Lionel Wong is a self-taught Creative Director who broke into the industry at a time when there weren't many people who looked like him in senior positions.
In this installment of our Creative Thinkers series, Lionel Wong told us about why he chose not to go to school, how being self-taught has shaped him professionally and how diversity has evolved through his career. As always, we asked him:
When did you discover your creative DNA?
I think it was probably my last year of high school (which I just barely passed) when I realized, “oh shit, everyone’s going to university, what do I do now?” I knew University wasn’t for me, but I also knew that I didn’t want to work at the Gap for the rest of my life. Nothing wrong with the Gap, but I was working three jobs just to pay rent and eat food. And even at the young age of 18, I knew that wasn’t the life I wanted.
So I really had to do some soul-searching and figure out what to do with my life. I’ve never really had anyone believe in me or encourage me to find my passion. Back then, Asian immigrant parents only wanted their kids to keep their heads down, do well in school, and become a lawyer, doctor, or accountant. So what do I do if I can barely get through school?
After thinking about it, I realized that a lot of my interests centered around design—fashion, interiors, industrial, graphics. But I didn’t know much about any of them, at least not as far as a career was concerned. Industrial design seemed really hard, interior design seemed really expensive, fashion seemed pretty intimidating…so, by default, I started looking into graphic design.
Basically, it was part accident and part necessity.
I was never really good at school or at least traditional schooling. I knew from a very early age that I had no interest in what they wanted me to learn—math, science, history, geography, English, etc, etc. In fact, I failed most of those subjects at least once. But back then, the school system was only set up for people who were good at memorizing textbooks, and if you weren’t good at memorizing and regurgitating stuff, you weren’t considered smart.
It was an outdated system that didn’t consider people who learn by doing, people who learn through critical thinking, people with ADHD, people who were interested in the arts, or people who come from cultures that were not represented in those textbooks. So naturally I suuuuucked at school.
On top of that, I went to 6 elementary schools, and 2 high schools—that’s almost a different school every other year. It was tough always being the new kid, not having friends, and being the small Chinese boy named “Lionel” that sucks at school.
Put all that together and I guess I just never really trusted the school system and had an adverse reaction to it. And I tried. I did. I took a few different classes, but I never really finished any of them. I just don’t learn that way.
I’m not saying school doesn’t work, I’m saying it doesn’t work for everyone. And even if you do go to school, it still might not be right for you. For example, how many people do you know with a Bachelor of Arts, or some kind of University degree that has nothing to do with their current occupation? In fact, many of the best creatives I know are self-taught and have an education in something completely different.
I personally think design and creativity is a talent, kinda like singing or dancing. You have it in you, or you don’t. And it’s up to you to nurture and develop that talent. Although it’s probably a little easier to get a job in advertising than it is to become the next Ariana Grande.
I probably had a slower start than most because my guidance wasn’t structured or regimented. I had to go knock on doors, send cold call emails and talk to friends of friends who were in art or design school.
I’d take whatever advice I could get. Most of which was literally to go buy Communication Arts, Applied Arts, CMYK, etc and immerse yourself in the award-winning work.
So I went out there and bought a bunch of design annuals and tried to figure out how to mimic what I was looking at. And for the first time in my life, learning was fun. I wasn’t necessarily great at it. But I was interested, which was new to me, so I started working on a portfolio.
And when I started shopping it around, I got rejected a bunch of times, but I used each of those coffee chats and that feedback to improve my portfolio. And at some point along the way, I realized that this is what I’m passionate about, this is what makes me tick, and I haven’t looked back since.
In terms of breaking into the industry, I was quite lucky. 20 years ago, this was an industry of predominantly white men: it was intimidating, it was unfamiliar, and it was overwhelming to say the least. Especially for someone without a formal piece of paper saying they were qualified.
But there were a few key people who took a chance on me at pivotal points in my career. And they themselves come from marginalized communities. They themselves were from immigrant families. They themselves also felt like they didn’t belong there. But they made it. They were in. And they were in a position to lift up others—and real recognize real. Shoutout to Virginia, Carlos, and Amin. You know what’s up.
And because of them, I’m now in a position to lift up people that look like me, to support and mentor people who look like me, to fight for work that speaks to diverse audiences, and to inspire young Asian creatives and let them know you don’t have to follow the stereotypes. This is what I’m excited about.
Being self-taught has made a huge impact on my career and on who I am as a person because I learned life skills versus book skills. And life taught me the intangibles you can't learn from any textbook: I learned how to hustle, the value of hard work, how to fight through adversity, how to deal with bullies, how to take chances and how to believe in myself.
In my late 20s, I went through a battle with cancer, late-stage 3 Lymphoma, to be exact. And I was only given a year to live. So you can imagine coming out of that, that I’ve become a very passionate person. And that comes through in the way I talk, the way I lead and the effort I put into the work and into my team.
I don’t use jargon or idioms, in fact, I don’t know what most of them mean because I never learned them. Nobody ever spoke like that around me. And honestly, I have no desire to learn them. But it was tough for me early on in my career because I had no idea what people were saying in the boardroom. Ironically, later on in my career, I realized that no one knew what they were saying in the boardroom.
I also had a lot of terrible leaders back in the day that would yell, throw things and pin their work right on top of mine…it was toxic, and I’ll never forget that. So my one goal as a leader is to be the complete opposite of what I experienced when I first started in this industry. I lead with empathy, not fear. I lead by example, not with power moves. And I lead with an open mind, not the ‘my way or the highway’ mentality.
I really only have one speed. I keep it real and I’m authentically me. I honestly don’t even know how to play politics or the corporate game. Sometimes that’s a disadvantage when it comes to career advancement, but I find it to be an advantage when it comes to being a people manager. I’m more appreciative than most, I say what I mean, I’ve learned empathy through my struggles, and I take care of those around me.
When I first started in this industry, I assumed that because I didn’t go to a university that everybody else in the room was smarter than me. Because that’s what society has taught me, university = success. For many years, I tried to mimic them in the way they dressed, the way they spoke and the way they interacted with clients. But it was uncomfortable, it was confusing and it was kind of scary because I felt kind of lost, like I didn’t belong.
It wasn’t until several years later that I realized they had a different mentality, and that they were set up differently from the jump. They naturally felt more entitled and more confident using their fast-talking marketing lingo, their fancy jargon and all their acronyms…so many acronyms!
I think the turning point for me was when I realized that I wasn’t the only one in the room that didn’t know what they were saying. Other creatives didn’t know what they were saying, other people from immigrant families didn’t know what they were saying, and even clients didn’t know what they were saying.
But I think it was only eight years ago that I found my own voice: professionally speaking. I finally felt like I had permission to talk like me, to dress like me, to think like me…and actually be respected for it as a Creative Leader.
I’ll give you an example, we were in the boardroom presenting ideas to a client. And if you were to see this client and me side by side, you’d never imagine we have anything in common. She’s from a different generation than me, she’s more affluent than me, she’s quite proper and, for the most part, quite serious. Whereas I don’t know any of the proper etiquette, I’m covered in tattoos, I speak quite casually and I’m a bit of a joker.
So after we presented our work, the c-suite at the agency (who happened to be white and affluent) went around the table giving their rationale, and the client stopped them and said…“Wait, I want to hear what Lionel thinks”.
I think that moment right there gave me the confidence boost I needed to never feel like I’m an imposter again. She recognized that I’m passionate about the work, I’m authentic when I talk and I’m not just gonna tell her what she wants to hear.
I think one of the biggest lessons for me was that clients and consumers are just people too. Take them out of the boardroom, take the money away and just talk to them like a real person. It goes a long way.
For the first half of my career, and most of my life, I kind of just accepted things as “this is the way it is”. There was no representation, we live in a white man’s world, and that’s the way things are. I don’t think we even realized it at the time. That was normal and there was no expectation of diversity or representation.
Up until fairly recently, the majority of talent was white, stock photography was white, photographers were white, directors were white, Creative Directors were white, clients were white, and, of course, the C-Suite was white.
And then you go home and turn on the tv, and sitcoms (like Friends and Seinfeld) were white, all the commercials were white, and all the beautiful people were white. It was normal, except for the part where they all wore their shoes inside their homes and on their beds. Gross.
And I think my way of navigating that system was to make myself indispensable. I came into the industry at the right time…computers were still fairly new, Adobe Flash was new, brands were transitioning from Web 1.0 to 2.0. I was good at my craft, and I was young, so I could adapt to trends, technology and the latest version of Adobe Photoshop faster than they could, so they needed me. And the more they needed me, the more meetings I’d be in. The more meetings I was in, the more people and clients I would meet.
I think the first time I really became conscious of the lack of representation was when I became an Associate Creative Director. Because the higher up you get, naturally, the fewer positions there are in your role. I quickly noticed that there were only about 5 ACDs or CDs in the industry that weren’t white.
All of a sudden, it changed the narrative for me. All of a sudden, I’m not just doing this for myself. I’ve accidentally become a role model for young Asian creatives because I know what it’s like to have strict Asian parents, I know what it’s like to not have your parents support what you’re passionate about, and I know the pressure they put on you to become an accountant, doctor, or lawyer.
I also understand what it’s like to compete in an industry where most people don’t look like you or understand you culturally, yet expect you to understand them.
About two months ago, I had one of the proudest moments of my career. It wasn’t about winning awards or pitching a new client, it was about who was looking back at me on the video call. It was unexpected and unplanned, but when I dialed into the call and saw those eight faces looking back at me, I got chills. I mean, I felt some real emotions. I saw Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Japanese and Filipino faces. This was a first for me—an all-Asian creative presentation. When I pointed it out, everyone had a very similar reaction. It didn’t matter if they were senior or just starting out, this was a first for all of us: it was a big deal.
The industry is moving in the right direction, now I think it’s really about doing it correctly. Having diversity is one thing, but being authentic about it is another. For example, if you’re going to write a script for black, brown, or Asian people, make sure the script aligns with our sensibilities and our cultures. It’s not enough to just show non-white faces on the screen, or change your social icon to a rainbow flag, or post a black square on Instagram. It needs to align with your brand, your brand’s purpose and be true to the people you’re trying to represent. Come correct or don’t come at all.
Not to get super deep, but I was shipped around a lot when I was a kid, I lived with my aunts' and uncles' families, and eventually ended up leaving home when I was 16. So I basically grew up without my parents, and my close circle of friends became my family. I know this sounds like some Dominic Toretto bullshit, but it’s actually true. Lol. My wife and I had a small 15-person wedding last year, and on my side of the room, it was only my boys, that’s my family.
I guess that sense of community or brotherhood translated over to my work: my team has always been like my crew. I’m a super loyal person, some say I’m loyal to a fault. But that’s who I am. And as I mentioned earlier, I’ve really only got one speed, and I don’t even know how to play corporate games.
So yeah, you could say that community plays a big part for me at work (and at home). Some might say that’s unhealthy, but I’m proud of the way I lead, and I think people on my creative teams respect that about me. They know they can trust me, they know I have their backs and they know they can lean on me when they need something. And it goes both ways.
I don’t expect them to respect me because of my title, I expect to earn it. And I do.
I actually work really hard at staying relevant: whether that’s music, memes, slang, design, fashion, or social media trends. It’s a whole other full-time job. I’m always online, I’m always researching, I’m always watching new shows and content to try to stay current.
I also try to stay open-minded, this took me a while, but I’ve worked really hard at it. My wife is from a younger generation, and honestly, that helps. She’s also an Art Director (ACD), and she's a big influence on me from that standpoint. Because it’s tough—with each generation, society changes, the cultural norms change and people become more and more woke (and that’s not a bad thing).
There are a lot of things you can’t say now—what used to be considered hilarious is now super offensive. As a person who creates ads and communications daily, you need to be on top of these things. You don’t want your clients to get canceled.
It’s tough, it’s like trying to find the right balance between the old school, work hard, play hard generation, and the new school, content-creating, woke AF generation.
That’s why I try to surround myself with people who are younger, faster and more talented than I am. I learn just as much from them as they do from me. It’s their turn to shine, and I’m just here to show them the way.