From Bates to Dentsu to Ogilvy and now Cheil, and Canada, Belgium and now Korea, Wain Choi has spent enough time across markets and agencies to know when a brand is ready to take off.
While a Samsung 'Minus 1' entry won laurels at the Cannes Lions and other festivals a couple of years ago, the agency's work like the 'Look at me' app and the 'North Korean-South Korean Translator' have been screened at multiple Cannes stages this year, with the former also picking up a handful of metals. This is just the beginning of the brand's 'Launching People' approach to communication, moving away from launching products, promises Choi, in conversation with Campaign India on the sidelines of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2015. Edited excerpts:
Samsung's advertising has come a long way since the functional, product showcases of the past. While that genre remains, alongside some celebrity-led brand advertising (FIFA World Cup, for Galaxy), there is also a surge of award-winning work that is not product-led. How did this happen? There has obviously been a conscious effort?
About two years ago, Samsung (with then CMO Sue Shim) came to us and Leo Burnett, with a pitch for how the brand could move from product-centric advertising to a brand ideals-based platform. It was about moving from ideas (on functionality) to ideas (like Coca-Cola... or Nike, which doesn't sell a pair of running shoes through its advertising). The idea we got to, was this notion that when you as a consumer, and technology from Samsung come together, it leads to something amazing.
They have been launching products every year. About a more colourful phone, a thinner product, a larger screen, and many, many other great products. For the first time, we launched a platform, wherein we said Samsung doesn't launch products; they see people, they are about 'Launching People'. Meaningful technology, adding value to each individual, whether the person is from Bangladesh or Madagascar or New York or London. It's about giving people that little bit of leverage.
We had a good story; a platform called 'Launching People' from Samsung. 'Look at me' was one of the babies that came out of it. It wasn't a cure, but it had the power to bring the mother and child closer to each other. It has won a few awards, but the bigger award is that it could help the loved ones become closer.
Korean mothers, and possibly others in other markets, don't like to show weakness of their kids publicly. It was really brave of the mother in the research that we did using the app. She told us, "If we can use this to help other mothers get close to their (autistic) children, I would love to do this."
Hopefully, this will continue. In Canada, we did a follow-up on this, involving a father and his daughter. The daughter had never smiled since she was a baby. He wanted to see her smile. This is what we want to do -- meaningful innovation for all.
Last year, we launched Power Sleep in Austria.
Currently, we have something in the oven, as part of more initiatives on the 'Launching people' platform.
Yes, we still talk about the product and that will never change. That has a role to play and an important role to play.
But in a lot of places, like China, Austria, UK and India, we have started to invest in work that moves people. It has started slowly. But it will catch fire very quickly, I think.
You have worked across markets and agencies. Has it been more of a challenge to launch a larger, purpose-driven brand platform for Samsung, given the legacy?
I started working in Toronto, on brands like Saturn (automotive). The positioning was that it's a different kind of car, from a different kind of company. For me to work on that was a bit easier. Another client I had worked on was Nike. It had a great philosophy in place. As a young creative, I was just riding that path.
In Brussels, I worked with Dentsu, which is more similar to Korean companies. You had products like Toyota, Bridgestone and there wasn't as much of a philosophy.
In Korea, and in Cheil, we are working on a brand that has so far been very linear. To work on a brand philosophy therefore was quite a challenge. It was completely new, and there was nothing to piggyback on.
A new manifesto meant a great challenge for Cheil.
Brands have integrated purpose into their core, quite powerfully. Is that more effective than having two streams -- one which is functional and the other occupying a higher ground?
A product ad is like a jolt -- a big boost to sales. When you have a great product, with great features, you can just show the product and showcase its features and it will sell. What happens when you don't have amazing key features every three or six months? Even Steve Jobs ran out of ideas.
That's when brand philosophy really helps. Look at Sony Bravia. The brand didn't really create anything new for five to eight years. It could live off the bouncing balls and 'colour like no other'. It got them the consumer perception that Sony is a better brand, even when there may have been products which are technologically superior.
You mention that Japanese and Korean agencies are similar in some ways... but the perception is quite different, between say a Hakuhodo and Dentsu on one side, and Cheil and Innocean on another...
Dentsu has been around for so long. Their badge of honour is that anything that is very innovative or digital, it's Dentsu. Hakuhodo has some similar characteristics.
We, the Korean agencies, are still in the process of finding out who we are as agencies.
We've done a little bit of work that moves us in the direction of human emotion, like the 'Bridge of Life' (Samsung Life Insurance).
Innocean, with its work 'Send a man to space' is also trying to do something. They are trying to do something with technology and human (though I feel relevance to the category is far apart).
For me personally, Innocean or other Korean agencies doing well is good to see. That hasn't been the mentality thus far, but the current generation is rooting for each other. Brazil is fantastic that way. They even push Argentinian work!
(Read the full interview in the issue of Campaign India dated 7 August 2015.)