The last film with an Asian and Asian-American ensemble cast was “The Joy Luck Club,” which came out in 1993 — until “Crazy Rich Asians” premiered in 2018. Bill Imada's marketing firm launched a marketing campaign in the hopes of obtaining an opening weekend of 19 million viewers — only to see 35 million people turn out, making it the most successful romantic comedy in almost a decade. 

At an event sponsored by Hiatt Career Center and the Business Program and National Millennial Community & Gen Z Council on Thursday, Imada explained his personal journey toward founding the minority-owned IW Group in 1990, which now works with a number of top companies in the U.S., including HBO, Lexus and McDonald’s. He discussed how far the portrayal of Asian Americans in the media has come in the past several decades, as well as how his company works to break down stereotypes, including his successful promotion of “Crazy Rich Asians.” 

Coming out of college, Imada had his sights set on working for McCann, an American global advertising agency network, then known as McCann Erickson, but he did not get a position. Imada then turned to human resources, politics and executive search, but hated all of them. Now, the president of McCann sits on the IW Group’s Board of Directors. 

After failing to obtain a position at McCann and trying out other positions, Imada took a salary cut to go back to marketing and advertising at a company he declined to name. From that point on, he stuck to marketing and advertising. “If you have a passion or interest,” he said, “keep your eye on that passion or that goal, because someday you are going to get to that point.” 

As a temp at the marketing agency, Imada’s job was to promote tobacco and its use as well as deny its health detriments, despite the fact that he was morally opposed to what he was doing. He told the president of the company that he would only work on the account if he could “say what [he] want[ed] to say.” Imada refused to write press releases for the client, such as ones that said “Tobacco is not addictive and it doesn’t affect an unborn fetus,” and “Secondhand smoke does not kill.” 

The client, a tobacco industry lobbying group, told Imada they would get him fired for not writing the press releases. Ultimately, the client's executive told Imada, “Bill, tell them you wrote the press release. Say you pitched it to the New York Times and the New York Times said no.” Although this was a lie, Imada followed through and never did any advertising or marketing for the client.

The company Anheuser-Busch reached out to the firm Imada worked for at the time and said they would give them $500,000 to reach Asian Americans. With only a day and a half to come up with a marketing strategy to pitch, the team rushed to pull together a proposal, which found its way onto napkins — the only materials they had available. Even though Imada was accused of offending Anheuser-Busch with such a display, he successfully won their business, even though the company Imada was working for already represented Heineken — another brewing company — and expected Imada to fail. 

When Imada called Anheuser-Busch to tell them he could not represent them, Busch’s vice president presented him with another option: Imada should start his own company. Imada quit his job and started his own company, the IW Group.

In an interview with the Justice, Imada called that experience a defining moment for his career, but also said that same executive created “pain points” for him. One day, Imada called up the executive asking for “20 minutes of his time” to expand his business. After exactly 20 minutes, the vice president threw Imada out of his office to prove a point. “For some reason there are a lot of Asians who don’t ask for what they want, and I wish you would just ask for what you want. Ask for two hours next time. I might not give it to you, but you asked for 20 minutes and I’m giving you 20 minutes,” the vice president told Imada. 

Imada also discussed the evolution of Asian American portrayal in the media. The first example he showed was a 1959 Jell-O advertisement that perpetuated stereotypes with music and accents. Imada said the tropes used in the advertisement made Asian Americans seem like foreigners in their own country. 

Other advertisements were when Asian Americans were struggling in the job market, many turned to doing laundry because, Imada said, Americans did not want to clean their clothing. A 1970s ad for Calgon showed that their cleaning product was an “Asian Chinese secret” — Imada explained that this notion is problematic as it portrays Chinese people as “deceitful” and “corrupt,” and gives the impression that “the only thing that Chinese people really can do is keep your clothes clean,” he said. 

Despite the challenges Asian Americans have faced because of advertising, Imada said that companies are trying to improve how Asian Americans are portrayed in the media. He showed one Subaru advertisement  showing an Asian American couple preparing their home for their expected newborn, just like white couples are often portrayed. He shared that Target and AT&T have also been making strides in the right direction. Now, however, there is a recurrence of stereotypes in some ads that show Asians as pharmacists and sexual symbols, Imada said.

After walking through a Case Study of how Metlife improved their outreach to different populations, Imada presented his “Crazy Rich Asians” case study.  Warner Brothers put pressure on IW Group to make the film a blockbuster, so between July 2017 and August 2018, the team worked and “garner[ed] the support of Asian American key opinion leaders, influencers and organizations, celebrate[d] Asian American cultural tentpoles, leverage[d] national conversation about diversity and explore[d] potential impact[s] of [the] film’s success.” 

Through researching their target audiences, networking with other communities and their leaders and more, the team saw results, as the movie eventually made a total of $172 million in the United States and 238.5 million worldwide.

One of the projects the IW Group is currently working on is Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, which will be released in 2020. They aim to portray the heroine as a warrior who is loyal to her family, not as a princess, as well as emphasize that she does not need to be subservient —  a stereotype previously used in advertisements featuring Asian American women.

Editor's Note: A previous version of the article inaccurately stated that Warner Brothers expected Bill Imada's marketing firm to influence a turnout of 19 million people on the "Crazy Rich Asians" opening weekend. In addition, two identifying details were removed to protect certain individuals.