The Asian-Admerican Problem

by Erik Sena
Working Jr. Social Media Coordinator & Portfolio Studio Copywriting Student

"It's your shot," Mom would always say. From the age of about 7 onward, my parents encouraged me to do whatever it was that made me happy and seldom placed tight restrictions—professionally or academically. As a Filipino-American and, in general, an Asian-American for that matter, this was somewhat of a rare occurrence.

Historically, Asian children are groomed to excel in science and mathematics. In countries like South Korea, Japan, Singapore and China, a strict emphasis is placed on high achievement from an early age. Their societies are structured as meritocracies— starting from grade school and continuing onto the time they enter the workforce. In their eyes, only the most intellectually-gifted succeed (i.e. make the most money), causing professions like art, entertainment and media to fall to the wayside. Those that immigrated to the United States passed this way of thinking onto their children.

I grew up in a predominantly Asian-American community, and most of my friends' parents pushed them to get the best grades possible, go to the best college possible and become a doctor, lawyer or engineer. From as early as first grade, I knew those professions were not in the cards for me. Creativity was something I always just instinctively fell back onto, and I knew I could be decent at this writing thing if I just kept at it. So that's exactly what I did.

One of my first writing pieces that sparked my career.

One of my first writing pieces that sparked my career.

I graduated last year with that seemingly elusive B.A. in journalism with an emphasis in advertising. Today I work as a social media coordinator. Throughout my brief creative career from freshman year of college until now, I have rarely seen other Asian-Americans. This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.

However, with the advent of social media and other new platforms, Asian-Americans can express themselves in ways that they never had the means to before. Now we're seeing a sharp increase in the number of Asian-Americans in the creative biz. They account for almost half of America's creative class at 47%, compared to white Americans at 34%, African-Americans at 24% and Latino-Americans at 18%. More and more, Asian-Americans are becoming visible in movies, TV shows and on the internet. But Asians only make up a little over 6% of creative jobs in America and even less in advertising (5.7%, as of 2014). Out of all the ad people I know, I can count on both hands the number of other Asians I've seen, and that's including people who work in strategy, accounts and other silos of advertising.

Thankfully, we have agencies like IW Group, DAE and APARTNERSHIP as well as a close-knit organization in the 3AF at the forefront of Asian-American representation. And, while they don't focus solely on Asian-Americans, events like the 3% Conference, the Adcolor Conference, and Here Are All The Black People are creating buzz and conversation around diversity and inclusion in advertising. But, this is not nearly enough in terms of what we as a culture are capable of. While we're making strides in terms of inclusivity and diversity, we still have a long way to go.

In the meantime, I look to important Asian creatives in advertising like Karin Fong, John Jay, Tracy Wong, and Phil Chang for encouragement and inspiration. These entrepreneurs, creative revolutionaries and award-winning virtuosos have produced some of the best and most groundbreaking work our industry has seen, yet they’ve gone relatively unnoticed. I—along with other young Asian-American creatives—intend on shifting that narrative.

Boardwalk Empire's Emmy-nominated title sequence designed by Karin Fong.

I don't have anything to prove, but being that the advertising industry in America started out as something of an old boys' club, I certainly have a chip on my shoulder. And taking up the mantle from my parents, who met as creatives at an agency in the Philippines, my mission is to make it as an Asian in Admerica. Just wait and see.


Portfolio Studio is the creative hub that connects pros with ambitious students for professional development and portfolio building. We're proud to have Erik as a student while he builds his amazing copywriting portfolio.