Next Creative Leaders: Kim Nguyen

Posted on Nov 02, 2016

What's your "How I broke into advertising" story?
I didn't go into advertising straight out of school. I actually started my career in the editorial and promos department at VH1, where I got to make weekly promos for really bad reality TV shows. I helped make a fake rap video featuring Tracy Morgan rapping about butts for a show called "Hip Hop Honors," and I think it caught the eye of a recruiter at Saatchi NY, who then passed it along to Gerry Graf, who was the CCO at the time. And he gave me a job. So that's how I started in advertising. I made a fake rap video about butts.

What piece of creative work are you most proud of and why?
A few years ago, I worked with a team at Grey that raised funds to create a pro-bono PSA that we shot in our free time. It was called "Stand Up to Stand Your Ground," and it spoke out against gun laws that help acquit people who have shot and murdered, even in situations where a victim was fleeing in retreat. Victims of these laws are disproportionately African Americans and other minorities.

There was a lot of anger and sadness that surrounded the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting and the Zimmerman verdict. It felt like we had to do something with our anger, so we channeled that energy into making something. It involved a few late nights and asking a lot of friends to help out, but in the end we made a PSA that we were really proud of.

If you could go back 5 years in your career, what advice would you give to you?
"It's just a fucking peanut with a top hat." That phrase has become my mantra whenever things get stressful at work. It helps me reset my perspective. It comes from a late night when we were working on a Mr. Peanut ad for Planters. It was just one of those classic "It's 3am and we're still here and we're tired and something has gone wrong" nights. We had some sort of fuck up happen in the studio and people (including me, especially me) were freaking out. But my partner was super chill about it. And when someone asked him why he was so calm, he said "It's just a fucking peanut with a top hat. If I got worked up about something this stupid, there's something wrong with my life." And that has always made me laugh. Because nothing we do should cause insane levels of distress. At the end of the day, we make ads. It's a ridiculous job and should be fun.

What inspires you?
In advertising, what inspires me and what makes me equally angry is when I see ads that I wish I had done. I especially love/hate when I see an idea that I've had that died for whatever reason, but then it was done way better than I had imagined. One example of this is Audi's recent T-Rex commercial, "The Comeback." I've always wanted to make fun of a T-rex's short arms in a commercial. And the way they used that joke in this spot was brilliant, beautiful and funny. It made me so mad.

You feel strongly that creatives should do work for good. Can you talk about that?
We're in a great industry for making things that matter because we're surrounded by talented, nice people who have amazing skills and big hearts. So if you have an idea for something you're passionate about, ask for help and see what happens.

What has your experience been like as an Asian woman in advertising?
In the all of the creative groups I've worked in over the last nine years, I was almost always the only lady in the room and always the only Asian lady. Especially when I decided to focus on writing for comedy-driven brands, I had to get used to competing with hilarious (sometimes inappropriate) men.

Recently, an AgencySpy announcement about my move to Preacher attracted one particularly racist and sexist (a twofer!) remark from an anonymous commenter. It made me realize that there will always be people, even in 2016, who make women's accomplishments about our gender or our ethnicity before our talent. And I know that in the future, I will probably face some similar hateful comments, but I'm not going to let that distract me. Because as long as you're talented and nice, there's a place for you in advertising. The reality is the person who made that comment in that article is now the unwelcome minority.

You fight misogyny with optimism. Can you share that train of thought?
Misogynistic and racist comments are now part of a bygone era that is at odds with the current path of our industry. And as more and more women and women of color enter the top ranks of creative departments every day, I'm really hopeful for the future.

If this were an Academy Award, who would be the first three folks you thank?
My family. Especially, my parents and my hilarious husband. My former AD partner of six years, Marques Gartrell, who is one of my best friends and who made advertising the most fun job in the world. And the other Kim Nguyen. She has been my advertising mentor for years and she also happens to be another Vietnamese woman named Kim Nguyen. People mix us up all the time (How we met is also a great really random story). She's an incredibly talented lady. I like to say that when I grow up, I want to be the other Kim Nguyen.

How to you fuel your creative soul out of the office?
I think you can find inspiration anywhere. I know that's cheesy. But it's true. You draw on your life for ideas. So if you're open to lots of different experiences, books, people, places, shows, you have more to grab from when you need inspiration. Your life is your inspiration bank.
But music in particular is creative fuel for me. I lived in New York, which is the most amazing place if you love music. I think I spent more on concerts than rent. And now I live in Austin, "The Live Music Capital of the World," so when I can, I try to catch a band I'm interested in or just wander into a bar and see something totally random.

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