Pam Fujimoto on opting into new experiences

Pam Fujimoto is Executive Creative Director at Wongdoody LA and one of few minority women to creatively lead a U.S. advertising agency. Her agency experience includes stints at TBWA\Chiat Day New York and Creature Seattle. She has led comprehensive ad campaigns for brands including Cedars-Sinai and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Pam is mom to identical twin 7-year old boys and is dedicated to furthering diversity in the industry.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was a kid I wanted to be either a teacher or an artist. So my parents said I should be an art teacher! That was never what I was really going for, but in a way I have found my way into something similar – in my job as executive creative director I help develop other people’s skills creatively.

Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with? Why?
The author, Haruki Murakami. He has all of these sort of bizarre, twisted references that are completely unexplained in all of his books. I would love to spend as much time with him as possible to just pick his brain about what all of those things are about, because he's not very forthcoming about it. I'd also need a translator.

What single book has had the greatest impact on you? Why?
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I read it in fourth grade. It's funny, it plays with language, and it puts you into this imaginary world. It's also very visual, and it got me interested in creative writing. It got me curious and interested in the world of writing as art.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I get up very early at 5:30am everyday but I go to bed at different times. Sometimes I'll go to bed as early as 9:00pm, right after my kids go to bed. Or I’ll be up until 1am.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
My career path starts and ends at its current moment at Wongdoody. I started here in my first job, at the Seattle office. It was where I wanted to work since I was in college and I was fortunate to get that job right out of Art Center College of Design. I worked there for six years with Tracy Wong as my mentor.

I then moved to New York and worked at TBWA\Chiat Day under Gerry Graf, which was a fantastic experience. It built me up in a lot of ways. Then I went and worked at Creature in Seattle for three-and-a-half years, which was another big opportunity to grow and learn.

So when I moved on to take this ECD position, it was a homecoming, in a sense. I feel like I started here as a baby fetus advertising person and now I'm fully walking, but I'm still going through all of my awkward phases at this agency.

I've been lucky. I've been able to work with really great people that I admire, that I think are better than me, and that I can learn from. It's been a growing experience every time I take another job.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
I'm in an executive creative director role right now. I started as an art director. When you start in this industry as a creative, it's a different set of skill-sets that you need when you start, than when you get to this position. I'm not naturally comfortable speaking in front of groups of people but I have to do it all the time. It’s an obstacle just because it doesn't come naturally to me, so I have to work at it.

What motivates you?
Fear of boredom. I need to always be challenging myself and doing something different.

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
For a long time I thought that having kids was going to be the end of my career. I couldn't see how it was possible to do all the things that I was doing at work every day and also have kids. It seems impossible to see how you can fit all those things in your life when you haven't had to do that up to that point. Also, you don't see a lot of other female creatives doing that. I didn't have other women setting the example because it was so dominated by men.

Now I know that it's obviously very possible. My husband and I have twin boys and when it comes to the choices that you make, it's about life and choosing your workplace carefully. I don't think it's equally doable to be able to manage both at all places. You have to have the right support system. You also have to have discipline around how you spend your time. Even with all of this, it’s still a mess!

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Surviving the first year with twins. It's like you think that you can go without sleep and you have all this stamina and everything like that, and then you have your first year with twins and it's insane. You want to be able to enjoy that time, but at the same time you're not getting any sleep, and you're not really sure when it's going to end ... So I would say that first year.

Now we get to enjoy our seven-year-old versions of those boys that were so difficult to deal with in the middle of the night at times, and it's great. It was just that first year, I'm not going to lie, it was very, very hard.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
I've always tried to put myself in situations where I feel I'm a little bit over my head. That's how I stay interested. I'm always slightly under qualified for whatever I'm doing, but that ends up being a good thing for me to grow.

What is your life motto?
I like to opt into most things. If the opportunity exists to do something new or different I’ll always do it because it's a way to enrich my life with experiences. I like to travel to new places and believe that getting out of yourself and your physical place changes things for you creatively. When I moved from Seattle to LA, it wasn't just a career change. It's different when you're just changing jobs in the same city, than when you actually physically move. It jump starts you and any of those times that you can jump start yourself by opting into new experiences, is going to be better.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I greatly admire my mentor and my boss, Tracy Wong. He listens and treats everyone with respect. He always gives a reason for everything that he tells you as feedback. As a creative, that was something that I instilled in myself early on. I just think it's unfair for creatives that work very hard and think very deeply about something, and to have their ideas dismissed out of hand because the creative director happens to be lazy, and doesn't really want to go through that thought process of making a real reason. A client is going to want to know why too. It's just being fair.

Who do you most admire in business? Why?
I don't have somebody that I'm modeling myself after. There are people that I admire because they're balls-out about what they do and believe in. Like Steve Jobs. He was a visionary and I respect the commitment he had to what he believed in.

Recently I've been watching 'Chef's Table,' on Netflix. It profiles various chefs who are obsessive about their craft. There are so many parallels between these chefs and creative because of their level of commitment and the way their life really starts to form around the job that they love.

What do you believe is the secret to rising up to the top?
Don't wait for responsibility, just take it. You see the need and you fill it.

What are your favorite traits about women in the workplace?
I love when people are direct and I love people that just get shit done.

What’s your favorite TED Talk?
Stefan Sagmeister: The Power of Time Off

He talks about the sabbaticals he takes every seven years – for a full year – but the thing that made an impact on me was how it’s not just “vacation time” - he is super productive with that time, and has a lot of discipline around how he uses that time to work on and explore projects and subjects he isn’t able to during his regular work schedule.

It spoke to me also because it's something my husband and I have done twice, on a smaller scale – we’ve taken 2-3 months off to travel (in Asia both times), and not in a rushed sightseeing-way, but in a way that lets us feel and absorb another culture and pace of life. I would be interested in doing it with this level of discipline and purpose. We’d also like to take our kids on an extended trip at some point. 

What's next?
Well for me personally, and for the agency too, I want to be better at mindfulness. I'm all about continuous improvement. I’m trying to be better at being in the moment, having the focus where I need to and having more control over my time and how I choose to spend it.



As told to Caroline Hugall over Skype on Wednesday 10th February 2016. Pam lives and works in Los Angeles