been the beneficiary of Innored’s highly-lauded creative work —without the need for and excess of overtime.


 

Branding in Asia recently caught up with Innored Vice President and Campaign Director Min Seo, to talk about the agency’s work, his own creative journey, creativity in Korea and the challenge for smaller agencies in a country where the top ten ad firms control 85% of the market.


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You worked as  purchaser at Samsung in the late 90’s. It sounds incredibly different from what you do now. Tell us about that time in your life and the transition to a creative?

I was hired by Samsung in 1996. Life in Samsung was a bit similar to life in the army. It assigned new employees not based on their skills, but based on company’s needs. I was interested in marketing, but was allocated to the purchasing department. I felt like I was becoming just a part of one big machine.

Eventually, I quit and entered graduate school to study global advertising. After finishing graduate school, I began my ad career at a local advertising company and then moved to BBDO, where I was Group Account Director, handling global accounts like Visa, Chrysler, Allianz, Mars, Levi’s. I really appreciate my time at BBDO because I was able to meet lots of talented colleagues and learn a lot about the industry.

We dropped out of the process even though the project was obviously lucrative. Putting people first before money seems obvious, yet it’s not easy to put into practice.

In 2008, I moved to DDB and led the team working for global brands like J&J, Philips, and Australia Tourism Board. While working for Philips, I got a glimpse of the opportunity in the digital sphere. Unfortunately, it was difficult at that time trying to persuade creative people to look into this new realm.

That led me to join Innored as Campaign Director. At The time it was a small, relatively unknown agency with great potential. Now I’m directing strategy and creative for clients like The North Face, J&J, BMW, Amore Pacific, Philips and Mars —and digital is obviously a big part of that strategy.  

You’ve talked before about in your youth spending a lot of time alone, teaching yourself to play guitar and then piano. How do you think that affected you as the creative person you’ve become?

I was a daydreamer. In the morning, at the breakfast table, I easily fell into the world of imagination. My mother used to tell me, “What are you looking at? You must be looking at something but there is nothing there!” The funny thing is that my daughter does the same thing now. It must be in the DNA!

Read More: Patrick Tom Talks Creativity, Savvy Clients and China

I enjoyed learning alone. Learning alone is not the most efficient way to learn though. Yet, I found that as you come up against different obstacles along the way, you can find your own unique solutions. Such practice is a good way to train your intuition. Even now, my “alone time” is still precious to me and it is strongly related to the core of my creativity.

There is often the perception that Korean culture discourages individual creativity. What are your thoughts on that?

At school, it was stressed that Korea is a racially homogeneous nation and that being different was not the virtue that we should pursue. This can possibly be related to the fact that Korea has a high risk avoidance tendency. However, it’s my experience that if people believe that there is no risk, the speed of accepting new things is incredible. That’s why Korea has been regarded as a Fast Follower not First Mover.

In the past, in 80% of TV commercials, it was easy to watch a Korean celebrity spokesperson trying to cram all the benefits of a product into 15 seconds. Those were boring ads.    

A lot of people might not know this, but Koreans were the fastest population in the world to adopt the refrigerator. They were also the fastest in high speed internet adoption rate and mobile usage rate.

If Korea begins to accept diversity and take risks in the near future, I can see individual creativity will be explosively stimulated.

Innored is known for having a progressive Korean business environment. What is it about Innored that makes it different?

In Korea, 85% of advertising market is occupied by large conglomerates such as Samsung, Hyundai, SK, and Lotte, which creates tough conditions for independent agencies to survive. Also, the advertising industry is infamous for being full of workaholics. For these reasons, many talented people are leaving it in Korea.

Read More: Sangsoo Chong on the Early Days of Advertising in Korea

At Innored we decided to do a radical experiment: Let’s not work too much! In order to keep talented people and make them happier in the workplace, we decided to give up on some profit if it will hinder us from pursuing the goal of not overworking ourselves.

For example, this year, a large global brand sent us an RFP, inviting us to pitch for their business. In the RFP, there was a portion stating that the agency they chose would have to work on weekends if necessary. We dropped out of the process even though the project was obviously lucrative. Putting people first before money seems obvious, yet it’s not easy to put into practice.

In 2015, I proudly presented our culture and vision at Cannes Festival entitled, ‘Less Work, More creativity’.

Over the course of your career, what are some campaigns you’ve worked on that you are you most proud of?

The ‘Disappearing Floor’ for The North Face is most definitely one that I am most proud of because it was one of the most difficult ideas to execute. Shooting dates were postponed several times at the last minute because of safety concerns. After all the procedural difficulties, the campaign went on to win five finalists at NYF, two finalist at Cannes, one silver at Clio sports and two silvers at Ad Stars last year.

Another favorite is the Zombie transformation campaign for Snickers. I came up with this idea driving home one night. Our team turned the idea quickly and suggested it to client the very next morning. Magically, the client gave us the go. We collaborated with Professor Hao Li and Gio Nakpil. They are world-class experts who made consumers tangibly and magically experience the slogan, ‘You are not you, when you are hungry’.

The campaign was a huge success and set a record as the first campaign to reach over 5 million views in Korea. After our success, BBDO London adapted the concept for their Halloween campaign.

Are there any trends in Korean advertising that you are especially fond of these days?

In the past, in 80% of TV commercials, it was easy to watch a Korean celebrity spokesperson trying to cram all the benefits of a product in 15 seconds. Those were boring ads.  

Thankfully, advertising is more fun than ever. Many agencies and clients are beginning to realize that they get more benefits with storytelling instead of cramming it with dull words. Copywriting is like compressing –it inevitably creates loss.

In the near future, if big companies cut their advertising divisions, there will be better opportunities given to small sized independent agencies.

Due to dramatic changes in media, the appearance rate of these traditional advertisements has been dropping. More clients are becoming more open to challenging ideas that are not bound to a fixed duration. Also, many agencies are actively embracing technology in order to provide a magical experience for consumers. This attitude helps kill those bad advertising practices where the only creativity was using celebrities.

As you mentioned earlier, conglomerates control much of the ad industry. Is there still hope for startup shops looking for a slice of the market in Korea?

Large conglomerates in Korea have so many different business sectors and help each other. Cheil helps Samsung, Innocean helps Hyundai. This unfair competition. Thankfully, there are movements and demands from the government and the industry that business practices like this should be amended.

Also, there are changes among the conglomerates. For example, Samsung tried to sell Cheil to Publicis this year. Hanwha sold its advertising sector. In the near future, if big companies cut their advertising divisions, there will be better opportunities given to small sized independent agencies.

Another good sign is that small sized agencies are getting more recognition from the clients because they are quicker to adapt themselves to changes in digital media.

If you couldn’t work in advertising anymore, what do you see yourself doing instead?

I have been drawing cartoons and writing songs although they are far from being successful. You can find my songs on iTunes search for “512beans.” I do not know what my alternative career would be, but creating my own things will always be my job.


You can see more work from Innored here.

Picture of Bobby McGill

Bobby McGill

Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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