As the senior vice president of talent strategy and program development at the ANA Educational Foundation, which aims to educate and inspire the next generation of advertising talent, Elliot Lum draws on a 20-year marketing background that includes working as a brand manager for Colgate and as head of partnerships for Columbia Records. This summer, Elliot was a critical partner on our “Fight the Virus, Fight the Bias” campaign, which addresses the rise in anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic. We talked to Elliot about what he’s learned from his career—and from 2020.
Amanda Kwong: Could you talk a bit about your efforts on “Fight the Virus. Fight the Bias,” and about the power of convening?
Elliot Lum: Once the pandemic started, I saw there was a lot of xenophobia that was happening. I tried to understand what I could do, what my role could be in all of it, and my first call was to the Ad Council. I thought the best way to combat this kind of perception is with scalable messaging and the Ad Council offers that. My role was really to help with the entire effort—I helped refine the message, and I spoke to many community organizers, nonprofits, and heads of agencies that focus on the Asian American market to really build a community so that when were ready to launch the campaign, it was really spectacular to see everybody come together in a meaningful way to support it. We saw partners pitch in to offer press contacts, translate, and get whatever needed done. My role was really about connecting people together in a meaningful way.
AK: When creating content about the rise in racism against the API community during COVID-19, what was the one most important thing the work had to get right?
EL: In this campaign, what we wanted to get right was the decoupling of the virus and the API community. We need to fight the virus itself, not fight each other as people.
AK: How do you define corporate social responsibility in 2020? What does leadership look like?
EL: I think before this year corporate responsibility was very much like, we’re checking the boxes—investing in the community, getting behind foundation efforts. Those things are important, but now there is a greater understanding that it really is about applying the skill sets you have to do good for the community. It's less about sitting behind your desk and much more about taking action and getting involved in a more direct way. A lot of nonprofits struggle with fundraising, yes, but they may also struggle with marketing or UX design, for example, so there’s a much greater opportunity for corporate citizens to actually invest their skills, not just their dollars. It’s more of an activist approach, but not activism in the traditional sense of getting involved in politics—it’s activism in the sense that we’ve realized that the skills we learn in the marketing and advertising industry can really be deployed for good.
AK: Does your music background inform your social-good work? If so, how?
EL: The way that the music industry operates is very fluid and is very based on relationships. One day you're talking to the video producer, and the next day you’re talking to the manager or to the artist, and everyone’s trying to create value together, but there are a lot of people that you need to connect with, and often all these relationships—and job descriptions—are somewhat loose and open-ended. In that world, you really have to understand the system to be able to move a project forward.
So, my background was really helpful for this campaign in the sense that I knew how to help us build a coalition. There was a relationship currency that I had with people—I understood how to motivate people and how to figure out what they could bring to the table, even if those things weren’t necessarily in their job description. The most important piece was, how do we kind of stitch together all these relationships for a greater common cause?
AK: What is the greatest life lesson you’ve learned, and how did it help you?
EL: I've always been curious about things, just interested in asking questions and marrying curiosity with action. When you’re curious about something, you explore it, you ask questions, you get engaged with people, you develop a point of view—and then that point of view ultimately drives someone else to commit to your point of view and maybe even put resources against it. Following your own curiosity to develop your viewpoint is so important for so many reasons—a viewpoint based on nothing more than assumptions is a totally different thing. Curiosity is about deconstructing assumptions, challenging those assumptions.
To bring it back to “Fight the Virus, Fight the Bias,” we asked, okay, what are the prevailing assumptions we’re seeing that people are making? How do we get at those core assumptions, what is that core? How do we get people to think about things in a different way? And that’s curiosity, right? If I could offer any advice to people in the industry who want to do good, it would be to lead with their curiosity.