Where Are My Eggrolls and Meatballs?

By Will Chau, creative director, GSD&M

When I was a kid, my parents bought a Swedish smorgasbord in West Los Angeles. It was a very successful and thriving restaurant, but my dad only knew how to cook Chinese food.

Having more street smarts than a formal business education, he started to learn all he could about cooking Swedish cuisine. Dad figured, "Why mess with a good thing?" So, he added Chinese food to the Swedish menu.

And so it was born: The Viking's Table, a Swedish and Chinese Smorgasbord--fried rice, Swedish cabbage rolls, Egg Foo Young, meatballs, chow mien, almond crepes and egg rolls--all steaming harmoniously under the same heat lamps. I can still smell the sugar on those crepes.

The restaurant was located near 20th Century Fox Studios and a Jewish and Hispanic community. The customers were an eclectic mix of folks who all wanted category-leading Chinese and Swedish food for $4.59 plus tax.

My parents had a small staff of Chinese, Hispanic, Filipino and Caucasian cooks, wait staff and delivery people bustling about at all times. Of course, being it was a family-owned business (and my parents are Chinese), my siblings and I were made to put in our hard time bussing tables on weeknights and weekends.

Where am I going with this? I miss the eggrolls and meatballs. I miss it in my life and I yearn for it in our industry.

As advertisers and marketers, we serve an eclectic group across America and, in some cases, the world. All of our cooks and wait staff don't reflect whom they're serving. Consumers in America diversify every day and we need to do a better job of doing the same. Otherwise, how can we honestly relate to them if we don't represent them?

The creative director in me is the first to point out that talent and attitude trump everything. But would I ever hire or recommend hiring someone based on ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation over someone more qualified who happens to be a white male? Heck no. I have a responsibility to my clients to provide the best work by the most talented people. Period.

But here in lies the problem--I'm not seeing diversity when it comes to job applicants, at least not as much as I'd like. As an industry, we need to all do our part to change this.

There's a segment of the population where a traditional art/design school is just not a financial possibility. Seeing this, I felt there needed to be an affordable alternative to the traditional model of higher education.

In 2011, I created a small portfolio prep school--The Austin Creative Department--and its purpose is to enable those with desire to realize their creative problem-solving potential. We hand-select students for each course with the intention of creating the most diverse group possible, and the results have been astounding. More importantly, the students are now landing notable jobs in the industry and even starting up their own creative businesses.

We offer one annual full-tuition scholarship to a student who has more potential than opportunity. Our first scholarship student was a first-generation Cuban-American refugee who is now an art director at Leo Burnett in Chicago. The day she informed me of her move to Chicago and how it changed her life completely is still the most rewarding day of my career.

It's encouraging to see that diversity is gaining traction and awareness in our industry now, with conferences such as ADCOLOR, The 3% Conference and The One Club's "Here Are all the Black People." It says that the diversity issue is now a priority and not just because it's the morally right thing to do, but because it makes for good business.

The question stands, though, after the conferences conclude and we go back to our presentation decks and strategy meetings, how do we stand for diversity then?

Each of us should do a little something to move the needle. Go visit an inner city high school and talk to kids about our industry and how they can turn their passions into a career. Go to your agency recruiter and ask her to look at books in that obscure state college nobody has heard of. Give that minority-owned vendor a foot in the door with a small project. Just do something, because a lot of small waves can add up to something momentous.

As a reminder to myself, I recently visited the restaurant that was once The Viking's Table. I'm sorry to report that it's now strictly just a Chinese place. No meatballs. No cabbage rolls. And not much diversity. Though I did notice that the hipster Asian waiter was sporting blond, windswept locks.