5 Minutes with… Michelle Wong

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The newly promoted president of LA agency Dailey on being a doer in the fight for inclusivity in adland and how her training as a chef at Le Cordon Bleu was the perfect training for a career in the industry
5 Minutes with… Michelle Wong
After Michelle Wong's promotion from managing partner to president in July, LA agency Dailey became a majority female-led business in addition to its majority female-owned status. As the industry continues dragging its feet over its issues around diversity, it was refreshing news to read. But Dailey's endeavours for a more inclusive industry don't stop there. Michelle, who has been with Dailey for almost 11 years, played a leading role in the agency's buyback from IPG in 2017. Since returning to independence in February of that year, Michelle has played a critical role in nurturing diversity within the agency. An internal audit discovered a 25% gender pay gap which the agency has been able to successfully close. All of Dailey’s department heads are people of colour and/or LGBTQ+, while women of colour employees rose from 16% to 32%, agency-wide. 

LBB's Addison Capper first met Michelle at the Immortal Awards showcase in Los Angeles back in April. Their conversation about work quickly unravelled into a lengthy chat about food and cooking after it transpired that prior to life in advertising she had trained at Le Cordon Bleu in London. He caught up with her to find out more about her new role - and how life as a pastry chef was the perfect training for a career in advertising.

LBB> Congrats on the recent promotion! You've been a managing partner for some time now but how are you finding the the new role and what are your main aims and ambitions moving forward? 

Michelle> I think I have a tendency to stand up, raise my hand and be vocal so it felt like a very natural progression, but I am loving it and am really excited for a couple of reasons. As a managing partner you're making decisions for the agency but as president there's a different level of responsibility and decision making that comes with that. It's exciting because I feel like I'm really getting my hands into shaping where this agency is going and what we're going to become. Now I get to work alongside Marcus [Wesson, CCO at Dailey] a lot more. He's reporting into me so being with the creative and seeing where that's going to take us is really going to be the change that I’m looking for.

There's also the concept of See It Be It, and understanding how unique of a position it is for me to be a minority woman who is the president and owner of an agency. I was recently in Miami because I received an award from ColorComm - they recognise women of colour in business. I was really taken aback from the response. I was with some really incredibly powerful professional women and to be honest it was quite intimidating. That night I spoke to so many young women who had never seen an Asian person or a woman in my position in communications, and it made me believe that I could do this. It had such an impact on me. The role is so meaningful for myself personally, but also the visibility that I can have and the influence for young people coming up in their career is humbling and striking. It really hit me how important that is to me and our community. 

LBB> A big part of your role since then has involved nurturing diversity within the agency - what can you tell us about that process and how you have gone about it? 

Michelle> For us it sort of came naturally, and I think the reason for that is that we have a diverse and inclusive leadership team. The idea of unconscious bias is written about everywhere and there’s a comfort level that comes with the idea of hiring people that remind you of yourself. When you have diversity at leadership level, that process is going to happen but it's not going to be homogenous because your leadership team isn't homogenous. 

LBB> How do you see the general state of diversity within the US advertising industry at the moment? There's always a lot of talk but how do you see it further than that? 

Michelle> There's still a lot of talk. I find it frustrating because I continue to hear to this day that it's very hard to make diverse hires and maintain talent, and I don't buy it at all. I really struggle with that position. 

LBB> With that in mind, what processes do you have in place for hiring at Dailey?

Michelle> One of the things that used to kill me when I was senior enough to hire people but maybe not senior enough to have a ton of choice, were our recruitment briefs. They would require such specific things and experiences so that even on paper the candidate that you're going to get is going to be so tight and narrow and you're not going to get a breadth of background. That's the complete opposite of what our business is about. Our whole business is built on the exchange of ideas and creative thinking, and all of that is influenced by different life experiences. So when you have these job openings and you're asking for specific education levels, career paths and even certain kinds of clients that they've worked with, of course you're not going to get anything different to what you've already had through the door. We really broadened our scope in terms of how we write our job descriptions, which sounds so dorky but I loved doing it. It really matters and changes who you get in. 

There is a lot of bias with how you see names on a piece of paper and I feel like we really are trying to be blind to that - we are looking for something different and people who have different experiences. I also believe that people of colour aren't really shown advertising as a potential career option so we're trying to go to schools to actually tell people that this is a career place. 

The last thing that we've done is small but has turned into quite a big deal. We have this agency coordinator position. It’s entry level but we've changed it to involve someone that wants to be in advertising but doesn't necessarily have the educational background or experience to get a foot in the door but they've showed interest in this creative space. They also don't understand how an agency works and all the different roles within it so we bring them in and, because they’re the agency coordinator, they basically have to work with everyone. They get exposure to everything that's happening at Dailey. From there we see where they best suit within the agency structure. Someone may be the perfect producer, another a natural strategist. We're now on our fifth person doing that. We weren't sure if it was going to work, but it's really taken off. These people that we've brought in are amazing and they're really challenging how we're thinking.

LBB> You played an important role in the agency's buyback from IPG in 2017 - how much has being an independent agency allowed you to make the changes that you've made in the past two years and the ones that you're looking to make in the future? 

Michelle> It's made all the difference. The greatest thing about being independent is the freedom in making all of our choices. That's everything from who we hire, the departments we build, who we want to promote, who is being mentored. And even on a business level, we get to choose who we want to work with. We're not worried about network conflicts and all those other things. It's scary because you have to live and die by those decisions but there was never a worse feeling that I've felt in this business than executing someone else's choice. It's the most crushing feeling because it's never what you wanted - now at least all of our choices are ours, and we can live with them. 

LBB> I have to ask you about your food past! What initially took you to study at Le Cordon Bleu? Was that something that you were always interested in? 

Michelle> Yes, absolutely. I've been a foodie since I was really little. I always wanted to try different foods and I loved cooking at home with my mom and my grandma. A really strong part of me has to have a creative outlet. Even just in my everyday, I've realised that this is a big part of me. I was an actor until I was 17 when I went to university, but then all of that sort of went away as I was studying biology and language. I took drama classes but I didn't have that base anymore. Frankly I was really unhappy so my father suggested going to cooking school because it was an outlet that I'd always enjoyed. When I did that all of a sudden I felt like a part of me was really nurtured again. I learned so much from that experience, everything from multitasking to dealing with challenging personalities, to time management. The only thing was that I had no idea how physical that job was! I worked on the pastry team at the Grosvenor House Hotel when I was in London, and it was so tough. I realised that I loved it but I was not built for it. My grandfather had a restaurant and told me, 'it's hard, I don't know what you're doing!' Then it was time for me to move back to the US and it was my dad again that suggested I get into advertising.

I moved to Chicago and got an internship at Leo Burnett. It changed my life. I remember so clearly when everything clicked for me in advertising and I realised that I love this business. As an intern I went to a brainstorming session and I just couldn't believe what happened in that room. The energy, the exchange of ideas, the fun. And also just being included as an intern. It really changed everything for me that moment. 

LBB> And so there are skills that you learned at cooking school that you can still apply today to life in advertising? 

Michelle> Absolutely. I've started writing a piece about things that I learned in the kitchen and how they translate into my life now. There's so much, from the discipline of it to the chaos of it, the time-management, the creative geniuses / assholes - there are so many parallels and I think they set me up to navigate my way in advertising. There are so many times that I've leaned on that experience to help me through the challenges of my career today. 

LBB> It's funny because so many people I interview in advertising cite cooking as a hobby... I know that cooking at home and at Le Cordon Bleu are different beasts, but what similarities do you see between the two? 

Michelle> I agree, creative people love to cook and it's about experimentation and trying new things, but I'm very much a pastry person. I can do cuisine and I enjoy it but when I cook at home I really love to do pastry. This gets to my type-A side and why I think advertising works for me. I can flex both sides but I love the precision. It really forces me to focus and concentrate and I can't think of anything else. It has to be accurate or the whole thing is not going to work. The creative piece comes in at the end - it's how you decorate the cake. I get the joy of the focus and the precision but also the flourish and the beauty at the end. 

LBB> Almost like getting your strategy right before executing a creative idea...

Michelle> That's what it feels like! You have to have the discipline and do the groundwork otherwise you're going to have a souffle that falls. 
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Dailey, 11 months ago