Meet Kyu C Lee, Korea’s most connected media innovator | M&M Global

Meet Kyu C Lee, Korea’s most connected media innovator

Kyu C Lee, who is speaking at this year’s Festival of Media Global, tells M&M Global why he feels no need to invest money in social media, despite turning Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ into a global YouTube phenomenon.

Kyu C Lee

Marketers across the world go to sleep dreaming that their digital campaigns will ‘go viral’ – in other words, that they will be widely discussed, repeatedly shared, and even parodied by engaged and amused consumers.

The bar for such an event has been set pretty high.

Back in 2012, a portly K-pop star called Psy unleashed his unique brand of eccentric dancing on an unsuspecting public with the video to his song ‘Gangnam Style’. Backed by former Sony Pictures Entertainment exec Kyu C Lee (known simply as ‘Q’ to friends and colleagues) and talent spotter Scooter Braun, the manager of pop sensation Justin Bieber, the clip quickly won fans in the US and beyond.

Four years on, ‘Gangnam Style’ remains the most-watched video in YouTube’s history, with over 2.5 billion views. It created a surge of interest in Korean music and culture, and has been feted by some of the most influential people on the planet – from US president Barack Obama to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.

For Lee, who will speak at next month’s Festival of Media Global 2016 in Rome, it opened the door to a new chapter of entertainment that combines the best of Western and Asian content and appeals to broad international audiences.

Global phenomenon

Before joining forces with Braun to transform Psy into a global phenomenon, Lee spent a decade working his way up the ladder at Sony Pictures.

Lee credits a five year stint as assistant to the company’s chairman for worldwide marketing and distribution, Jeff Blake, as the job that “catapulted” his career, introducing him to some of Hollywood’s leading actors, producers and directors.

Between 2009 and 2011, he led Sony Pictures’ Korean office, before leaving to start life as an independent producer. Those two years running the business in Seoul saw Lee take over the management of Asian all-girl pop group Blush – and establish the contacts that would critical when taking ‘Gangnam Style’ to the US.

“I found Psy and asked him if he would go to LA with me to do promotion for ‘Gangnam Style’. All hell broke loose. That put me on the map”

Lee explains: “Blush opened [a concert] for Justin Bieber in Hong Kong in 2012. They all saw this video I had, and it happened to be ‘Gangnam Style’. They didn’t know what it was, but they found out the guy was Korean.

“Justin Bieber’s people called me and asked if I could make the introduction and buy the rights to the song. I found Psy and asked him if he would go to LA with me to do promotion for ‘Gangnam Style’. All hell broke loose. That put me on the map.”

Since Psy-mania

In the years since Psy-mania, Lee has founded his own entertainment management and production company Kino33 Entertainment. He is executive producer of a remake of horror B-movie classic ‘The Blob’, featuring US actor Samuel L Jackson, as well a Korean War film ‘Operation Chromite’ starring Liam Neeson. On the music side, he is working with US R&B performer R Kelly for a joint English and Korean-language track.

“My speciality, if I can say, is trying to build collaborations between mainstream content from the Europe or the US and Asian content – especially Korean, since I am Korean and live here,” says Lee. “With all the music or films I produce, I try to create synergies with Korean talent and talent from Hollywood, or US or Europe-based DJs and artists.”

Lee has been able to capitalise on an untapped enthusiasm for cultural collaborations, and he encourages advertisers and media companies to follow his lead.

“People don’t like to go first. Wherever you go in the world, people are wary and nervous of going first, because they don’t want to be the first to make a mistake. They like to see somebody else jump into the pool first, to see if it’s cold or not, and no one wants to jump into a cold pool first,” he says.

“Asian content is uncharted waters for a lot of people, so no one really wanted take the risk. I felt like I had nothing to lose – I didn’t have a reputation to wreck or ruin, and nor did I feel I would really lose anything as far as capital was concerned. So I just went with it, and we got lucky.”

Lee's latest movie project, 'Operation Chromite'
Lee’s latest movie project, ‘Operation Chromite’, starring Liam Neeson

Power of YouTube

As well as turbo-charging Lee’s career, the success of ‘Gangnam Style’ shined a light on the power of YouTube as a global media platform. The song topped the charts in dozens of countries worldwide, driven not by radio play, as had been traditionally been the case, but rather off the back of video views.

However, despite the role played by YouTube, as well as Facebook and Twitter, Lee is cool on the idea of investing in social media to advertise content properties: “I don’t know what we were doing 10 years ago without digital. Without the leverage from social media, none of this would have been possible.

“YouTube was such a huge instrument, and we didn’t pay any money for it. Unless you want to use the premium services and pay to get more exposure, that is your choice, but I haven’t spent a dime on social media and, for what it’s worth, I’ve been doing pretty well with it.”

“I haven’t spent a dime on social media and, for what it’s worth, I’ve been doing pretty well with it”

And, despite admitting that some forms of virality can result in a headache (“If you make a mistake, and the whole world sees it”), Lee is also adamant that exposure of all kinds should be embraced.

“At the end of the day, it’s about exposure. I couldn’t care less if people like it or not, but I want to create quality content and drive as much exposure as we can. Bad publicity is good publicity. No matter what, if people hate you or love you, if it’s good, then kudos for doing well, and if you don’t do it well, people still remember you for it,” he says.

Just ask all those marketers comparing their modest or even meagre social engagement statistics to Psy’s record-breaking figures – the impact of ‘Gangnam Style’ will certainly not be forgotten. And perhaps that is Lee’s most important contribution to media so far: he showed how big ‘big’ really can be.

That ambition of a true ‘viral hit’ has become a distant dream for many, even those with the mightiest of budgets.

The Festival of Media Global 2016 takes place at Rome’s Cavalieri from 18 to 20 May. Click here for detail on how to attend.

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