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The Interview

Meet The CEO Making Tech More Lovable

Mr Suyong Joh – the man in charge of Kakao, South Korea’s biggest messaging app – welcomes MR PORTER into his office

On the day MR PORTER meets Mr Suyong Joh, the traffic is absolutely terrible. It takes over an hour to drive from Dongdaemun Plaza, where hordes of pink-haired teenagers are gathering for Seoul Fashion Week, to the comparatively calm and utopian environs of Seongnam, a satellite city south of Seoul that was built in the 1990s and, with its clusters of many-window skyscrapers, very much looks it. It’s here, in what’s known as the Pangyo Techno Valley (every forward-thinking city, it seems, now needs to have some sort of Valley), that we finally get to the offices of Kakao, one of South Korea’s most disruptive and successful tech companies, where Mr Joh has served as co-CEO since March 2018. The reason it all takes so long is that there’s a taxi strike, which, coincidentally, is – sort of – Kakao’s fault. South Korea’s taxi drivers are up in arms because the company, which started its inexorable rise to ubiquity with messaging app KakaoTalk – think a souped-up, much cuter version of WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger – has started recruiting for a new carpooling app, which, according to the drivers, will threaten their livelihoods.

The strike is probably not Mr Joh’s favourite topic of the day, but, he says, it’s far from the first time they’ve experienced resistance at Kakao. The company is in a period of rather aggressive expansion, with products now incorporating everything from banking and payments (via subsidiary company KakaoPay) to music (via Melon, South Korea’s biggest streaming platform, which Kakao purchased in 2016) to KakaoGames (which, according to its end-of-year statement, took close to $100m last year – a growth of 42 per cent year-on-year).

“If you go back to the very beginning, everything this company has done up until now has always shaken up the order of that particular field,” says Mr Joh. “So when KakaoTalk was launched, the telecoms companies all went: ‘What? People aren’t using text messages any more?’ And when KakaoBank was launched, the banks were upset… Kakao is used to it. In spite of that, Kakao still intends to go on with what it’s doing. Making things easy and being loved by people.”

  • Colourful mascots pop out in the otherwise austere Kakao offices

Mr Joh is a rather unusual hire, by tech CEO standards, and that’s because his background is not in algorithms and data, but in design, branding and publishing. Before he joined Kakao, in 2016, he ran his own agency, JOH & Company, which provided 360-degree creative direction services to a range of South Korean hotel and lifestyle brands (from real-estate developments such as 2018’s Sounds Hannam urban resort, to collaborations with gargantuan commodities and FMCG brands including Daehan Steel and Maeil Dairy). He is also the publisher of Magazine B, a monthly, ad-free journal that focuses on a single brand in each issue. Of course, he also has some formidable experience in branding digital technologies. From 2003 to 2010, he worked at South Korean search giant Naver and is credited with the design of that company’s wonderfully simple green search window. But his first obsession, he says, was with the idea of branding in itself.

“I’ve been interested in this since I was very young,” he says. “It wasn’t so much the concept of design I was into, but the consistency of images. I noticed certain brands had a consistency in what they present to people. So I thought, ‘That’s cool. I want to do that.’ It was only later I realised that this was what people call ‘design’.”

As far as consistency is concerned, he’s got a mammoth task in front of him at Kakao. How do you remain on-message in a brand that is so multifaceted? What, exactly, unites venture capital, on-demand taxis and adorable mascots? (More on those later.)

“For a long time, when you talked about a brand, you would think about a single function,” says Mr Joh. “But times have changed. Take Google. It started off with one function, which was search, but now has various products and you know by the Google brand that you can trust them. So it is with Kakao. You might think of it as just a communication tool, but it’s grown to represent something that is useful and innovative in our daily lives. That’s the image of Kakao to me.”

In March 2018, the same month Mr Joh was announced as Kakao’s new co-CEO, the company unveiled a vision, titled Kakao 3.0, in which it outlined its plans for expansion across Asia, alongside its intention to dive into both artificial intelligence and blockchain technology. But Mr Joh also has some goals closer to home.

At Kakao headquarters, he has just finished a refurb – heavy on the natural textures, with plenty of plants, a library and cosy breakout spaces – which represents his vision of the modern workplace. (“The fact is that people have started going to Starbucks and suchlike to do their work,” he says. “So, when I renewed the fourth floor here last month, the point was to make it not look like an office.”) When asked how he dresses for this environment, he’s keen to point out that Kakao is equally forward-thinking when it comes to style. “This is a place where a suit looks odd,” he says. What’s his uniform, then? For the record, his style proclivities are a) an obsession with finding the perfect fitting T-shirt, in which quest he has found that Japanese brands such as United Arrows are among the best; and b) a restricted colour palette, mostly greyblack and white. “This isn’t because I don’t like colour,” he says, “but because, if I started to open my eyes to colour, I’d need a wardrobe 10 times bigger than the one I have now.” All this leads us towards one resolution, but Mr Joh wants Kakao to grow as a company, he wants it to retain its feeling of a friendly start-up, rather than a “dinosaur-like” corporation. Kakao, he says, should be a brand that’s “loved by everyone”.

One way it is most definitely loved is via its cast of colourful mascots. Collectively known (and sold) as Kakao Friends, they’re an ebullient collection of anthropomorphic animal characters that first appeared in Kakao Talk as emojis, but are now a national phenomenon, almost impossible to avoid in Seoul whichever way you look. They’re on tissues. They’re on subway cards. In the Kakao office, they dance across the revolving doors of the building and peek out from behind partition screens, even on the relatively austere upper floors. They are, let us be clear on this point, very, very sweet. But, says Mr Joh, they’re about more than that.

“It’s a very important part of the business,” says Mr Joh. “Traditionally, we would access mascots and characters through animations and feature narratives. But Kakao Friends are not like that at all. They started life as a communication tool. Instead of writing something in a text, you would send a character that would represent your feelings. So people identify themselves with these characters and mascots. And your friends might be using the same mascots and characters. It helps to create an emotional bond, both with the characters, but also with each other. It says: we’re all similar people.”

Since Mr Joh’s appointment at Kakao, one of its subsidiaries, formerly known as Kakao Friends, merged with the company formerly known as JOH & Company, to create another subdivision, called Kakao IX, that deals with the franchising and merchandising of Kakao’s intellectual property, which includes Ryan (“the lovable lion”), Muzi (“a radish in disguise”) and Apeach (“a mischievous, silly fruit”).

This might seem a little bit of an odd conjunction, but Mr Joh maintains that here, still, it’s all about consistency and recognition. “Kakao Friends has these strong, valuable assets that you can do so many things with,” he says. “When we were JOH & Company, it was really about systematically managing the image of certain brands. So we can say that’s still continuing.”

One part of Mr Joh’s former business that has remained unchanged is Magazine B, which he is still very much involved in. For him, the project, which launched in 2011 with an issue dedicated to Swiss bag brand Freitag (and has since covered excellent brands such as the Helvetica typeface, Patagonia, Ikea and, ahem, MR PORTER), is all about communicating in-depth with an audience in a way that is not possible, he says, via other media. “A book can be too heavy,” he says. “And we’re used to looking at pages on our mobile phones. But that can make the content too light, to try and get all the information into one post or page.”

He’s also keen that the back issues withstand the ravages of time, and that there’s no advertising (his crazy idea: people shouldn’t have to pay to read adverts). Again, such interests – in the long form, the in-depth, the timeless, the consistent – might seem at odds with the ever-churning, always-on stance of digital culture. But then again, maybe they put Mr Joh in a prime position to change it.