A former child actor and a playwright, Seoul-based Sangsoo Chong made his move into advertising in 1987 —a time when Korea was preparing for its first steps onto the world stage with the hosting of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
Chong started off working with Oricom as a TV producer, before later moving on to Lintas. He would eventually work at Ogilvy & Mather as the Executive Creative Director in Seoul and later VP and Chief Talent Officer of the Diamond Ogilvy Group.
And then, after two decades in the biz, practically on a whim, he up and left the ad world in 2008 for a professorship at Cheongju University, where he’s remained ever since. And, for the past six years, he’s headed up the judging committee for South Korea’s international advertising awards, Ad Stars, which kicks off again later this week.
Branding in Asia publisher, Bobby McGill, recently caught up with Sangsoo for a conversation about the ad world in Seoul back in the day and life after advertising.
You got your start in the Korean ad industry in 1987 with Oricom and then Ogilvy. What was the creative environment in Seoul like back then?
Oricom, which is owned by Doosan, was the first modern advertising agency in Korea. Doosan had started to import global brands such as Coke, Kodak, Seagram’s, KFC and Nestle. Naturally. Oricom was suddenly tasked with handling the big brands without having much understanding of global business standards.
In 1988, at the time of the Olympics in Seoul, the Korean advertising market opened to the aggressive foreign investors. J. Walter Thompson was the first, followed by many other global agency brands which came in as joint ventures with local agencies.
It was an exciting time since local ad agencies began to think more broadly while acting narrower at the same time. They shot their TVCs in New York, Sydney and even in Moscow, but struggled with the differences in the working process and rules.
A fad for creatives was ‘not invented here’ because lots of centralized campaigns, mainly from New York, were imported by global big brands. Creatives, including myself, hated them. We wanted to be recognized by our own ideas.
“Got a Lion? For what?’ My clients, even the big ones like Samsung and Hyundai, didn’t care about that kind of shit. Their attitude was, ‘you focus on my brand and never steal my time and use my budget trying to achieve your art director’s’ dream, OK?’ In a lot of ways that really made sense.
You had to deal with your fair share of government oversight back then, right?
Yes, there was strict censorship and some silly rules. For example, kids in TV ads weren’t allowed to touch the product –no matter what. That created some problems for Huggies.
Probably the most memorable, in a sad, frustrating way, was when one my film producers for Johnson & Johnson was trying to get government approval for the “No More Tears” baby shampoo campaign TV spot. He sat there and had to put baby shampoo into his eyes to justify the product slogan. He did it, and there were no tears. It was allowed to air.
Awards were not that big of a concern at that time?
Back then, Korean advertisers and agency creatives didn’t care about winning Lions. Why should they? ‘Got a Lion? For what?’
My clients, even the big ones like Samsung and Hyundai, didn’t care about that kind of shit. Their attitude was, you focus on my brand and never steal my time and use my budget trying to achieve your art director’s’ dream, OK?
In a lot of ways that really made sense.
What was the pitch process like?
At that time I had a lot of power, even though I was just a junior creative in the agency. This was because TV was the strongest medium and I was the only one who had the professional skills to develop and direct TVCs.
I used to make 12 rough storyboards in one night and could sell one of them to the client the next day with ease. Ideas with results, of course. From there the art directors developed print and outdoor ads with the key visuals from my storyboards.
Probably the most memorable was when one my film producers for Johnson & Johnson was trying to get government approval for the “No More Tears” baby shampoo campaign TV spot. He sat there and had to put baby shampoo into his eyes to justify the product slogan.
What’s your take on the process these days from a creative standpoint?
It’s not as easy to sell ideas that are clever and creative anymore because marketers began to cry out for digital. For many of them, digital means cheap, sometimes free of charge media so ideas have taken a back seat. I don’t see the world as being divided into analog and digital, though. Technology never overpowers ideas. We are in the idea business!
You made the move to academics in 2008. Can you talk about that decision and what the transition was like?
It was quite unintentional. I was being interviewed by Advertising Information magazine. I was telling the interviewer about my career, beliefs, campaigns and my plans after retiring from advertising; one of which was to become a professor. It turns out the interviewer also worked as a professor and suggested I go for an interview at a university. I did it, kind of on a whim actually, and got the job.
At first, I was not happy, since my life had totally changed. Less salary, no company car, no corporate card and new tasks as a professor. I guess as a creative I never plan ahead. I was impulsive.
Of course, I’m happy now. Life goes on and on. The happiest moment I enjoy now is when I get a phone call from one of my students. “Professor, I got in! I got in!” Getting a job is not easy nowadays. When they say, “I heard that the boss of my new company knows you!” That feels even better.
What do you miss most about working in the industry?
Seeing my ideas on TV, even though nobody cares, I miss that. I also miss karaoke nights with my mad creatives and all night brainstorming sessions with the teams. Appreciation from clients.
Starting to drink in the morning time. Haha.
You’ve been chairman of the judging committee for Korea’s Ad Stars Festival since 2010. What do you look for in judges?
At Ad Stars we’re big on diversity. And our judging brief is pretty simple, we look for people who have a solid background, have won awards of their own and judged in major shows.
Had you never gone into advertising or teaching, what do you see yourself having done instead?
Acting. It is like a drug. Once you’re on the stage and everybody’s quiet, you feel a certain air from the audience. If you recognize that they’re on the same page with you, you can’t help but fall in love with that feeling.