Korean Drama Trade + Zurich

4 minutes estimated reading time

I have had my head in PowerPoint presentations and market research reports so haven’t paid much attention this week until I read in this weekend’s FT about the Korean drama trade.

Extraordinary Attorney Woo

The premise of the Korean drama trade is a paradox, that while Netflix as a business isn’t doing well with investors and has experienced a lot of short selling, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the companies who produce content for the platform.

In many western and developing world media markets, consumers have been used to international content. Media industries that more closely match their own values tend to do better. For instance, there has been a brisk Korean drama trade in Middle Eastern countries because there was less sex and violence on display than American media.

Cracking foreign language markets

In the English speaking western world, foreign language media has had a tougher time to gain mass market acceptance. Things opened up a bit with the popularity of Scandinavian media, in particular ‘Scandi-noir’ dramas. The ironic thing is that prior to 1964 the films available to broadcast in the UK were either old b-movies, pre-war pictures from smaller studios or foreign-language films. Hollywood saw television as competition, so there was an informal blockade. This ended in the UK when Samuel Goldwyn and MCA began selling films as packages to the BBC and ITV. This wasn’t necessarily a good thing however.

Netflix then became the world’s entertainment broadcaster*. This meant that over time Netflix had to build up a body of content for lots of different markets. And if you want to be successful in Korea, you need Korean dramas and movies.

Freedom through the Korean drama trade

One of the standout aspects of the Korean dram trade has been that it has allowed Korean writers and directors to push the limits of the genre. A classic example of this is Hellhound. Hellhound gets to explore interesting questions around religion, morality, hysteria and power.

Or you have the nihilism of Squid Game.

This meant that Korean dramas have got a bigger creative palate and become exposed to a far larger potential audience than previously possible on niche streaming platforms like Rakuten’s Viki or Kocowa. Warners must be kicking themselves, having bought and then shut down early K drama streaming service DramaFever in 2018. Bob Cringely talked about innovation in terms of surfing waves and the danger of wiping out by being too early was as big as missing the wave altogether.

Back to the Korean production companies that have made these films. June Yoon over at the FT noticed what is now a well trod short term investment play

  • See what K-drama performs well when launched on Netflix
  • Buy shares in the production company if it is listed on the Korean stock market
  • Hold shares and then sell before the price starts to decline to a more reasonable level (after four weeks or so)

According to Yoon, this is the Korean drama trade. You have seen a similar bounce in the entertainment agencies of K-pop bands with international success already. So this surfing of the wave in Korean stocks makes sense.


The reason why I hadn’t been paying much attention is that I had a workshop in Zurich. The preparation was all-consuming. This all sounds very glamorous but it wasn’t. I flew in and went to the client office near the airport. Co-hosted a workshop and departed via Zurich airport after seeing next to nothing of the city. It was a long 19-hour day of work and travel. No Instagrammable moments or even shots grabbed by the departure gates. The few observations that I did have:

  • The pound now almost has parity with the Swiss Franc, which gives you an idea about how much Sterling’s depreciation since Brexit must be driving inflation
  • Mars had a really strong presence in the duty free shops. Which was really strange given the strong association of Switzerland with chocolate. It was a major win for the Mars brand that manages to associate its brands with the Swiss country brand in the minds of travellers
  • Switzerland still has a strong presence for tobacco advertising and promotion. The Marlboro chevron was on view in the duty-free store and there was a Winston smoking lounge for the nicotine addicted. I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at this 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. But it caused cognitive dissonance on this visit. (Disclaimer: I grew up around tobacco advertising, having had Uncles who ran cigarette machines in Ireland and were wholesalers to Irish bars, shops and petrol stations. I still have somewhere a few packs of Jordan B&H playing cards, a couple of Carroll’s Number 1 ash trays for keeping change in and a Reemtsma-branded Maglite torch.)
*With the exception of China, given that the media industry is one of many sectors that China views as being central to its state interests. This has meant that Taiwanese dramas and documentaries on the Hong Kong democracy movement have been given a platform on Netflix.