By Alan Oda, AsAmNews Staff Writer
An ad agency usually gets hired to tell someone else’s story. This time, it’s an agency with Asian American roots with a story to tell, and a proud one at that. The IW Group, a multi-platform advertising agency, can now brag they are the recipient of the 2022 Multicultural Agency Award presented by Ad Age, the top publication in advertising.
In presenting the honor, the publication recognized the IW Group “has historically focused on reaching Asian audiences, (they’re now) expanding to reach broader demographics – with strategies that continue to hit Asian consumers.”
“Being named to the A-List is one of the most prestigious honors in advertising. The recognition reflects game-changing creativity, bold leadership and the ability to point the industry in new directions,” Ad Age said in describing the award.
Nita Song, Chief Momentum Officer and President of the IW Group, is fully aware of the cachet of winning this award.
“Ad Age is the Wall Street Journal of our business. There were 300 agencies who submitted applications, it’s quite a distinction to receive.” It is not the first time the agency has been recognized, with past honors including the 2021 Asian American Advertising Federation (3AF) Marketer of the Year, the Grand Prize winner of the 2021 PR News Platinum Awards, among with many other awards.
It was about 30 years ago when advertisers saw the benefit of targeting the Hispanic and African American communities. “Asian consumers then started getting on the radar,” said Song. The first advertisers included long-distance telecoms, such as AT&T, who offered discounted plans for overseas calls to China, Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries. They were soon followed by the Bank of America offering services to recent immigrants needing to open accounts. Insurance companies also started advertising to Asian families who needed coverage, including their business needs. “Then brands like Anheuser-Busch realized their success with the Hispanic market could also happen with the Asian market,” Song said, which widened the doors to a new market.
The 2020 Census reported the Asian population is approaching 20 million, with growth still coming from immigration. “Asian consumers are a very attractive target to advertisers, as many are immigrants who need to find a place to live, purchase a car – many arrive already with higher education degrees and experience.”
A significant amount of advertising is offered in the native language of consumers, but that is shifting. “The second generation is almost a different target. Language is not an issue, but culture is important and they still represent a unique market,” said Song. There are also many within the Asian community who may have limited finances, but they also “need to buy autos, purchase food and other goods…we need to balance our efforts to support the various needs of Asian consumers and the community.”
Song provided the history of the IW Group. “Bill Imada (now the Chief Connectivity Officer) started IW Group as a public relations firm, building relationships in the Asian American community.” Imada had a client who asked him to also handle their marketing. In 2000, he then built out the advertising department, “and within two years (Imada) landed five major clients, including Walmart and McDonald’s,” said Song. The agency’s current clientele include Lexus, Warner Brothers, Disney, City of Hope, Marvel, Bank of the West, Sony Pictures, Northwestern Mutual, Southern California Edison, Beam Suntory, Nielsen, Apple TV, Lionsgate, along with many others.
“The Asian American consumer is looking for authenticity. They need to know an advertiser is interested in their community on more than just special holidays like Lunar New Year. This is a smart consumer group, they want to know if an advertiser has a genuine interest,” said Song. “We use a what we refer to as a ‘360 approach,’ reaching the community via news and other venues as a holistic approach in reaching out. We advise our clients to connect to the consumer by supporting non-profits and charities, use their leverage to support their Asian American employees who become ambassadors for your product.” This was especially important during the recent rise in hate crimes against Asians. The agency created Wash the Hate, a public service announcement to raise public awareness of current events.
Two unique approaches help distinguish IW Group’s success. One is what Song refers to as the “bullseye and beyond approach,” where they begin by targeting a particular demographic, but then extend and grow their outreach to other segments.
“Success in one area can influence other segments – we’ve had some impressive results with youth and the LGBTQ community.” A second insight is their efforts to reach persons who identify as mixed race. “They’re not necessarily a separate market. We find the influence of the diverse partner tends to be greater. They have a strong connection to their ethnic heritage, particularly when it comes to entertainment and food.” She again cited the 2020 Census, which counted more than 4.7 million individuals who identified with Asian and another ethnic category.
Nita Song’s journey to the leadership of the IW Group is a story unto itself, laughing that she “grew up at the agency.” She started as a volunteer at a non-profit while attending high school, which eventually offered her different opportunities. She helped emcee an event for the Korean Grocers Association, where she met IW Group founder Imada. He was favorably impressed with Song, enough to ask her if she was interested in a job.
“It was a little bit of a dream. I was being paid for something I was already doing.” She stayed for seven years working with Imada and his associates before heading to AT&T to build their Asian market strategy, which included hiring the IW Group. “It was valuable because I had a different experience as a client,” said Song. After working at an Internet start-up (where she again hired the IW Group), she decided to return to the agency in 2000 “which was when IW wanted to build out their advertising agency efforts.”
“We see Asian Americans as big influencers. They help influence decisions about buying products, they’re also prominent in posting reviews on Yelp, we think Asian Americans are now leading in trendsetting,” Song said.
She sees a priority for the IW Group, now with offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, to prioritize diversity in their hiring. “It’s about more than ethnicity. You want workers with different experiences because we benefit from a creative mix of people. It’s allowed us to come up with some amazing ideas to reach the Asian Pacific American community and beyond.”
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