As Fran Magsalin ’20 was completing her senior year at Loyola Marymount University, a once-in-a-century pandemic upended the U.S. economy and dimmed the post-graduation job prospects for Magsalin and many of her peers at the M-School, the creative marketing program in LMU’s College of Business Administration. But several of the M-School’s professors circulated a proposal to the students: Start your own creative ad agency, and we’ll provide guidance. Magsalin and five classmates seized on the idea. “Within 24 hours of starting a group chat, we had already figured out our name and logo, and the next day we were pitching to a CEO,” Magsalin recalls. “It was a whirlwind.”
Ten months later Magsalin is brand strategist, creative director and new business lead at El Segundo, CA-based NinetyEight. The agency is named after the birth year shared by Magsalin and her five cofounders — and that’s the point. “Our niche is Gen-Z marketing,” Magsalin says. “We are culturally in tune and care about social causes, and we bring our Gen-Z expertise and knowledge of the social media landscape to brands.” The M-School was NinetyEight’s first client, but since then, the agency has represented celebrity hairstylists, luxury architects, financial managers, and a popular ice cream brand, to name just a few.
For her part, Magsalin says she was ideally prepared by the combination of her M-School education and her minor in Asian Pacific American Studies through LMU’s Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. The practical skills and marketing savvy she attained from the M-School were essential prerequisites for her work at NinetyEight, but the minor provided the ideal complement, Magsalin says — contributing to her personal growth while giving her a better command of the nuances involved in effectively communicating to the audiences her clients hope to reach.
Born to Filipino parents who had moved to the U.S. in their 20s, Magsalin struggled with her cultural identity as a child. “Tagalog was my first language and I always felt like the Filipinos I grew up around were more ‘American’ than me,” she says. “But when I would go back to the Philippines, the reaction was, ‘You’re not Filipino enough.’ ”
At LMU, an introductory course on Asian Pacific American Studies taught by Professor Edward J.W. Park proved pivotal. “That class opened my eyes to the rich history of Asian Americans in the U.S., and in hindsight I realized how little Asian representation there had been in my education up to that point,” Magsalin says.
Learning about historic mistreatment has helped Magsalin contextualize everything from the recent spike in Asian hate crimes in the U.S. to more subtle micro-aggressions directed at her and other Asian Americans. It’s also helped her work at NinetyEight. For example, one of the agency’s newest clients is F.EAST chips, a Singapore-based company that makes unique Southeast Asian-flavored potato chips. Working with FoodieFoods, the company’s U.S.-based distributor, NinetyEight has run micro-influencer campaigns with Asian American foodies as well as managing its social media channels. ”It’s been a really fun client,” Magsalin says, “and it’s been important that we understand the Asian consumer and establish the right unified voice.”
As NinetyEight grows, it continues to seek clients that are socially responsible and interested in targeting the younger generation. “But the great thing about Gen-Z knowledge and expertise is that we can also help brands that target older consumers to be fresh and culturally relevant,” Magsalin notes. The demand for such know-how is apparent. “We used to have to pitch ourselves to everybody, and now we have brands reaching out to us,” Magsalin says. “It’s been a crazy ride.”