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Designer emphasizes fun as mantra in life, business

Big Ant chief executive Park Seo-won works to remove inhibitions about condoms

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Published : 2014-07-04 21:12
Updated : 2014-07-04 21:58

Rattling off statistics about condom usage, Park Seo-won is completely at ease ― or perhaps he is trying to put me at ease by approaching the subject of condoms matter-of-factly.

“Among the OECD countries, Korea’s rate of condom usage is at the very bottom. Japan has the highest rate. There, 48 percent of condom buyers are women,” said Park in an interview with The Korea Herald on June 16.

No, Park is not some salesperson from a pharmaceutical company. He is the CEO of Big Ant, who, befittingly, sports a number of ant tattoos along his arm. The ant tattoos, together with a clean shaven head, have come to identify Park.

What is a design company CEO doing talking about condoms? Well, it is his latest business venture. 
Big Ant CEO Park Seo-won poses in the garden of Big Ant’s office in Hannam-dong, Seoul. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

The idea for the condom business came about after he learned that about half of unwed mothers in Korea are teens and that about 350,000 abortions are thought to be performed every year, although abortion, with a few exceptions, is illegal here. He also learned that about 30 percent of condoms produced globally are made in Korea but there was no indigenous condom brand. Original equipment manufacture (OEM) production means there is no brand value for the manufacturer and thus less profit.

Park saw this as a business opportunity that could also be a social business. Thus was born the Damn Good Idea brand of condoms.

“It took about 11/2 years to finalize the concept and two months to design the products,” said Park. The Damn Good Idea condoms come in three varieties, each with a simple package design that does not scream “condom.” The products began retailing at GS25 stores last month.

Profits from the local sales of the condoms will be returned to society in the form of sex education materials while the company will keep the profits from the export sales. Park is currently in talks with companies in Indonesia, Malaysia, China and the United States.

Condoms have a duality about them, according to Park. People are not comfortable talking about them, but when the subject is broached, the reception is unexpectedly positive.

“Three years ago, a Japanese condom brand took out ad space on the subway trains. There was so much public complaint that the ads were taken down five hours after their launch,” Park said. Today, no one has yet rejected the condoms that he gives away for free to his friends and acquaintances.

“The marketing strategy for Damn Good Idea involves appealing more to the mental, emotional aspects,” said Park explaining how the name, Damn Good Idea, is a conversation opener.

How did his family react to his latest business? After all, his family is no ordinary family ― Park is the oldest son of Doosan Group chairman Park Yong-mann, which makes him a scion of the family that runs the oldest company in the country that is now the 12th largest conglomerate by assets.

“I told them about it one week before the launch,” said Park, who added that there was no opposition. They knew he would go ahead with it regardless of their response, Park pointed out.

In fact, Park’s parents have always trusted him ― even through the years of drifting before he finally discovered his life’s passion, design. Park openly talks about how he never liked studying, barely making it to college and then withdrawing before he would be expelled for failing grades. He then went to the U.S., where he tried studying this and that, nothing really holding his interest.

That was before he saw his friend working on a design assignment and thought it looked like great fun. Park ended up studying graphic design at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He had finally found the thing that captivated him, changing his life from one of a dilettante to one that is extremely focused and purposeful.

In 2006, he founded a company while still a student at the School of Visual Arts, naming it Big Ant International because he had always liked ants. The company changed its name to Big Ant in January this year. Business started in earnest about four years ago. On Park’s business card is the usual title of CEO followed by “Extremely Cute Director.” The business card also features a drawing of a big ant next to his name indicating his position in the company. The higher level you are, the bigger the ant on your business card.

In an industry dominated by in-house agencies that are part of conglomerates, Big Ant International faced a formidable challenge in letting its presence be known. This Park accomplished neatly by winning awards at the One Show, a prestigious advertising and design award competition, for three consecutive years starting in 2009. Big Ant International also became the first Korean firm to sweep five international ad competitions.

“Entering the competitions was part of the strategy to get our name out there,” said Park, a strategy that worked. Soon, clients came calling and the company is now is in a position to select its clients. Explaining how good ads are made by good clients, Park said that the people who approach his company are very open. In choosing its clients, fun is a big element.

“We look at whether it would be fun, whether we will do well. We turn down those that will not fit,” Park said, adding, “Even if we do one thing, it should be fun.”

Big Ant’s major clients include Dongwha Pharm, Maeil Dairies Inc., NOROO Painting & Coatings, and Organica, a premium whole food business arm of the Herald Corporation, the publisher of The Korea Herald.

Big Ant is at a turning point where it is changing its business concept, ready to expand. It will soon move out of its current office in a converted private residence in Hannam-dong with a fully equipped kitchen, where he prepares lunch for his staff of 20, to a larger and more easily accessible location.

As part of the social business aspect of the condom venture, Park wants to make sex education videos in several versions ― one for schools, another for the Internet and yet another in a documentary format.

“Teenagers need information on sex education,” said Park.

“There is very little information available on condoms. On the Internet, information on condoms are restricted for those under 19. In fact, 90 percent of students think they need an I.D. to buy condoms,” Park said.

Park has a list of five good deeds he wants to do, including the condom project. “I decided to tackle the condom project first because I thought it would be the most fun and meaningful,” he said.

The next on the list will involves recycled products.

“We could recycle A-class used clothing to make B-class products. For example, discarded sportswear which uses absorbent fabrics could be turned into mops,” he said.

By Kim Hoo-ran, Senior writer (khooran@heraldcorp.com)

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