Bill Imada is founder, chairman and chief connectivity officer of IW Group, a minority-owned and operated advertising, marketing and communications agency focusing on the growing multicultural markets. For more than 25 years, Bill works with some of the top domestic and global companies, including American Airlines, Coca-Cola, Fox, General Motors, Godiva Chocolatier, HBO, Lexus, McDonald’s, Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Southern California Edison, Shiseido, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., Walt Disney Imagineering, Warner Bros. Pictures, Walmart Stores, Wells Fargo, Westfield Malls and many others. Bill is active in the community and serves on more than a dozen boards and advisory councils. His board service includes the Advertising Educational Foundation, Asia Society Southern California, California Asian Pacific Chamber of Commerce, Center for Asian American Media, Coalition for Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, LAGRANT Foundation and PBS. Bill also co-founded the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund (APIASF) more than ten years ago and established the Asian/Pacific Islander American Chamber of Commerce & Entrepreneurship (ACE), an organization that is based in Washington, D.C. three years ago. His efforts were recognized by The White House and he was invited to meet President Barack Obama with 12 other Asian/Pacific Islander American leaders. Later, Bill was appointed to the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders by President Obama.
How did you get into the industry?
By accident. I left college early to pursue an opportunity in human resources. After working in this area for several years, I realized that HR wasn’t in my future. I decided to shift gears and take another career path. Public relations and public affairs always interested me. Hence, I decided to start my own firm and work as a consultant. It certainly helped to have a company who believed in me and my work. One of our very first clients was a large global company, Anheuser-Busch Companies, Inc.
Any emerging industry trends?
Diversity is important to many companies, organizations and communities; yet people now seem to cringe when they hear this term. It is often over-used and under-valued. The trend now is focused more on engagement and equity—making sure that all voices are heard and valued. There is a broadening of diversity in other ways. We are now taking more about diversity of thought; diversity of experiences; diversity of interests and more.
There is a growing number of voices fighting against the proliferation of “fake” news. People want and value greater authenticity, transparency and integrity. This is also expected of thought-leaders, corporations and foundations, governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
Augmented reality and artificial intelligence are growing in significance, and more and more public relations and marketing agencies are now focused on how to use AR and AI in promoting products, services, interests and experiences. However, with AR, AI and any new platform for engaging the public, there are growing concerns over the intrusiveness of marketing, advertising and promotions in the lives of consumers. People continue to worry about privacy and wonder if companies, governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations are now monitoring everything that they do.
AI is also leading to new innovations including autonomous cars and hands-free homes and offices. AI is also changing the way we look at other industries, including banking, retail, food service, insurance and more. The future is leading to a more digital society—free of cash, brick and mortar banks and retail facilities, and other on-premise businesses.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
Keeping an eye on the demographic changes in our country and seeing the growing success of multicultural pioneers in the African-American and Latino/Hispanic communities. Before there were Asian-American advertising and marketing agencies, there were black-owned and Hispanic-owned agencies. It was only a matter of time before companies would see the value in marketing to Asian and Asian-American consumers in this country.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
Transition to a new generation. This is already happening. After operating my business successfully for more than 15 years, I turned the reins over to a GenXer who worked with me for many years. She now handles day-to-day operations and runs the company. She, in turn, is training younger professionals to advance. The company is now evolving to focus on Millennials and GenZ consumers and business owners. In a few months, we’ll move to a new, less-traditional office (which is in keeping with the changing look and feel of workplaces today). The new space will be open concept, have fewer walls and only a handful of offices.
We have also moved to a modular management style. Teams are organic and fluid, and can form with any member of the company based on the needs, interests and aspirations of the client. More value is placed on listening vs. presenting. And less emphasis is being placed on speaking points. Instead, we are placing greater value on being expert listeners.
Finally, we have created a new division focusing on the 83 million millennial consumers in the U.S. The new company is for millennials and is operated by millennials. As company struggle to understand how to connect with millennials between the ages of 19 and 35 years, our new millennial-focused company will help them navigate through this process.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
We have moved to a less hierarchical system of management and a more modular system. It is almost a form of a-la-carte management. Teams are selected and formed based on their interests, experiences and ingenuity. Everyone from the senior-most to the junior-most individuals within the company can lead or follow depending on the client. It affords everyone an opportunity to generate ideas and lead.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
Employee conflict. Conflict is never an easy thing to deal with or address. One core lesson is something that many company leaders have advised for years. It isn’t always easy to supervise, manage and direct people who are also your friends. This became readily apparent when the company leadership had to scold or even discipline an associate for inappropriate behavior or to counsel them when they made a mistake that adversely impacted the company. Once a company has grown beyond 50 people that is when it is time to bring on an HR professional. For years we operated without the assistance and counsel of an HR official. Today we have one. Having an HR professional on staff full-time has made a world of difference.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
We have created a safe place for clients (including previous and prospective clients). Every few weeks, we bring all of our clients together for breakfast. The group is affectionately known as the 750 Network. The name was derived after living in Los Angeles for years. Almost everyone you know has a horror story about being stuck in traffic on any of LA’s notorious freeways. If we tell our guests to arrive at 8 a.m., they almost always arrive at 8:10 a.m. or later. As a joke, we said arrive at 7:50 a.m. in an attempt to get them all there by 8 a.m. It worked. The group is now called 750 (to reflect the start-time for our event). The group meets over breakfast for no more than 70 minutes. Everyone sits around one large table face-to-face. Breakfast is plated and served. Any member of the organization can bring up a problem or challenge, and the entire group (regardless of who is there) agrees to solve it. Competitors sit side-by-side and all problem-solving is done confidentiality. In the more than 20 years we have been meeting as a group, not one person has ever discussed a confidential matter outside of the 750 Network. Today the group has more than 150 people who meet for breakfast for no more than 70 minutes.
How do you motivate others?
Booker T. Washington once said: “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.” I make it a point to lift up someone each and every day of my life.
Career advice to those in your industry?
Simple mathematics and accounting skills will help you succeed in something we all must do—network. I practice the FILO method. Be the first to arrive at every event (“First-In” as in “FI”) and the last to leave the event (“Last-Out” as in “LO”). If you arrive earlier than the time listed, you have the advantage of meeting whoever is there first. If you leave too soon, you could miss out on making that final impression on a prospective client or employee. So many people say, “Arrive fashionably late.” I say and do the opposite. Arrive ahead of the appointed time and meet everyone there (before the crowds arrive). Isn’t it better to have a 1-to-1 ratio than a 300-to-1 ratio after the event is in full swing? I say yes.