IW Group, an Asian owned marketing agency, was recently recognized as Ad Age’s 2022 Multicultural Agency of the Year, thanks to industry leading campaigns for clients like McDonald’s and Jack Daniel’s. Founded in 1990, the agency has focused on reaching diverse audiences, starting with Asian communities, but also including Latinx, Black and LGBTQIA+ groups.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with IW Group’s entertainment group and they are truly an incredible team of diverse creatives. Recently, I spoke with Telly Wong, who serves as the agency’s Senior Vice-President and Chief Creative Officer.
Wong talked about his personal journey within the industry, the work that their team has been doing with diverse communities, and his experience working with major brands.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
POC CULTURE: IW group was recently awarded Ad Age’s 2022, Multicultural Agency of the Year, how does it feel to be recognized for all the amazing work that you’ve been doing?
TELLY WONG: It was a long time coming. It’s always nice to be recognized for work that you’ve really put your heart and soul into. So I think everyone at the agency is really thrilled by this award, because I think it’s unprecedented for us. It’s the first time winning an award of this stature, and I think it’s just a nice validation of all the hard work that we’ve been doing, not just for this year, but throughout the last couple of years, and especially during the pandemic.
POC CULTURE: Absolutely. And I know that IW group has been doing the work since the 90s, so like you said, it’s a long time coming. I feel like in all industries, diverse professionals have to scratch and claw to get this kind of recognition. What is it like, in your world, being an agency that was founded by Asian Americans, led by Asian Americans like yourself, how difficult is it to get that recognition?
TELLY WONG: You know, it’s a combination of several factors. It’s also wanting to get that recognition, in addition to, you know, being recognized. So, a lot of times, perhaps culturally, it’s just Asian Americans, we don’t go out and beat our chests and promote ourselves, and then scream out, “Hey, give us an award!” That’s not the case here. But it’s also, you have to create your brand, and you have to get out there. And I think when you talk about an advertising or marketing agency, sometimes there’s some red tape there, and you’re basically a silent partner, most of the time, to your clients. You want them to get the recognition for the creativity that you’re doing on their behalf. So sometimes that recognition isn’t always forthcoming. At the same time, when you have those opportunities to be recognized, you need to go after them aggressively and proactively. Like in this case, for example, they didn’t find us, we found out about the awards, we submitted, we applied, and they selected us.
POC CULTURE: That’s such a great point about just needing to kind of puff some of our chest a little bit and get the recognition that we deserve in all industries. I often think about the dichotomy between the Japanese proverb that “the nail that stands up gets hammered down,” whereas, in Western culture, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil.” I think about that conflict all the time and I’m glad that for Asian Americans, that has started to shift. Do you feel that, for the current and younger generations of Asian Americans, that’s changing in terms of that awareness of how to get the recognition we deserve?
TELLY WONG: Yeah. I certainly think with the younger generation, because I’ve never heard so many young people talk about their brand. And I think people that young people that are on YouTube and Tik Tok as influencers, they understand the value of creating a personal brand. And I think that’s very different than years past. I mean, my father owned a grocery store, but I don’t think he ever thought about, how do we brand this and make this like a famous grocery store in Brooklyn? It was just sort of something that you did, and it was much more practical and functional. But nowadays, I think we’re thinking a little bit more abstractly, because we know that, especially in the last several decades, and how much we as consumers invest in a brand versus just a product, right? So like Apple was a great example, or Nike, where you’re really buying into the brand as much as you’re buying into specific individual products. And I think that’s the same now with a lot of Asian American companies and companies that are led by people of color.
POC CULTURE: Definitely. You mentioned your dad and a little bit of your background. I know you’re New York, born and raised and you went to NYU. I feel like a lot of us have that moment, maybe in our youth, where there’s a part of us that was almost ashamed of the Asian part of our heritage, and then we all have that moment where we really embrace it. Sometimes it’s multiple moments. For me, I was always a Bruce Lee fan, but really began to appreciate him more in college. Was there’s anything like that for you?
TELLY WONG: It’s not like we have a choice. So if you’re ashamed of who you are, it’s not like you’re gonna go around and pass off as another ethnicity. So I’ve never felt I could ever run away from it. We just have to live with it. And then obviously, as you get older, you have different levels of acceptance and pride. And for me, I grew up in a Chinese American family who went to Chinatown every weekend, it was just part of who I was. But it was so normalized that you don’t even think of it until you get to college, and you’re around other like minded people from similar backgrounds, then you understand that your individual experience is also part of the community and the collective, and something that you can really celebrate together. Now, for me, because I didn’t grow up in an Asian neighborhood, there weren’t many Asian kids in my school. And I didn’t really have that, you know, if you want to call it an awakening, until later years of high school, and definitely in college, when you’re doing these clubs and all these other activities.
POC CULTURE: Yeah, I feel like college is a time when many of us realize, “I’m not alone!” At what point did you realize this is the work that you want to do, and that you can make a positive impact in the Asian American community?
TELLY WONG: Yeah, I went to art school at NYU. And just because I didn’t know what else was out there, growing up as a child of blue collar parents, it’s not like you have a rich uncle who’s working as an executive at a company and says “Hey, come and be an intern for the summer and get a lay of the land.” There was no real guidance from my family. So I was really curious how one makes a living being creative. And while I was in college, I volunteered at an Asian American film festival here in New York, that led to an internship with a PR firm that was actually headed by an Asian American, and started learning more about marketing and advertising, and realized, okay, I could apply the skills that I’m learning here and actually apply to an industry where I could make a living from that.
And that’s how it began. And I’m glad you mentioned representation and things like that, because I feel that in the advertising and marketing industry, we, as advertisers and marketers, and especially as Asian Americans and people of color, we have such a great opportunity to put forth progressive images of our communities and reach millions of people. So I really see what we do as a really amazing opportunity that we’re given to promote new and diverse images of our community in the advertising and marketing that we create.
POC CULTURE: I couldn’t agree with you more. I always say a big thing about representation that too many people don’t realize is that it’s not just about what’s in front of the camera, but behind the camera and executive offices are just as important, if not moreso. I was listening to you talk at Rutgers Business School, and you talked about how, who gets to tell the stories has really been changing lately, which is so vital. How have you been experiencing that in the entertainment sphere? Have you seen that shift in terms of behind the camera representation?
TELLY WONG: Yeah, well, you’ve seen sort of this amazing, tectonic shift in the last decade or so. If you remember, Memoirs of a Geisha came out a while back (1997). And it was a book about Japanese geisha, written by a non Japanese writer (Arthur Golden). And there was a lot of controversy around the casting and just the way the story was being told, because it was a inauthentic. Fast forward 10 years later, and you have something like Crazy Rich Asians, which is written and directed by Asian Americans and featuring a cast of Asian Americans and actually shot on location. So you see this move towards more authentic storytelling. And it’s not just how you tell it, but who’s telling it, and I think that’s here to stay, at least for the time being. You just see that across the board with all films and TV shows now, they really want to feel like they’re watching something that comes from a real place.
POC CULTURE: Thank goodness!
TELLY WONG: Right.
POC CULTURE: Speaking about Crazy Rich Asians. You played a major role in that amazing campaign. Of course, that film was a watershed moment for our community when it comes to representation. What was your experience working on that and what was something that you were particularly proud of with that campaign?
TELLY WONG: Yeah, so for Warner Brothers, we’ve been working with them for, at the time, close to 10 years. When we started working with them, the first one we worked on was Inception which I believe was 2010, and it was the first time a major studio brought on an Asian American agency to be an agency of record for their tentpole releases. And so we continued that relationship, and most of the time, we were promoting films that maybe had an Asian supporting actor, maybe someone who’s part of the main cast or behind the scenes, and occasionally get like a Harold and Kumar movie to promote. And then when this film came along, right before it went into production, they actually brought us in. And usually that’s pretty rare, because the marketing agencies are brought in much later to actually promote it after the film is done and once it’s about to go into theaters. And they engaged us and said, “Okay, you guys are the Asian American agency and experts in this segment, give us some thoughts and how we can get this out there. Because we want to make sure that we win over this audience, but at the same time, how do transcend that audience and help build a crossover audience?” So our goal is to develop a strategy that would ensure that he would galvanize support in the Asian American community around this film, and really treat this film as more than a film. Because at the time, it was nearly 25 years since the last time there was a movie that was written and directed by an Asian American with an all Asian American ensemble cast, which was The Joy Luck Club. And so you know, it took a quarter of a century to get from point A to point B, which is pretty, pretty amazing. And so we treated it as something of an event, and something that the community rallied behind. And the support from influencers, community organizations, and celebrities that had nothing to do with the film, was really amazing and unbelievable. And I think that really led to the success of the film. And then those individuals who were sort of being the mouthpieces for the film helped bring in a different type of audience as well, because their followers reach beyond just the community.
POC CULTURE: That’s so awesome to hear that they brought you in early in the process, which I had no idea about. And I feel like that’s so critical in developing a fully integrated campaign that really leverages the communities, which in my opinion, is too often lacking. Do you see that since Crazy Rich Asians that the studios are doing more of that of bringing you in earlier?
TELLY WONG: Yeah, it depends on the projects. It depends on the film, the nature of the film, what they’re going after, but certainly, there’s been no shortage of work. Since Crazy Rich Asians, we’re working with virtually every studio. And at this point, since the pandemic, almost every streaming service and TV network in the past few years. So you’re seeing Hollywood really pay attention now to this audience that has been really taken for granted and not taken seriously. Because they’re seeing that, you know, money talks, and they’re seeing the results happen at the box office, and in their viewership.
POC CULTURE: I do feel like it’s our time. But there’s a part of me that fears losing that and going back to what it was like before. Beyond entertainment, I know you do a lot of work with many big brands, including McDonald’s. And one of the things I heard you talk about was that McDonald’s was one of the first big companies to invest heavily in the Asian American market, which is genius, because literally, my parents and all their friends look for McDonald’s when they travel. How have you seen that investment benefit McDonald’s as company, as a brand?
TELLY WONG: I think the beauty of working with a big brand like that is their reach and scale and being able to really promote messages well beyond the community and reach others. Because sometimes, the API community, we create this feedback loop within the community, and we all agree with each other. That’s wonderful, but we also need to get that message out there into the rest of the world. So a great example of that is, almost exactly two years ago, our agency launched one of the first social media campaigns to address the anti Asian hate situation that was out there called “Wash the Hate.” And that was a social media campaign that we turned into a public service announcement that we ran on some channels. And then last year, after what happened in Atlanta, McDonald’s actually took the PSA that we created and they donated a media inventory that they had on national cable networks across the country. They ran the PSA so it could air in front of millions of people. So I think that speaks to the scale of what having a client like McDonald’s can do for you. And then for us as well, you know, things like the partnership that McDonald’s did last year with BTS that our team was a part of, it just helps to promote the culture and helps to normalize Asians and Asian Americans in pop culture, which is really a recent phenomenon. If you think about it, Asian Americans are now driving pop culture to a large extent, whether it’s music and fashion, and now film and television, and working with clients that have the ability to provide you with a platform to share those messages and get those ideas out there is really a blessing.
POC CULTURE: You made a great point about how Asians are driving culture right now – BTS, K-pop, K-dramas, Squid Games. At the same time, I feel like there is a tension between Asian content and talent, and Asian American content and talent. How have you dealt with that distinction and helping companies navigate that difference?
TELLY WONG: Well, you mentioned Bruce Lee, and technically, he became a star in Hong Kong. But in the past, we didn’t have homegrown Asian American talent. So we had to look elsewhere. You know, like Jackie Chan, right? I remember growing up watching Jackie Chan movies in Cantonese, because you couldn’t find anything like that in the movie theaters in America. And now they’re in America, and they’ve crossed over. And now there are so many Asian American stars that are doing things overseas, and vice versa. So you have someone like Daniel Wu, who is a Chinese American who went to Hong Kong, became a star over there, and now he’s returning to the States and finding opportunities in America. So it’s really a fine line, and almost the distinction is no longer there because it’s kind of straddling all these different worlds right now.
POC CULTURE: That’s interesting. You’ve talked about demystifying the Asian market for a lot of your clients. And there’s clearly this desire to tap into it. Like you said, money talks. But at the same time, Asians are a big, diverse group. How do you help clients who want to appeal to the market, but don’t exactly know how?
TELLY WONG: For many years, I think a lot of marketers and brands have sort of stayed away from the Asian American segment because, number one, they felt that it was too small in comparison with some of the other multicultural segments. And a lot than I used to hear is that “We’re already reaching them through our general marketing communications,” which means like, “Oh, yeah, Asian American just watch the same things as the general audience, you know, white audience, watches and listens to, so therefore, we already got them talking, we don’t need special communication to them.”
There was also this notion that the segment was too complicated, because it’s already small as it is, and then then on top of that, everyone speaks different languages, and there are different levels of acculturation, it just became too much of a headache. But I think now that’s changed quite a bit because there is an Asian American consciousness that’s developed in the past few decades, a very salient point that we could latch onto, a market that a marker can market to. And so I think that’s really changed a lot of minds because of Crazy Rich Asians, K-pop and things like that, that are part of the Asian American youth identity. It’s something that has opened up a lot of eyes and minds when it comes to how does the brand tap into that community now, is there something that is collectively celebrated? And you’re seeing more of that now. So for example, for McDonald’s recently, for Lunar New Year, we worked with Humberto Leon, who is one of the founders of Opening Ceremony, and he’s a fashion designer. And we know that Asian Americans are all over the fashion industry now, and that’s something that transcends any one specific ethnicity. So you’re just finding a lot of these cross sections that enable us to enable marketers to reach a broader audience than before.
POC CULTURE: That’s great. My last question is, what do you have in your vision for the near future? What would you love to be able to work on and how do you plan continue to grow IW group to be the leading marketing agency that it is today?
TELLY WONG: Yeah, we plan to expand our different practices and different areas of expertise. So our entertainment practice, we definitely want to continue to grow that. Last year, we were able to create and produce our first reality series for Jack Daniels. And that’s very thrilling, because I think nowadays, there are so many opportunities for people that produce content. And it’s not to say everything you do needs to be commercial anymore. It could be a piece of branded content that could live as a television program, or even a film or something like that. So I think there are opportunities that we want to explore with branded content that goes beyond just the usual stuff that you see. And then also the Metaverse and virtual reality, the NFTs, the door is wide open. There are no experts just yet so everyone’s still learning. And we want to explore that and help bring some of our other clients into that space.
ASIAN AMERICAN-OWNED MARKETING FIRM IW GROUP
NAMED AD AGE’S 2022 MULTICULTURAL AGENCY OF THE YEAR
LA-based consumer and entertainment shop wins top category honor at
A-List & Creativity Awards
LOS ANGELES, March 15, 2022 — From tapping into the power of Kpop to embracing the possibilities of the metaverse, 2021 was a year of extraordinary firsts for IW Group, a leading creative agency specializing in engaging diverse audiences, and its clients. As the pandemic continued to limit in-person activities and on-set production, the firm explored new creative approaches that not only yielded award-winning campaigns for clients McDonald’s and Jack Daniel’s, but also an unprecedented expansion into new consumer segments — including LGBTQ+, Hispanic and Indigenous — for the traditionally AAPI-focused agency.
Characterized by a renewed emphasis on innovation, transformation and purpose, IW Group’s landmark 2021 has culminated with being named Ad Age’s 2022 Multicultural Agency of the Year. One of the marketing industry’s highest honors, it is part of the trade organization’s prestigious A-List & Creativity Awards, which recognizes the best forward-thinking leaders, top agencies and creative innovators of today.
“It’s an absolute honor to be recognized by one of the industry’s foremost authorities in creative excellence,” said Bill Imada, IW Group’s Founder and Chief Connectivity Officer. “These past few years haven’t been easy but they’ve also brought forth extraordinary opportunities from both new and existing clients. Their faith in our agency and our team’s passion for innovation is what enables us to produce significant work, which leads to significant awards.”
Bolstered by diverse young talent and guided by veteran leadership, IW Group scored new clients in 2021 across a broad range of industries including consumer, entertainment and healthcare. Upskilling agency personnel has also been a key priority, with internal training courses on emerging tech and digital trends (e.g., metaverse, NFTs and VR) offered regularly to staff. With an eye towards the future, the firm also recently opened an office in the metaverse, which will be utilized for virtual events, client presentations and staff meetings.
“As brands continue to double down on their commitment to multicultural youth, agency partners who are both culturally and digitally fluent will be imperative,” said Nita Song, IW Group President and Chief Momentum Officer. “Our team’s diverse backgrounds — both personally and professionally — and our talent development programs have aligned us with the zeitgeist and are preparing us for the future.”
For the year ahead, IW Group will pursue agency growth; with plans to expand its award-winning entertainment practice, scale up its content department and formalize its burgeoning metaverse marketing capabilities. Additionally, the firm is exploring new client opportunities with overseas brands seeking to enter the US market.
“Our non-traditional approach to tradition and the opportunity to introduce new cultural representations not only fuels our creativity but also drives our purpose as an organization,” said Telly Wong, IW Group’s Chief Content Officer and SVP. “Our mission is to create work that not only excites our clients and resonates with audiences, but also inspires our team.”
About IW Group
One of the most award-winning multicultural agencies of all-time, IW Group was originally founded in 1990 to help US companies engage the then-emerging Asian American market. With a mission to create extraordinary brand experiences through culture and innovation, their clients include such major companies as McDonald’s, Lexus, Warner Brothers, and Disney. In recent years, the firm’s culture-first, digital-led and youth-driven approach has enabled the agency to expand into new industry categories and audience segments. Headquartered in Los Angeles, IW Group has additional offices in New York, San Francisco and the metaverse.
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.