We had an opportunity to catch up with Bernice Chao, Integrated Creative at Zambezi, author, speaker, professor, podcast host, and co-founder of the non-profit Asians in Advertising.
What is one thing that inspires you?
What inspires me most is creating opportunities my younger self wished I had. I work in a white male-dominated vertical as a creative, there are few women, even fewer as a woman of color, and now as a mom, I’m 1:1 in the room. Throughout my career, I craved practical advice and examples of where I could take my job. Because of this lack of representation, mentorship, and community, I co-founded a global non-profit called Asians in Advertising with the VP of Digitas Health, Jessalin Lam. We co-wrote the award-winning book The Visibility Mindset: How Asian Leaders Create Opportunities and Push Past Barriers.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
My proudest accomplishment is my two children (1 ½ and 4). As a creative, I did not work for female mothers and didn’t know how being a mother would factor into my career. When I got pregnant, I didn’t tell anyone until I was in the third trimester and could not hide it anymore, fearing that my employer would throttle my career or lay me off. Luckily I was not laid off, but I noticed a bias. I’m grateful for She Runs It, an organization for advertising women who celebrate those who become mothers. This year I was awarded Working Mother of the Year.
Do you have a favorite quote?
“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that can overwhelm the world.” by Desmond Tutu.
I love this quote because you don’t have to be in a position of power or create cataclysmic change to make a difference. Any amount of good you put out can make a difference and contribute to making this world a better place.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
My advice to my younger self would be to speak up in rooms. Growing up East Asian and a woman, I was taught not to speak unless I had something worthy to be heard, and if I said something dumb, I would be looked down upon. However, this is not true! Speaking up means having visibility in the room, showcasing your thinking, and contributing to the larger conversation.
How did you end up where you are today?
I grew up in Cupertino, the heart of Silicon Valley, and have always loved technology and art. I began taking drawing classes at a young age, and when my parents brought home the first Apple color computer, I started creating drawings in Paint. I received a summer scholarship to attend classes at both Stanford and the Academy of Art in High School. I fell in love with the art path between the two, realizing the people I met at the art school felt the need to create and look at the world the same way I did.
Following the footsteps of a creative mom boss I met in high school, I moved to Los Angeles to attend Art Center College and Design on scholarship and majored in graphic design. My first exposure to advertising was at my first job, TBWA\Chiat\Day\Tequila (their digital department), where I worked on digitally forward projects. We created an original YouTube series for a video game called SOCOM, where we had the top gamers compete in an authentic navy seal hell-week. For a game called Uncharted, we created a treasure hunt where people had to find clues on Craigslist ads, banners, and real life.
Agency life exposed me to a fast-paced and ever-changing work environment that made me realize I enjoyed making a career out of creative problem-solving. After Chiat, I worked at Omelet, where I worked on more instances of creating dynamic web experiences by creating an online game for the AMC series Burn Notice. I made one of the first Facebook-integrated sites for a movie called Takers. For TNT's Falling Skies, we sent coded messages that resulted in an interactive live takeover at Comic-con.
Being at the forefront of using new platforms and technology in new ways has always been exciting for me. Advertising has been about making fun and engaging work to connect brands to consumers, and whenever I could find an opportunity to bring some of my values, I would represent them through my work.
At David & Goliath I worked on the 9 Mile Scroll, where visitors to the website would have to scroll for 9 miles, mimicking the actual length that students in Sierra Leone had to walk to get to their primary school. I increased women's visibility through HBO's #BecauseOfHer campaign, where we showed the women behind HBO's hottest television shows. With the Kia Super Bowl ad featuring Melissa McCarthy, I raised eco-consciousness.
After David & Goliath I went to R/GA as a Creative Director working on new-economy brands like Google, Netflix, and Amazon Studios. I launched Los Angeles's first women's soccer team, Angel City Football Club, and created the Doritos Duet Roulette on TikTok (9.5B views).
For most of my career as a creative in advertising, I was the only female or minority in the room. In most creative departments I've worked in, 10% were female, and maybe 2% were people of color. Tack on being a mother, and I'm the only one. In my 16 years of experience, I have only worked for one female and never a female of color.
I'm currently the Head of Integrated Creative at Zambezi, North America's largest female-owned full-service agency. Beyond working on the definitive work in-house, I'm spearheading a new department within the agency called School, a culture-first social department with the most diverse team and vendors.
What is one industry book that a newcomer must read?
I recommend “Chew with your mind open” by Cameron Day for those entering creative and frankly. He is a terrific writer and gives sage advertising advice. I found myself laughing and taking notes while reading.
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