AAPI Talent Needs to Have a Seat at the Table

Visibility starts with being seen

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I’ve wrestled with the violence, the hate and the pain, with the horrific shootings in Atlanta in March hitting particularly close to home as they were a mile from where I used to live. Some days, it’s hard to see if we’ll ever be truly seen as part of this country. Just take Daniel Dae Kim’s testimony in front of Congress where he shared a story about a pollster claiming AAPI voters weren’t counted “because Asian Americans are considered statistically insignificant.” For too long, we’ve been relegated to existing as an invisible minority, which in short, as Kim put it bluntly, means “we don’t matter.” 

The recent passage in the Senate of an anti-Asian American hate crime bill signals we are finally reckoning with the rise in Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate crimes this past year. It’s a big step forward in raising the AAPI community’s visibility in this country.

I’ve been in advertising for over a decade and have worked at four different ad agencies and was always one of maybe two AAPI in the office. I’ve never worked on any campaigns that targeted AAPI audiences. And most significantly, I’ve never worked with a manager or director who looked like me. That alone made me question whether this was an industry where I could succeed. 

My experience is not unique. Advertising is notoriously lacking when it comes to DEI. According to 4A’s data, AAPI only makes up 10% of the industry, Black people only 5%, Hispanic or Latinx only 8%. And while there has been an emphasis among agencies to correct the lack of diversity in our industry, we still have a long way to go before we collectively reflect the diversity of the audiences we target. For AAPI communities, we need a two-fold approach that both prioritizes hiring and promoting AAPI talent and creating work that centers on our experiences and makes us feel seen. 

Tell our authentic stories

The true opportunity for our industry to impact cultural change is facilitating AAPI visibility. When advertising is at its best, it reflects and speaks to the culture it represents and can shift perceptions in a powerful way. Advertising can be a mass media tool used to change entrenched and toxic stereotypes about AAPI communities that have persisted for generations, like the perpetual foreigner and Asian monolith stereotypes. 

AAPI audiences are largely untapped by brands, despite the fact that we’re the fastest growing multicultural group in the U.S. with a collective buying power of $1.2 trillion. The potential is clearly there, but why don’t brands target us? One potential reason may be that they don’t know how to, falling into the trap that because they can’t possibly speak to all of the different AAPI cultures specifically, it’s easier to ignore us entirely. A good first step in overcoming this barrier is investment in understanding AAPI audiences through research. Learn about us and the nuances that make up the rich tapestry of diverse experiences among our communities.

With the wave of AAPI-centered movies and shows experiencing commercial success, it’s unquestionable that our authentic stories resonate with wider audiences. That carries over for branded content. For example, a holiday spot from Disney tells a uniquely Filipino story about a granddaughter and her grandmother. And while it centers on a Filipino tradition of making parols, the heart of the spot brings to life an insight around the power of passing traditions from generation to generation. There’s a universal truth at its root that is relatable to families of all different cultures—evidenced by the fact that this spot ran in 26 markets including Europe, Australia and North America. Inclusion doesn’t concurrently mean exclusion. You can speak to one of us and still resonate with all of us.  

Hire us. Promote us. Empower us.

To create campaigns that truly represent us and our culture, AAPI talent needs to have a seat at the table. That means having a voice that is listened to and respected, and not just being relegated to behind-the-scenes work.

I was raised, as were many other AAPI, to believe that if you keep your head down and do the work, no matter what it takes, you will succeed. That’s just not how advertising works. We’re, unfortunately, an industry built on a cult of personality, where people are rewarded for “being good in a room,” even if that means they’re terrible on a daily basis. So often we’re overlooked and underappreciated, and that results in a lack of AAPI leadership within our industry and corporate culture as a whole. 

According to HBR, AAPI are the least likely group to be promoted to management. Don’t just hire us, promote us. Visibility starts with being seen, so see us for the unique experiences and perspectives we can share, and help raise us into positions where we can truly drive change within the industry.