The masks of an Asian Canadian in advertising

Carson Kwok explains how different cultural understandings lead to an exhausting standard for Asian talent to meet.


By Carson Kwok

Over the past year, our industry has done a lot of soul searching. There is more research, more panels about and by BIPOC professionals, and I found myself soul searching as well.

Often in my career, I have found myself struggling to reconcile two very different parts of myself. One is my cultural identity as an Asian Canadian, and the other is my professional identity in advertising. At times, I’ve pushed down my cultural identity to succeed in my professional one. At times, I had to wear a mask when I stepped into that office space.

Early on, I didn’t even question it. I was learning how to succeed in a work environment and thought switching behaviours was the process to succeed.

It felt wrong at times, but more like a nagging, numb bruise rather than a sharp pain.

With important conversations about BIPOC representation coming to light, I find myself trying to figure out the source of this numbing bruise.

I have never felt discriminated against. Asian Canadian employees generally matched population ratios in all the agencies I’ve worked at. I’ve been lucky in both regards. This is in stark contrast for other BIPOC groups, notably for Black advertising professionals where the number of Black professionals in agencies is far lower than the population. But although Asian Canadians are represented ratio-wise in agencies, being accounted for doesn’t always mean being fully there.

Our industry loves to throw around the term “culture fit,” which is a slippery slope. It tends to end in self-reflective questions for BIPOC professionals: Do I belong? Does my ethnicity, cultural background, or upbringing preclude me from fitting into a ‘culture’ that has traditionally been dominated by another group?

The CEO of Ogilvy Canada, John Killam, spoke crucially on this in a study that the agency co-led with Environics Research.

“We need to reassess what we mean when we talk about ‘cultural fit’ – away from how someone dresses or where they buy their coffee and shift it towards aligning with an agency’s core values,” Killam says.

Even if we pass that barrier and “fit in,” how long do we have to put up that mask? At what point in our careers can we put that facade away as agency leaders? Ultimately, do Asian Canadians last in the industry long enough to be in leadership positions?

In a recent study completed by People of Colour in Advertising and Marketing (POCAM), across 300 BIPOC respondents, only 10% reported having management or executive positions.

If it makes you feel better, this phenomenon is not unique to the Canadian advertising industry. A 2018 Harvard Business Review article concluded that Asian American professionals are the least likely to be promoted into management roles.

This is true even in Silicon Valley, where Asians were the largest racial group of professionals but were the least likely to be promoted among all races.

We’re seeing representation at the junior level in Canadian agencies, but not at the senior level. Why?

The default behaviours of Asian Canadian culture can be at odds with the default behaviours of the Canadian majority. My mask is full of “Westernized” behaviours so I can adapt while entering the office full of foosball, pool tables and (perhaps the culturally closest) table tennis.

It can be exhausting to play a role for a full work week. The POCAM study reported that, “87% of BIPOC say they must be on guard just to make it through the workday in peace.”

“You should speak up more in meetings.”

I’ve heard this feedback throughout my career and, subsequently, decorated my agency mask with louder colours. But this is an example of why speaking up more or taking the initiative is a mask behaviour.

Betina Szkudlarek from the University of Sydney writes, “In many East Asian cultures a person waits for someone to finish their thought, sometimes even takes a while to think it over, and only then responds.” Collectivistic leaders may implicitly understand this. But that same behaviour could be perceived by individualistic agency leaders as shyness.

Author Wesley Yang recounts a story in his article, Paper Tigers, that describes this best. Yang tells the story of a presentation made to 1,500 Asian Microsoft employees by Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP) president and CEO J. D. Hokoyama. In the article, he offers this example:

“So let’s say I go to meetings with you and I notice you never say anything. And I ask myself, ‘Hmm, I wonder why you’re not saying anything. Maybe it’s because you don’t know what we’re talking about. That would be a good reason for not saying anything. Or maybe it’s because you’re not even interested in the subject matter. Or maybe you think the conversation is beneath you.’ So here I’m thinking, because you never say anything at meetings, that you’re either dumb, you don’t care, or you’re arrogant. When maybe it’s because you were taught when you were growing up that when the boss is talking, what are you supposed to be doing? Listening.”

This idea is reiterated in a 2016 Harvard Business Review article: Eastern cultural norms focus on deference to authority, while Western norms emphasize self-promotion.

It’s hard to fault those who are erroneously perceiving that behaviour. After all, they are just looking through their own lens of what they know.

But if we can get leaders to understand through the lens of a different culture, it clears up misunderstandings. If I was bolder, I would argue that a focus on group dynamics is a desirable behaviour in future leaders.

“You need to show more initiative”

In a series of experiments detailed in the Journal of Applied Psychology, constant misinterpretation of behaviours may also impact motivation for Asian American professionals to continue moving up the corporate ladder. A lot of it has to do with cognitive dissonance – wearing the mask gets heavy on the sense of self.

As part of a virtual roundtable on diversity and inclusion, Danica Nelson, senior product marketing communications manager at Telus, spoke on this.

“Oftentimes, Black, Indigenous, People of Colour really feel like we have to assimilate in order to be successful in these spaces. Creating a culture where people feel like they can be themselves, they don’t have to change it up during the day and be something different at night, and really battle with that cognitive dissonance, is really important,” said Nelson.

The cognitive dissonance is a crucial piece of the equation. When I wear my work mask, I feel disingenuous to who I am.

For an industry already plagued with burnout for a myriad of issues, it’s another issue faced by Asian Canadians and other BIPOC professionals. Those who are able to enter the field by wearing that Western mask may eventually burn out from the labour of surface acting.

Unfortunately, we can’t exactly take off this mask because it helps not only succeed at work, but to get hired in the first place.

Lauren Rivera from the Kellogg School completed research around the Looking Glass Merit in hiring processes. This phenomenon describes that, rather than maximizing skill, interviewers tend to look at candidates on other criteria.

“Interviewers look for a sense of connection, often seeking potential friends and ‘playmates,’ rather than those with the best work experience or job-relevant skills,” Rivera writes.

“‘I want you to pick somebody that’s driven!’—but [when] they don’t tell you what drive looks like, people end up defining it in their own image.”

And if I was to be completely honest, I can’t fault agency leaders for this either. If they are successful leaders, an easy heuristic is that someone like them would likely be successful in the future. But there are many ways to succeed.

“Being likeable is important; you have to interact with clients, you have to get people on board on your team,” says Rivera. “But there are other ways people can a) be likeable and b) be socially skilled other than being a mirror image, and I think that is what people are losing out on. We know from a lot of research that there are benefits to having diversity.”

So What?

Of course, I would love to see more representation within agencies. But there is a benefit to the agency as well that comes with not just diversity, but diversity of thought. The latter requires agencies to allow its Asian Canadian employees to be comfortable in taking off their masks.

Rivera says in another study, “Diversity—be it demographic diversity or diversity in background knowledge—has benefits: it helps groups make better decisions, increases group motivation, enhances creativity, and can be a strong draw for clients.

President of Leo Burnett Canada, Ben Tarr, would probably agree, speaking on such a framework in a strategy article. A company culture as described by agency leaders can be a dangerous coded message on the type of people that will succeed in an agency.

If an agency describes culture in terms like initiative and being vocal, there is an unintentional codification of those Western traits. Tarr writes, “Don’t mistake culture for ‘the way we do things around here.’ The stronger ‘the way’ the less diversity will be nurtured.”

All these biases and misinterpretations of behaviours funnels down to an outcome: BIPOC employees exiting the industry. The vicious circle is that the next generation would then see even less agency leaders who are like them.

When I began my career, I can’t recall if I knew anybody who was Asian that was at the top of the agency ladder. Even now, I can only count a few. Who can I ask for advice? Who can I model my career path after?

In that same POCAM study, the absence of leadership representation is deeply felt among the rest of us: 78% of respondents said they had no BIPOC mentors or sponsors at work.

One of the study leads, Chasson Gracie, director of insights and analytics for John St., would add, “If you don’t have a lot of experience, you’re trying to get to that next level, and then you don’t see people who are like you at those higher levels… you start to think, is this the right industry for [me]?”

carsonkwokCarson Kwok is a Vancouver-based account supervisor and photographer.