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Congratulations on launching your ad agency PLAYA! Do you think PLAYA will resonate with diverse audiences around the world? Thank you! I think brands and organizations that understand the world is rapidly changing will embrace PLAYA because they know that audiences are no longer “general market” and “multicultural” markets. Diverse audiences don’t want to be seen as a monolith, and at the same time, they are demanding representation. They want to be seen. So, I hope PLAYA and the diversity we represent will be a welcome change.

How did you discover your passion for advertising and learn the necessary skills? Since I was born and raised in a part of the Midwest where there weren’t many people who looked like me, I was an outsider. As a kid, all you want to do is fit in. I was also very conscious that my parents, who were Korean immigrants, had strong accents. So, I listened really hard to how people talked and would imitate them, believing this would be the key to being accepted. This eventually lead to my passion for writing and stories. I originally started in advertising as a receptionist and admin, and took ad classes to build a portfolio.

Is advertising a good vehicle to talk about racism? Racism exists in the world, so of course, it also exists within advertising. And if we’re going to address or ever hope to mitigate it, we have to talk about it candidly. We have to get over feeling uncomfortable talking about race. Advertising is part of our culture; it’s as good a place as any to talk about race.

You recently shared your own story of otherness in the ad industry in a piece for Muse. How do you hope this piece inspires other agency creatives of color to do the same? Many agency creatives have experienced what I have, and I hope that my speaking up encourages them to share their stories as well. Since that article, I’ve had several people approach me to start a conversation about how they might have contributed to the problem or what they went through themselves. I welcome all the thoughtful responses, because recognition and reflection enable us to make change possible in our industry.

Given the rise of #StopAsianHate, what are some specific ways the advertising industry can be a positive force in this movement? While public statements of support by agencies are fine, they seem hollow unless backed up by action. Transparency is a start. What are your agency stats on staff diversity? Who gets promoted to middle and upper management? It could also be a good time to consider if you are offering equal access to the plum creative assignments. Who is getting asked to client meetings, or whose work is getting entered into award shows? Is there equity and inclusion in your everyday processes? We measure so much in advertising, so it seems odd that our workplace diversity and inclusion efforts escape any basic level of transparency or accountability.

We have to seek out, honor and respect cultural differences to be able to begin to create messages that resonate with global audiences.”

You’ve created work for progressive nonprofits like the ACLU and Feminist Majority. How has that experience been different from creating work for brands like Lexus and SunAmerica? Sometimes, it can be difficult to work in cause marketing. The budgets are smaller, and we’re usually asking a critical mass of people to do something in a situation where they may get nothing in return, like donating their money or voting. Yet it feels like there’s more at stake. I’m not always working with people who are marketing experts, but when I work with organizations I admire on important issues, it’s some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. Working with brands can feel like solving a creative problem, which I’ve always enjoyed. Corporate and cause marketing may involve different processes, but because I’ve worked so much in both, I’m passionate about helping brands and organizations find their mission and purpose and then express it in their advertising.

What should creatives take into account when they’re creating campaigns for global audiences? We tend to live in a bubble without realizing it. I’ve been fortunate to travel a lot, and I’ve never presumed that my perspective is universal. I’ve also stayed freelance for most of my career, so I’ve learned to be as nimble and mobile as possible. It also enabled me to see how the creative process unfolds from agency to agency; for me, it reinforced that there’s so much to see and learn. We have to seek out, honor and respect cultural differences to be able to begin to create messages that resonate with global audiences.

What is the most interesting work in advertising that you’ve seen recently? The art content that digital media company d’strict is creating in Seoul, Korea, on buildings—like the world’s largest anamorphic illusion—is so arresting. It’s not advertising anything, yet people love it. It’s mesmerizing and unexpected, and it’s bringing up the real estate value on this building.

I also loved Buenos Aires–based ad agency slap’s Doritos Rainbow commercial “El mejor regalo” (The best gift) that aired in Mexico. It’s a gorgeous piece of film and a beautifully-told acceptance story.

What changes have you observed in the multicultural marketing field since you first started? I’ve spent most of my career in “general market” advertising and after I had twins, I went to work in a multicultural agency. At the time, the “total market” model was the gold standard, where there would be a lead agency that did general market and multicultural subs who actively participated in the brief and the creative concepting. Your mileage would vary on this model, depending on how committed to diversity the lead agency and client were and how healthy the partnerships were. Now, I’d say that this model is completely out of favor and seen as anachronistic. The most progressive marketers embrace a more lead-agnostic approach that I call the “global market” model. With demographics changing so rapidly, depending on the project or scope, it’s a mistake to assume that there’s a dominant culture—or even a dominant language.

What advice would you like to give to ad creatives? Keep receipts. Once when I previously worked in a big agency, the word was out that no one in the creative department was getting raises. One copywriter decided to go into her annual review with every brief and sample of everything she worked on. She went in with a fat stack of papers and was the only one who got a raise that year. I thought that was super smart. Keeping track of your unique contributions is an especially important practice for women and people of color in any workplace.

Speaking of smart, when I partnered with creative director Karen Costello Malave, she told me about a time that she had wanted a promotion and was denied it, so she asked, “What do I need to do for you to give me this promotion?” They gave her a list of things. She went back a year later with her list checked off and got that promotion. From all my years in advertising, I’ve seen many people get promoted over others who I thought deserved it more. We are rarely taught to advocate for ourselves. So, I’ve always been a big believer in documenting. Make lists. Get it in writing. Have receipts. Make your case undeniable.

Helen Cho has created national and international award-winning work for some of the world’s best brands, including Cigna, Disney and Southern California Edison, at agencies like DDB Worldwide, Saatchi & Saatchi and Ogilvy. She recently launched PLAYA, a woman- and minority-owned, full-service ad agency to help brands and organizations reach more diverse audiences.


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