Steven HT Wong is the cofounder and co-CEO of Ready State, the marketing and communications committee chair at the 1990 Institute, and a valued Ad Council partner, most notably for his work on our “Fight the Virus. Fight the Bias,” which directly addresses the rise in anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read on to learn more about Steven’s work, his thoughts on what brands should be doing to combat the rise in anti-Asian racism, and his advice for creating a meaningful life and career.
Amanda Kwong: What inspired you to found your own creative agency, Ready State? What are your organization’s core beliefs and values, and how do you bring that to life in your work?
Steven HT Wong: We saw an opportunity to make marketing better. We recruited journalists to create content, strategy consultants to craft marketing programs, and now, technologists to develop bionic creative using automation and artificial intelligence technologies.
Ready State knows that diversity improves creativity. Jodi Wing, our creative director, is a woman leader in our industry.
The battle for creative talent in the San Francisco Bay Area is especially fierce, so we are committed to investing in our team to attract and retain the best people. Our people are our superpower, so we have development plans and account rotations for each team member.
Our goal is to nurture brave creative teams that feel optimistic and empowered, as opposed to a team of order-takers. Our clients seek us out for what we can bring to them, and not the other way around.
AK: What’s the role of brands when it comes to fighting AAPI hate and discrimination? Many brands have made statements condemning hate crimes against AAPIs, but we all know that action is more important than words. What more can they do to make a significant impact?
SW: I’d like to see more brands make forceful statements against Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) racism, because it’s a historically overlooked issue. But yes, they need to follow through with actions to make a difference.
Asian Americans are the fastest growing demographic in the U.S., with immense buying power, but we are often overlooked in media plans. If you are a brand that wants to reach this audience, you should invest in AAPI media strategies and understand their unique needs.
The model minority myth portrays Asian Americans as doctors and engineers, and obscures the fact that AAPI communities have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic. If your brand is making charitable donations, you should specify charities that focus on these low-income AAPI communities.
The glass ceiling for Asian Americans is real: we are the least likely to be promoted to management. Corporate DEI programs should address this within their own policies. Marketers can help by hiring Asian-led vendors and partners.
AK: Since last fall, Ready State has been working with the Ad Council to further extend the “Fight the Virus. Fight the Bias” campaign under the Love Has No Labels brand. How has your experience, both as an individual and in your decades of experience in our industry, informed your approach to building out this creative suite?
SW: Before someone will listen to you, they have to see you, and part of the problem Asians in America have faced is lack of visibility. Our creative strategist, Susi Harris, crafted this campaign in three phases. The first series featured headshots to force eye contact with the audience. The second series featured hands to demonstrate that Asians are part of our community fabric. And the third series was the most jarring, recounting real stories from people who have experienced racism firsthand.
Ready State is very grateful to be able to contribute to this campaign. Pro bono projects typically don’t get prioritized by agencies, but my partners and I agree that this takes commitment, and the reward is that our team gets to do something that is meaningful to them personally.
AK: Could you tell us about some other projects you’ve executed over the last year that you’re especially proud of?
SW: We developed a bionic workflow using automation and artificial intelligence to help our teams deliver more content assets for creative testing. In the past year, Ready State has turned this into a stand-alone product that helps growth marketers mass-version their advertising creative for their programmatic media. Imagine being able to iterate to your best-performing creative in a matter of days instead of weeks or even months.
AK: What is the greatest life lesson you’ve learned, and how did it help you?
SW: Make time for your long game. We lead such busy lives that it's easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. So schedule downtime to figure out what your dreams are; it can be starting a business, writing a novel or maybe making a family. It’s got to be something you truly want, not something you’ve been told to want.
And give yourself five years or 10 years to get there. There will be setbacks, so persevere.