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Become a publicist! Make millions! (Maybe)

‘We’re now entering a tough time. We face competition from global companies with their own PR teams.’

Jan 15,2007
Running up and down the stairs of his office, which was recently expanded to two floors, Oh Jae-hyung, 34, a well-known publicist on the Korean fashion circuit, nurtures a big dream that he hopes will soon sprawl across the entire Asian continent.


Last year he rebranded his privately owned J. Company into a partnership, Pressync, Inc. That’s a big step for someone who started his company with one computer and one assistant in a tiny officetel just after he lost his job as a TV personality and his mother’s clothing store went out of business.
Through a friend, he met a French woman who was looking for a way to promote Tartine et Chocolat, then a virtually unknown children’s brand in Korea. “The company had placed its print ads in tacky toy magazines distributed on maternity wards,” said Mr. Oh. “I thought mothers who would buy such fancy clothes would rather read trendy fashion magazines, like ‘Elle’ or ‘Vogue.”
Placing the French brand’s advertisements in fashion magazines indeed did wonders and sales skyrocketed in the months that followed. Mr. Oh suggested that to boost sales further the brand needed to create some hype. He organized a baby shower party for actual moms-to-be in a five-star hotel suite. At the time, this popular Western tradition was unknown among Korean women.
When asked about the role of a publicist, Lee Kye-myung, the president of the Deck public relations agency said, “To put it simply we are touts ― more or less the same as the people who lure passers-by into a night club.”
Among the dozens of publicists who handle fashion and luxury products in southern Seoul, Ms. Lee is considered to be a true veteran and godmother. She heads the industry’s oldest firm. Deck celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. Like Mr. Oh of Pressync, Inc., Ms. Lee also started with just one computer. “Anyone can set up a PR company, just like that,” said Ms. Lee, who used to work as a fashion editor for the Korean edition of Marie Claire before starting her own company in Cheongdam-dong.
In the mid-1990s Korea saw the onset of an aggressive marketing invasion by global brands that arrived on Korean shores as subsidiaries. Luxury import cosmetics brands, such as Lancome, Chanel and Sisley, began taking up highly visible spots in department stores, and they sought effective communicators to work their way into the minds of Korean consumers. The needs of these importers were first recognized by fashion magazine editors, who saw the opportunity to launch lucrative businesses.
While reporting on fashion shows from France in 1995, Ms. Lee found that the French brands all had publicists, a concept that didn’t exist in Korea back then. “Because Korea didn’t have PR firms, reporters had to visit factories to borrow samples,” Ms. Lee recalled. “And the job of reporters was harder because there wasn’t a publicist to build a bridge between the press and the fashion company.”
By the late 1990s, global behemoths such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton sought to penetrate the Korean market and they looked for local PR firms to publicize their brands in foreign territories.
The Deck employees were given a chance to prove they could communicate between the big brand representatives and local customers. “It was the time of the IMF crisis in Korea, but we had plenty of things to do,” said Ms. Lee.
These new PR firms were created for a niche market that required special sensitivities. Their job was cater to a slim but highly lucrative market that consisted largely of the very rich. This is the main reason that they have cultivated the image of being small, creative “boutiques,” as opposed to becoming large corporate firms that cannot satisfy fastidious clients who seek special attention to detail in a market where what is fashionable can change every week.
“Everything that goes into making the brand and its product recognized, especially creating the ‘right’ atmosphere for showing added value, all that contributes to pumping up sales in the end,” said Ms. Lee, who is credited with the successful launch of Ana Molinari, a high-end Italian fashion brand, in Korea in 1998. Since then Ms. Lee and her company have worked on more than 130 brands.
In over a decade as a pioneer in the industry, Deck has functioned as an incubator for publicists. More than 100 well-trained employees who started their career at Deck have left the company for PR positions in clients’ companies or have started their own PR firms.
Deck’s most most prominent competitor is APR, led by Park Hyo-jin. Ms. Park, formerly a fashion editor, also started with one computer in a tiny office. Three years later, APR has become a company with 28 staff covering 37 brands including the whiskey Chivas 18, Coach and Gucci.
The growing demand for publicists has led many to change careers. Prominent fashion stylist Jung Yun-ki jumped into the PR business. His company, Intrend, delivers customers to his clients through fashion magazines and through publicity involving well-known models and actresses he has worked with in the past. His company now has 30 staff members and covers 42 brands, including Dolce & Gabbana, Jimmy Choo, Yves Saint Laurent and Jil Sander.
So can anyone open a PR firm in Cheongdam-dong and make it big overnight? “It is true that anyone with connections in the industry can open an office with one computer, but that’s precisely why they cannot last,” said Ms. Park, who has seen many PR managers come and go over the years.
For anyone to survive the intense competition and stand out like the flamboyant Mr. Oh of Pressync, Inc., one must be able to generate ingenious ideas that make everyone from clients to VIPs to customers smile with what they see, hear, feel and bring home with them. And, of course, they must be connected to the tight matrix of the who’s-who in the industry.
Mr. Oh’s big break came in 2005 when he won the open bidding to promote the Audi A6 luxury sedan. “Campaigns for luxury cars are usually quite straightforward because Koreans assume that people with a lot of money would simply prefer expensive luxury cars,” he said. Against large firms specializing in corporate PR, Mr. Oh proposed the new Audi 06 be associated with a cool set of trendsetters in Korea. He selected six professionals whose opinions mattered and threw a highly publicized party.
After staging the mega-fashion show in Seoul for Christian Dior’s Asia-Pacific region in 2005, his professional networks expanded beyond Korea. Recently Mr. Oh has been asked to promote Korean celebrities throughout the Asian market.
Having been impressed by Seth Godin’s business book, “Small Is the New Big,” Mr. Oh said the key to survival in PR may be keeping one’s company small and focused.
So is the life of a publicist all about glamour and champagne? Not at all, and both Mr. Oh and Ms. Kim agree that the toughest aspect is the subordinate position they occupy in their professional relationships. “It’s not easy, psychologically and emotionally, to be in the less important position and constantly take orders from your clients. It can be degrading,” said Mr. Oh. “There have been extremely tough situations where my staff ― even I ― simply wanted to quit.”
Ms. Park believes it is this down side of the business that drives many publicists out of the industry even if they get good jobs and make money with relative ease. While some leading PR boutiques expand into related businesses outside of direct PR, Ms. Park insists her company APR stays close to what they do best. Namely, publicizing fashionable brands in the Korean market. “I feel committed to dedicating my expertise to this business only. PR in the fashion and luxury industry is an important and necessary tool in marketing, and there is still a great potential for growth and maturity in Korea,” said Ms. Park, who recently announced she is marrying one of her colleagues at APR.
So what does Deck’s Ms. Lee, the most experienced publicist in the fashion industry, see as PR’s future over the next 10 years? “We’re now entering a hard time,” she said. “We face competition from global companies with their own PR teams. They hire local PR firms only when they need an extra hand with big events, which means the function of local PR firms can be limited to contingency help,” Ms. Lee said. “Marketing, which contributes to sales, will become more important in the future. For the Korean PR industry to thrive, they should evolve along with the changing fashion industry and keep up with the current of the times.”


by Ines Cho


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