Tori Oh: Breaking the bamboo ceiling and making it big in advertising

Tori Oh, Hylink’s Executive Client Engagement Director, has defied odds and carved her path in the advertising industry, breaking through challenges and stereotypes. Originating from Korea, Tori journeyed to the U.S. for education at NYU. Throughout her career journey, she has learned to turn her diverse background into a professional advantage. Here’s her story:

On using your background to your advantage

Looking at my profile, it might seem like the odds are stacked against me: I’m a woman, Asian, and pretty young for my professional level. Initially, I saw these as the main challenges in my career. At the start, there was the visa hurdle – I was on a student visa, limited to Optional Practical Training for just three years, narrowing down my job options.

I kept asking myself, how do I build a career in the United States with these roadblocks? How do I compete, especially being a woman, against the majority of the U.S. workforce without visa constraints? And how do I stand out in an industry where the leadership often doesn’t mirror who I am? Breaking through in advertising, where you deal with big multinational brands, became the puzzle I had to solve.

I kicked off my career in Public Relations mostly working with influencers. I was hired by an agency in New York, which in my book was the definition of a “Barbie doll” agency.

Everybody working there was blonde, beautiful, model-like people. My primary role involved sourcing influencers, managing influencer campaigns, and organizing events. Despite being a contractor, I observed a trend after a year – fellow contractors, falling into the “Barbie doll” category, securing promotions to full-time positions. This happened despite me handling the bulk of the work, managing numerous brands, and executing the tangible tasks presented to the client. While these individuals focused on relationships without delving into the actual work, they climbed the corporate ladder, and I remained stagnant. Recognizing the disadvantage, that’s when I decided to part ways.

Upon realizing the situation, I understood that a considerable uphill struggle lay ahead for my career in the U.S. Despite this, my determination to succeed persisted. Part of this drive stemmed from my upbringing in Asia, particularly in Hong Kong. Having ventured to the U.S. for education, it was undeniably an investment. The thought of returning to Asia felt like conceding defeat. It seemed I had only one viable option – to make it here.

This became my plan A, with no fallback plan B.

I began my job search anew, adopting a different approach this time around. Part of it was fueled by the frustration of my previous experience, but I also aimed to cultivate a more positive mindset. I wanted to explore how I could leverage my multicultural background. Being Korean, raised in China and Hong Kong, and pursuing my degree in New York, I sought ways to turn these diverse experiences into strengths.

Fluent in three languages, I continually looked for opportunities to use these skills and was seeking a workplace that valued them. This became my top priority in job hunting — seeking a multicultural-friendly environment that appreciated my capabilities. Consequently, I cast a wide net, applying to Korean-based, Chinese-based, and global multinational companies known for their international focus.

In 2017, Hylink reached out to me. Discovering they were a Chinese-based company about to establish a U.S. office, I thought it was an ideal fit. Their vision of working with global clients, facilitating the exchange of Chinese and U.S. brands, resonated with me. That’s how I landed the job, starting as an account coordinator. My role primarily involved managing social media for travel clients in San Francisco, San Diego, and more. Leveraging my language proficiency, especially in Mandarin, I navigated the cultural landscape, understanding consumer preferences, crafting English content, and bridging cultural gaps within the team, the clients, and the consumers.

Fast forward six years, and I’ve ascended to the position of client-business director. Now, I engage with clients directly three or more times a week and represent our business at major conferences like TFWA.

Working in an agency demands rapid professional growth, constant exposure to senior executives at renowned brands, and the ability to steer conversations with a distinctive perspective.

In 2019, a pivotal opportunity arose: pitching a U.S. Probiotics brand in Korea. At the time I was the only Korean in the company. Handling the pitch, two years into my tenure, required me to contribute insights, planning, and everything needed for a market close to my roots. Winning the Culturelle Korea pitch marked a significant achievement, leading to an expanded scope across the entire APAC region. The experience of being a key player rather than a bystander left a lasting impact on me.

On creating client relationships beyond the office:

UCLA Health is my most enduring client, a partnership that has lasted since my early days. Despite most of my clients boasting more industry experience than I do, we maintain a consistent connection. This ongoing relationship would only have materialized if I was given the opportunity to interface with them from the start. In 2018, when I was younger and relatively new to the advertising scene, Hylink entrusted me to engage with them directly. This initial trust laid the foundation for the enduring relationship, contributing to our continued business growth.

In client-servicing industries, there’s often a tendency to overly emphasize personal connections, delving into details about clients’ lives, families, vacations, etc. While personal rapport remains essential, in the advertising agency realm, the crux of the relationship lies in the client’s trust and confidence in our knowledge. It transcends appearances, emphasizing that it’s not about being friendly or pleasant; it’s about having the expertise. If you possess the necessary knowledge, clients should trust you irrespective of your race, age, or other external factors. It’s all about delivering the value they seek.

On managing a team effectively, having a winning mentality, and staying curious:

Currently leading a team of six, with members based in Los Angeles, Colombia, and Singapore. My managerial journey began with interns. I like to thnik my management style is a blend of Asian productivity-oriented management with Western-style freedom and responsibility.

When hiring, I challenge new team members to take on client calls and communications, emphasizing accountability for growth. Trust and ownership are pivotal in my managerial philosophy, fostering a culture of fast growth among my team.

I instill a brand-centric mentality, not just seeing clients but treating each project as if it was our own brand. This mindset is key to ensure a commitment to quality work by instilling a sense of ownership within the team.
Managing diverse industries, from healthcare to travel, beauty, and fashion, I encourage curiosity about clients’ industries, competitors, and products. Waking up curious and dedicating time daily to generating insightful questions are vital practices to succeed in advertising.

I also advocate for constant innovation and customization in account management, challenging the team to reframe approaches, change designs, and rethink results. We avoid templated practices, ensuring each deck is unique and tailored to impress senior-level clients. This proactive stance towards improvement ensures continued success and prevents stagnation.

Be proud to embrace challenges and push yourself to become better every day.

Communication and articulation have always been strengths for me. I got into debating in middle school and later engaged in presentations and debates at NYU. In high school, I organized a fashion show, bringing in brands like Adidas and Juicy Couture as sponsors. It taught me the art of selling and persuasion from a young age.

My mindset differs from those who prioritize immediate comfort. Even as an account intern, I aimed to outperform my account director, and was constantly seeking ways to position myself against other accounts.

Seeing others play it safe makes me question the purpose of comfort. Why not explore your potential? I believe in continuous self-improvement without sacrificing weekends or working late. Success doesn’t require extreme sacrifices, but it does demand commitment to personal and professional growth. The choice is yours, driven by intrinsic motivation rather than external pressures. The pursuit of success while staying comfortable often leaves me perplexed, as the two paths seem incongruent in the world of professional growth.