Find what you care about and stand up for it: Global Brand Narrative Director at Nike, Lydia Pang
Personal projects have proven to be valuable turning points in Lydia Pang’s career. Looking back, she credits a self-initiated campaign for Rape Crisis Charity UK for helping her find her purpose as a creative: to use storytelling as a vehicle for change. Having initially studied art history, Lydia started out as an intern at agencies like M&C Saatchi, going on to become creative director at Refinery29, and was most recently made global brand narrative director at Nike in Portland, Oregon. We catch up with Lydia to hear about the 3D CV that landed her an internship, the changes she hopes to see in industry, and to find out more about her latest personal project, EAT BITTER.
Global Brand Narrative Director, Nike HQ, 2019–present
Creative Director, Refinery29 (2016)
Creative, Anomaly (2015)
Creative, M&C Saatchi (2011–2013)
Place of Study
BA History of Art, Courtauld Institute of Art (2007–2010)
How would you describe what you do?
I am a storyteller! Be it with words, visuals, strategy or speaking, I see stories as one of the most powerful tools we have as humans. Stories can divide us, and take us to dark places, but they can also bring us light, power, shift culture and unify thinking.
If it’s meaningful, impact-driven and using storytelling as a vehicle for change, I’m into it. I believe brands are powerful platforms for good. If that’s your intention, I don’t care who you are.
I chose to work for Nike because I respect the brand’s commitment to standing up for what is right and championing diverse and inclusive stories. We spend everyday giving a platform to important stories that push the world forward. My personal mission is to give diverse voices opportunities to reclaim their narratives, share their experiences and be seen.
“I chose to work for Nike because I respect the brand’s commitment to standing up for what is right and championing diverse and inclusive stories.”
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
Right now, it’s taking place in the Zoom world! I am mostly in back-to-back meetings, brainstorming with my team, presenting, or working on productions for shoots with partners.
I try to start the day either working out, meditating or sitting in the garden. I always put fresh flowers on my desk, drink CBD green tea and light a candle. I try to make my space feel positive and considered. I obsessively use Trello to keep myself organised, calm and in control. I assign three things to myself each day that I know I can achieve; this helps keep me focussed and means I feel a real sense of achievement at the end of day.
Sometimes I’ll sit in the garden for a sunshine break; I try to do this without my phone or computer. Finding a balance, and respecting your time and boundaries is hard when working from home and I’m still getting good at it. I’m finding my flow week by week and lucky to work for such a proggresive and empathetic company.
At the end of the day, I’ll turn Slack off, disable all notifications from my phone, shut the office door and go walk my dog to symbolise the ‘end’ of the working day, as if I was commuting.
Is there anything that is particularly inspiring you (or helping you) at this time?
My job, my amazing team, and spending time in nature is helping keep me calm and focussed on the positive. I want to ensure I’m showing up for my beliefs everyday, but in a sustained way.
My personal projects are also helping me a lot. I’ve just launched a zine called EAT BITTER. It is a collection of short stories told through childhood recipes that are not for the faint-hearted. The process of writing it and creating it was a real creative journey.
It’s an ode to, and celebration of, the spirit of my family and our Hakka heritage. I’m a perfectionist, but this project was about letting go, which is exactly the ethos of Hakka and of EAT BITTER; in Chinese it means to ‘endure pain before tasting sweetness’.
“I want to ensure I’m showing up for my beliefs everyday, but in a sustained way.”
I find physical creation super-cathartic; it felt good to sketch designs, shoot images in my backyard, write stories with a cuppa, and collaborate with my husband (my creative partner on the zine!). After a year of self-growth through this project, I’m excited for the sweet part.
I also find getting dressed (like, properly) really important and empowering. Even if we are just walking to a food truck or going to the supermarket, I try to wear some of my favourite clothes. I did not realise what a big piece of my identity getting dressed was. I wear sweats most days now (cute Nike ones, obviously) but I miss the way style allows you to explore and play.
Are there any resources or platforms that you have found useful to your work or career?
So many! But let me say three in my brain right now: The Messy Truth podcast by Gem Fletcher is an incredible resource for dialogue around the ethics of imagemaking and commissioning, I especially recommend the episode with Antwaun Sargent. Hey Sis World is a beautiful collective founded here in Portland that’s providing BIPOC creatives with support, tools and community. And I just finished How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, I loved all the art history references. It’s a really good book to help appease the daily 2020 dread and overall feeling of helplessness.
How I Got Here
Did you go to university? If so, do you feel you need formal education for what you do?
I did history of art at The Courtauld, and it was the best thing I’ve ever done, personally. But I don’t think it’s the only way. I believe people need to follow their fear, and do what pushes them creatively. For me, that was university. I did a lot of growing, testing that helped me work out what type of creative I wanted to be.
My background is in theory, but now as a creative leader I wield so many of the belief systems, tools and frameworks I learned at university – they’re my superpowers. There is no creation these days (thankfully and finally) without dialogue and accountability around gaze, author, subject, agency, appropriation, appreciation, and ownership. My degree gave me the tools to speak up in the right rooms, to advocate for creative, make work responsibly and build a distinct career.
What was your journey like when you first graduated out?
Starting out, I was hungry and driven. I knew I wanted to stay in London, and to work for a massive agency or brand. I knew that big brands had reach, power and money, and I wanted to infiltrate from within.
The trouble was, I did not have any immediately applicable skills, like graphic design, so I was kind of stuck. I applied for loads of jobs, and got an interview at M&C Saatchi, but in the client management department. I knew I would not get the role, but still I did the interview, and looked ridiculous, with my (I shit you not) handmade 3D model of a CV that visualised my passions and experience thus far.
I left feeling embarrassed, but hoping HR saw something in me – which they did! I was given an internship in the creative department, worked all the weekends and all the late nights and then became the junior art buyer. I was responsible for commissioning photographers and illustrators, and I loved it. Within two years I was running the department.
“It was not enough for me to make cool stuff, I needed to know I was contributing value and using brands as platforms for good.”
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
I grafted. My career has been about a lot of hard work and strategic moves. I’m sure there’s some fate and manifestation in there somewhere, but I think you make your own luck.
I would say the turning point in my career was when I started making work outside of my day job. Work that came from my soul, work that felt super-personal and meaningful. One of those moments was when myself and a group of friends founded This Doesn’t Mean Yes – a campaign unpacking the topic of clothing and consent for Rape Crisis Charity UK. It was a self-funded personal project and it shaped me.
It really shaped my career, and crystallised the work I wanted to make, and what I wanted to be known for. That’s when I knew I wanted to work in mission-driven marketing and storytelling. It was not enough for me to make cool stuff, I needed to know I was contributing value and using brands as platforms for good. I am now hired for that exact point of view.
What’s been your biggest challenge in navigating the industry, if any?
Being a young woman of colour, in predominantly all-white male contexts. This experience has broken and built me. It gave me a voice and a purpose, and shaped the leader I am today.
I worked on a campaign with writer Alex Holder for Elle called MORE WOMEN that speaks to that challenge; how women compete against each other for this one single golden spot at the top, but really there is plenty of room for more of us. We have to pull each other up, with our male allies, and make room. Never have our voices been so powerful.
“Female empowerment is not a theme, gender is not a campaign topic, the Black experience is not a timely narrative.”
I just hope in the wake of 2020, creatives are given platforms to create with sustained commitments from brands and agencies, versus tokenistic inclusion. Female empowerment is not a theme, gender is not a campaign topic, the Black experience is not a timely narrative. These systemic shifts need to be reflected in creative, advertising, media and all the images and stories we see every single day. They shape culture and our future. They are our mirror.
Words of Wisdom
Find what you care about, know it intimately, make work about it and stand up for it. Be a troublemaker. Pull others up with you. Make space for your personal projects, they will shape you.
Our creative community should be leading with empathy, generosity and abundant thinking during this time. We’re creative, we’re feelers, we soak all this energy in and that can be super-overwhelming and daunting.
Find your collective, confide and create and heal together through collaboration. Use the power you hold to make space for tough conversations and offer mentorship and support to others around you in our industry. The single crowned creative genius author is dead, it’s the time for the collective to rise and right the wrongs.
Mention Lydia Pang
Interview by Siham Ali
Introduction by Marianne Hanoun