Who is Nobi Nakanishi?
My name is Nobi Nakanishi, and I’m a writer / director, and the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Angry ant Media. Angry Ant Media is a creative agency that specializes in branding and marketing and we do everything from designing websites to directing television ads, and providing thousands and thousands of pages of copywriting.
Tell us about your career journey.
My career journey started from a very young age. I’ve always been an artist; I was a child artist, started at the age of 10 or 11 when I was cast in a Nickelodeon TV show called ‘Kids’ Court’. I played the courtroom artist, and I actually had to sketch every episode, what was happening in front of me. My adult career started in my early twenties, when I was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art. They needed a video that was a tribute video for the outgoing President, Agnes Gund. And I created a 10-minute short that was hoping to capture her spirit and her playfulness and we did everything from kind of slight roast to a karaoke segment that closed out the video. It was played at Party in The Garden, MoMA’s annual fundraiser, and it was such a hit that they ended up acquiring it into the permanent collection in the Department of Film and Video at the museum.
What are your top accomplishments?
I’ve had a lot of accomplishments in my life that I am very proud of – artistic and what not. But the single most proud achievement that I’ve had so far I suppose would be starting my own company. Angry Ant Media is about to hit ten years, and I’m supremely proud of that. It’s very difficult to maintain a company, especially when there can be so many ups and downs. But I think the gratification of making it through certainly supersedes those painful moments.
How has your background influenced your success?
I was actually quite lucky as a child to end up at a private school in New York City called the Collegiate School. It’s an all boys school that runs from 1st grade to 12th. And I started in first grade, on merit, and somehow I made it to the end. That school, being a very small – very intimate – all boys school, with a lot of personal attention, gave me a very unique educational experience. I think that has shaped who I am today more than anything else.
If it weren’t for that educational experience, I wouldn’t have the tools that I still utilize. Just the sort of self confidence and the ability to walk into a room and just think about my educational background and all of the things I learned there as opposed to feeling conscious about my Japanese American heritage, or my Asian heritage at large. And I think that has aided me in a lot of different ways; I don’t think it necessarily paints the fullest picture of me, but it certainly has helped.
Being Japanese American has certainly made it easier for me to bridge my background – my Japanese American-ness – with clients in Japan. I offer something unique; a sensitivity to the Japanese culture, but also this deep understanding of American culture, and the ability to blend both effectively. I do wonder how much my Japanese American background and heritage has effected my work here. I feel lucky that my work gets evaluated as ‘the work’. But certainly if there was ever a project that required my background knowledge and my understanding of the Japanese American experience, I would jump at the chance – both feet in – and I would love to explore that.
How have you applied the P.O.L.I.N.G.® Principles in your life?
The POLING principles are surprisingly accurate in regard to the story I’m about to tell you. Angry Ant Media was founded in 2007, when the economy was pretty good, and we started basically writing for advertising agencies. Scripts, TV promos, that kind of stuff. And then 2008 hit, and suddenly the economy was terrible, and there was no work, and we basically went through about six months of nothing, after only having six months of great business.
We were depleting our bank account, there was no work in sight, and we weren’t sure what we were going to do at that point. Re-enter the workforce? Just fold the company and just work on creative projects? We weren’t sure. But we knew that we couldn’t just let the good will and good feelings that come about starting the company. So we took our original business plan and threw it out, and said, how can we survive? What skills do we have at this point that we can leverage in order to help the business keep going. We were both writers, so it became pretty obvious pretty quickly that we had to write. And that meant, to write anything.
So we began reaching out to any industry that might need… we were hoping initially web ads or TV ads, and quickly that became copywriting, and once we had switched to copywriting, suddenly there was actually a lot of work available. So we started writing a lot of web copy. And articles, and blog entries, and that became hours and hours of work every week, it became thousands and thousands of pages every month, and that floated us through the difficult period, and actually became one of the main deliverables that we offered for at least 4 or 5 years.
If it weren’t for our commitment to the business, if it wasn’t for being open-minded to different opportunities, while still using our available skills, we would never have gotten to this point of ten years. A decade – I think that’s a pretty great achievement for any startup. And today, we have built it back from a fledgling script-writing agency to a copywriting company, and now we’re back to designing, building websites, directing television ads, which we didn’t even consider in the beginning. I think it just goes to show that you can evolve, no matter how difficult things get. That you don’t have to shirk away from the challenge and in fact the challenge can turn you into something else. The butterfly I suppose. And I think that everyone should think about what the possibilities are, especially when things are at their hardest.
The POLING Principles relate to this story incredibly well. It’s about (P)erseverence. We really did have to persevere and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps yet again, in order to survive. (O)thers, because without others, we would not have been able to make it. I had an other in my founding partner, I was my founding partner’s other as well. That was incredibly helpful. Having that gave us strength. (L)eadership – certainly we were both leaders in order to get the clients that we needed to get, and work with the freelancers that we already signed up with. (I)nspire, where we really had to look around us and find in new things – inspiration in new projects, inspiration from other success stories or other business failures. And inspiration in each other. Just being business partners and having unique perspectives and ideas and feeding off that energy got us to where we are. (N)etwork, certainly. Networking is key. We would have just disappeared if we weren’t reaching out all the time. And leveraging our relationships – professional relationships and personal relationships – in order to find work, in order to develop our business. And (G)rowth. Growth is the result of all that, but also, our personal growth fed into our professional growth because we did have to grow quickly in order to take on this task of survival.
What challenges have you faced because of your background?
So I like to think that my ethnic background didn’t have much of an effect on who I am, but it certainly has. I think I often block it out more than I should. But there was a time in school – which I consider to be my background – where it did become n issue, and being Asian became a hurdle. In my senior year, I had the opportunity to direct my first play. That was something that was given to all seniors – an opportunity to do a senior project – and I picked out a play and really thought I was a shoe in. No one else was really going to direct. I was like, I’m probably going to get it.
And they actually gave it to someone two years younger. Even though it’s generally considered to be a senior project. And I was very confused by that. So I went to the two teachers who managed the play and theatre program there, and asked them why I didn’t get it. It just seemed so strange to me. And I didn’t think I was that untalented. And they said, ’well, you know, Asians don’t really go into this business.’ So for the first time in my life, I’m suddenly seeing that I am ‘Asian’, in a way that I never really considered before. And suddenly it’s a hindrance. Suddenly, it’s this fault that I have that prevents me from doing the things that I want to do.
And I was lucky enough not to have faced that in my life up until that point. And yet it was so strange and hurtful to hear that, especially at the tail end of being at a school that I was at for twelve years. I look back and I still feel that residual anger. And I know that a lot of what I have achieved as an artist actually did come from that experience. The drive to prove them wrong. And yes, I was able to take something that was painful and turn it into something, but I don’t necessarily think that it needed to be that way. I don’t think that – as much as part of me really wants to say, ‘well thanks to them…’ I really should have to try to justify it.
It was cruel, it was insulting, and one of the worst things that ever happened to me in a teacher-student relationship.
And while I’m over it… I think? I believe that I can never really let it go. And I don’t think I should.
So what I did in response to that incident was lick my wounds. I almost didn’t do anything for my senior project that was related to performance or theatre, and luckily I had some really, really good friends. Really smart, confident, no-nonsense people who – in retrospect – really shaped me.
They told me, ‘why are you taking this? This is not you. This is not like you to lie down and take it.’ So I knew that I couldn’t take it back; I knew that I couldn’t direct a play through them. But I licked my wounds and thought through what I could do. And realized that I could have another senior project sponsored by one of the other artist teachers in the Visual Arts. And I came up with a multi-media idea that merged video and live performance… and it was spectacularly bad I think. I really think it was terrible. There’s no documentation at this point of how terrible it was, but it needed to happen. It happened, I got it done and I was able to at least personally overcome a situation that I found to be incredibly hurtful.
Why was it such a failure? It was a failure because of many reasons. It was rushed. I was not quite a writer at that point. At least not a playwright. And I was taking on too much. Trying to direct little videos, trying to direct little plays, and formulate an evening out of that was a big challenge. Finishing it alone was an achievement, but it was not the same as taking a piece that was something I read that was inspiring. A play that I found to be something that I wanted to cut my teeth with. And something outside of me that I could try to formulate into something tat was from my perspective.
It was great to create a multi-media piece that was all me – for better or worse – but I wouldn’t get another chance to flex my muscles as a director until college.
Often times I think as a person of Asian descent, you are naturally somehow trained to sit back. Be patient, and not necessarily raise your voice every single time something it being done to you, or something makes you feel negatively about yourself. But luckily I had a lot of people around me who hated authority, loved to assert themselves, and luckily that not only rubbed off on me as I was growing up, but – like in certain instances like this – really motived me to challenge these obstacles.
Having all these people around me who had different perspectives from me. Who had different backgrounds, who grew up in different kinds of household, had different parents. How they were formed, how they were shaped by their experiences, that transference helped me overcome obstacles like this.
Who are your influences?
The main person perhaps, who’s had the most profound influence on my life has been my mother. She raised me as a single mom, she worked tirelessly as a flower arranger – the one marketable skill she has a someone who was raised in Japan, and came here as an expatriate – and if it wasn’t for her, providing a stable house to come home to after my ‘other life’ being at the Collegiate School, I would not be who I am today. And I don’t mean that in just a general sense; everything that she did, from making sure that we had a roof over our heads, to showing me by example how much hard work is not only necessary, but how effective it its. Especially when things are tough. Again, anything that I have achieved really has come from watching her, and knowing that things are possible. That anything is possible.
One of the great things about being in a creative profession is that influences can come from anywhere. So it can be a real person, it can be a fantastical, make believe person. It can be an interaction that I had with someone like Vaclav Havel or one of my theatre heroes, Gregory Mosher. Or it can come from a play or a film or a performance that I’ve seen. That’s the wonderful thing about not just a creative life, but life in general.
If you ask me to write down a name of a person that influenced me, it would be impossible. I’d write down one name, and then I’d think of another name, and suddenly it would become this long list of people. Pages and pages worth of people I think. But I think that is the beauty of life. I think the beauty is that you have the opportunity to meet so many people that can become influential to you. In big and small ways. They might help your career; they might show you something about how you can approach life in general. But I think the most important thing is to be open. And to let people in. And as long as you can do that, you will always find people who will be influencers. Always find people who will be mentors, and always find people who can change your life for the better.
What kind of career advice would you give to your younger self?
The piece of advice I would give to my younger self is ‘think about the difference between patience and passivity’. I wouldn’t lecture him, because I think conversations are more important than lectures, but there are definitely times in my life where I was probably borderline passive, when I thought I was being patient. So I would remind myself you just can’t be passive when it comes to taking and making opportunities. You can be patient – sometimes you do need to wait – but you need to be active. You need to be reaching out. Because unless you do that, those opportunities are never going to come.