AB World’s Angie Byun on how to tap into the massive popularity of South Korean content

Whether it’s hit Netflix series Squid Game or the monster success of K-Pop band BTS, South Korean content has taken the world by storm. To explore the opportunities for the media industry that come with this rise in popularity, the FIPP World Media Congress aired a recorded conversation with Angie Byun, founder of global consultancy AB World.

“Because of social media and how many followers a lot of these celebrities and K-Pop artists have, it would be silly not to align yourself with, say, a BTS or a Blackpink,” she points out. “They garner millions of views on YouTube and have their own fandoms. So, if you are looking to increase your audience or increase engagement, why not start to feature more Korean artists?

“They are part of the zeitgeist right now. They are who everyone is talking about, particularly the young generations: Gen Z and Gen Alpha. When these folks are on the covers of magazines, they sell out.”

Spotting a gap in the market

It was while working at Condé Nast from 2006-2019 across various roles, including Senior Director of Business Affairs and Executive Director and Asia Pacific Business Development, that Byun spotted an opportunity to really tap into the rapidly growing Asian market.

“In the early aughts I started to see more and more content coming out of Korea and Japan, particularly through K-Pop artists and through anime,” she recalls. “And I’ll never forget a conversation I had with several editors back in the day and I said: ‘We need to feature more Asian talent’ because of their social media reach and of just the global popularity of these artists and these creators.

“And so little by little during my time at Condé Nast, I was like an advocate for more coverage of what was happening In Asia, particularly in the entertainment, content, fashion, beauty realm. So, I knew that there was an opportunity and in 2020, I started AB World to really explore that deeper and to really be that bridge to help creators on both sides communicate to audiences.”

It’s not just the West that has fallen for all things South Korean. Other Asian nations have increasingly tapped into the country’s vibrant pop culture.

“Back in the 80s and the 90s, most Asian countries were looking towards the United States and Hollywood and Europe for content,” says Byun. “There was a huge interest in watching American film or indie French movies, but I think starting in the early aughts, there was a big push in South Korea with creating more homegrown talent.

“There was Gangnam Style by PSY, which was a huge tipping point since it was the first music video to reach over a billion views. So, the South Koreans have been very outward facing as far as expanding their audience and distribution of their content and YouTube was a huge catalyst for that – really maximizing their presence on YouTube and social media channels.”

The fact that South Korea and Japan are technologically very advanced has helped immeasurably to spread the gospel of K-Pop and anime.

“Artists are very innovative when it comes to the use of technology,” says Byun. “For example, in Japan there’s always been this idol culture where you have boy bands and girl bands who have created a closed off subscription-based ecosystem for their fans and this is a paid subscription service that’s been in the works for decades.

“There was always this protection of content for K-Pop and J-Pop. And South Korea has a model where they’ve really done more to expand their content overseas. The last statistic I saw is $60 billion is generated through K-Pop content and that’s through overseas revenue, so it’s a huge industry.

“And Netflix reported that over 2.8 billion people watched Japanese anime during the pandemic. So that’s a third of the world’s population watching some form of anime.”

The power of print

Although a lot of the success of K-Pop and anime was built online, there is still a lot of love for print in Asia, according to Byun.

“If you go to any bookstore or kiosk is Asia you will see a plethora of print magazines,” she says. “And they are not these flimsy magazines but the equivalent of a September issue. There is very much a culture of books, periodicals, magazines and reading. Bookstores are very much part of the mainstay and part of retail experience, particularly in big cities like Seoul, Tokyo and Singapore.

“Back in the day you would often see American titles on the racks but, in addition to these, you often see licensed additions as well as local magazines. In Japan you see everything from streetwear magazines to knitting. That has a lot to do with the culture in Japan where people still read physical copies of Manga magazines.”

Byun believes there are still a lot of opportunities for licensing media brands in Asia. “There definitely are opportunities but it depends on the subject matter because a lot of these magazines are very niche. I think there is less of an appetite for these general women’s or men’s focus type titles, and things are more niche driven.”

The runaway success of Squid Game on Netflix has shown that language is no longer a barrier to popularity and that we now have the internationalisation of content.

“We once looked to say Spanish, French or German foreign language content and that has kind of shifted to Korean content and a Korean content is,” says Byun. “Korean content is now the second most popular foreign language content out there.”

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