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 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. Samsung is the market leader. And now, we have a DNA of how Samsung can be, as a brand that launches people.
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!
Could the perception of agencies from Korea and Japan, have to do to some extent, with the perception of Made in Japan / Made in Korea? What do you think of the perception on products from Asia?
Perception of ‘Made in Japan’ products outside has been built over time. I think they have been very meticulous, took their time, and earned that space similar to ‘Made in Germany’. Japanese products have that little cache, which they have earned. When it comes to Chinese, the perception is, why would I want something that is ‘Made in China’ when I can have a ‘Made in Japan’ product. There is a stigma.
I think ‘Made in Korea’ is somewhere between ‘Made in China’ and ‘Made in Japan’. On perception – and I mean only on perception – it was not quite up to par with Japanese products but better than those from China. But, we are moving towards a perception of being as good as ‘Made in Japan’. Samsung has done that amazingly. So have brands like LG and Hyundai.
Brands have managed to marry larger philosophy with product propositions. Why separate the two, with arguably boring product ads, and then the ones that have a larger purpose?
Personally, I think it is better to concentrate on one thing, rather than try and do product plus brand, which is neither here nor there. If you have something to say with the product, say it 110 per cent. I don’t mind segregating the product communication and the brand communication, rather than mix it up.
How has the creative recognition helped attract talent, say, since the time you came on board?
The purpose of doing a campaign like ‘Look at me’ was not to win creative recognition. It was to find a solution for autistic children to get closer to their parents. And loved ones. But along the way, it won some awards.
It does become easier when they see an agency win at Cannes, D&AD or One Show. In 2010, if you asked me, I would have said ‘Not yet’. In the last few years, we have been getting noticed. Now, people are knocking on our doors.
Would you say you have achieved what you set out to do, since joining Cheil?
I don’t know whether you ever achieve what you set out to do. I find it satisfying that we are moving to a larger platform without really having to convince anyone.
Now, when it comes to pitches for other business, the entry point is showing great work for Samsung. It’s a great way to open doors. Because of Samsung work, we got invited to the GM pitch, with the McCanns of the world. McCann took everything globally with CommonWealth. They do it all, except in Korea where we handle the business.
Now with the new business development team, we are getting invited to pitch regularly for blue chip accounts. The more the accolades, it’s a great way to open doors.
What is your view on India, and Indian talent?
India is a great source of talent in my view (really a helicopter point of view, as I am not involved in day to day operations of the market). I would look at India to bring in people to Korea as well, especially copywriters. We’d certainly look at India, Singapore, Hong Kong as places for talent. It hasn’t happened yet, but if we have the right fit, it will happen. I am currently speaking to an Indian working in South East Asia; we are speaking to him.
Do you think Korea can attract global talent?
Our global team is drawn from many nationalities. Korea as a market is more international than some other markets in Asia. If I compare Seoul versus Tokyo, Seoul has a bigger chance of being international – the number of locals who engage you in English will be more than that in Tokyo. The standard of life, the quality of life in Seoul is fantastic. We have the four seasons, which neither Singapore nor Hong Kong have.
It would be great for youngsters coming out of college to experience three or four years as an expat. The city (Seoul) itself is very attractive. We just need to do a better job from an advertising point of view. If we do, Korea can be the next Singapore, Bangkok or Hong Kong.
An abridged version of this article first appeared on 23 June