My name is Marc Ecko. I was raised in a small town in Lakewood, New Jersey. (audience applauds) From Lakewood. What was that? All right, thank you for that. And there's a picture of my home, courtesy of Google Maps, and some ghost of a child. At least Google has the good courtesy of blurring out the face of that poor little kid. Boy, my house looks like a shit show. This is a picture from Black Beat Magazine of LL Cool J in the center wearing an airbrushed t-shirt, sweatshirt there, painted by King Fade from the Shirt Kings of Jamaica Queens, and in the mid 80s, this was massively influential for me, because as a kid growing up in Lakewood where there weren't like L trains or one trains where, you know, you would write graffiti. We had this magazine, and the existential cousin of the spray can was the airbrush. And I, and I picked up airbrushing because of this. I was fascinated by the idea of being able to sell sweatshirts and t-shirts to my peers. And this is actually a picture from ...
Jack the Rapper convention that was held here in Atlanta. That's probably like 25 years ago, at the Peachtree Marriott. So, there's a picture of me airbrushing live there. It's funny, when I found this picture and I connected it to actually being here in Atlanta, it was pretty, pretty cool. I went on to pharmacy school at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, because, you know, you couldn't really make money airbrushing, right? Like that was inconceivable. And since I was a pretty decent student, I went to where my dad went to school, which was Rutgers College of Pharmacy, and this was a painting I did that hung in the lobby there. But I was in love with airbrushing. I was fixated with it, and I was fixated with, you know, trying to monetize my business and the entrepreneurial hustle. So, in 1993, which was technically the fourth year of a six-year program, I precipitously did what any good burnout does. I dropped out of pharmacy school and started my business. And that is the very first t-shirt that I went on to produce, just screen printed t-shirts, and that was the birth of the Ecko Unlimited brand. So, you know, the people say, oh, I know the rhino, oh, now I know who you are. They recognize that logo. But that actually didn't come 'til years, years after '93. But that was the business that I had launched. And 10 years later, I went on to launch Complex Media, and that was the very first issue of the magazine, which is probably one of the dumbest businesses you can get into, like paper and print, but nonetheless, I was delusional, and we launched it. And I launched it on the back of our t-shirts. So, when I was distributing the t-shirts to the marketplace and we were printing up hundreds of thousands and literally millions of them at our peak, I put a little CD-ROM, a mini CD-ROM that hung on every single t-shirt, and at the time, it was called Climate Magazine. And we were marketing Ecko.Complex, and thus, that's how we got to the idea of Complex, 'cause that, that digital thing was just a little early, but eventually, we got, came full circle, and now we're one of the largest digital platforms out there for youth culture. And it's been over 13 years, and it's been a great pleasure. The business led me to another delusion, which was making video games. Coming up in the 80s and the 90s, video gaming was like, the new medium, and the new sort of pastime, if you will. So I had this fantasy, and I came up with a game called Getting Up, which was a graffiti video game that was published by Atari. And this is when I famously painted then George Bush's, George Bush the Second, president's Air Force One. I don't know if you guys ever saw this video. (Marc breathes heavily) Yep, that's illegal. (audience laughs) That was in 2005. That was a YouTube video. I rented a 747, painted it one side to match the Air Force One, and that was a promotion, actually, then a viral hit, pre-Google acquisition of YouTube when YouTube still had marginal pornography on it. We'd get away with that, and people believed it was true. So, those were the good old days. A few years ago, I wrote a book, because people always asked me, how did you become successful? I'm like, I don't know. What kind of question is that? How are you supposed to answer that one, you know, with one silver-bullet answer? So I wrote a book that was intended to be sort of the, I don't know, the, the business book I wish I had in school for creatives, and it was called Unlabeled. And the premise of the book is really an anatomy book for branding, and it discusses this high concept or two important realms of branding. Just like, I guess, your right brain and left brain, there's two realms of branding. There's your internal kind of guts to the skin brand, and then your skin to the world brand. And the real premise is is that if you like it or not, if you know it or not, regardless of your transactional nature or not, in this universe, ultimately, you know, the one currency that travels with you is your brand. And there's just so much speak about personal branding books out there that I thought I would take a shot at it and try to have a less saccharin conversation. Typically, they tend to be very self help-y, quite saccharin, and I wanted to challenge that genre of book, and came up with this premise of being an un-label. And we talk about, you know, an intellectually honest conversation about failure and action and a whole bunch of others things that I package very neatly into a mathematical equation for authenticity, because obviously, I'm a fucking genius. (audience laughs) And the formula, it goes like this. So I need you to follow me, pay attention. I see she's writing down, thank you. It goes like this. Authenticity equals unique voice times infinite truth plus one's capacity for change times one's range of emotional impact, the dimension of how you make people feel versus what you make, all raised to the power of one's ability to imagine, right? So more on that, you're gonna have to get the book. But, I will make it simple for you. I've distilled it down to five essential things in more pedestrian plain English for you so that you could follow, and if you get nothing from me, take these five things. You guys ready? All right, we love lists. Number one, be a creator. Creator, that's a divine notion, creation, or it's often intimidating, this notion. And often, you know, what you're gonna see here as a theme in this presentation is I'm a real nerd for etymology, and I really believe that words, words are important. But sometimes, words alone, just like numbers, and despite people saying otherwise, can be confusing to decipher. And words in this day and age, in the vomitorium of social media and our sort of addiction cycle with our devices and all of our communication means to distribute and communicate often creates the illusion of competence, right? We create the illusion of action, because we're talking so much. And we're checking our daily punch lists of the product that needs to be designed in that window of time, the product, not necessarily the end product, but the product, the action that was due at three p.m.. You check a box, you're done, keep talking. Onto the next, onto the next. And in a world where Facebook is there to distract us and to build efficiencies for sure. I'm in the media business, and Facebook is a friend. I have found a new app that's been really useful, you know, especially when it comes to words. It's, have you guys seen this thing? It's on the new, I don't know if it's available for Android, but it's called discretion. And it's been around since the 1300s. (audience laughs) So, when we talk about words, we use the word entrepreneur, and many of you probably identify with the notion of entrepreneur. And in this cohort, I think many of you might in fact identify with the meaning of the word artist. But really, as we get into our realm of being a graphic designer or creative director and executive within an agency or within this creative class, we often lose sight of the intention of what the real word creator means. And entrepreneur is a word that I just can't really fuck with, honestly. It's so overused. It's an over-exploited word, especially in the last, you know, ever since, you know, that Facebook movie, everybody wants to be a billionaire, and with shows like Shark Tank. But the word entrepreneur means to undertake. It comes from the root, the etymology of the word is to undertake, whereas create, there's something more divine, to be the origin of something, right? And we struggle with this notion. Are we really creators, you know? They sort of beat the artist out of us. They beat the creator out of us, you know, once you finish fourth grade and you put your crayons down. This is a gorgeous image. This is an image from Leonardo da Vinci on his early explorations on the anatomy of the brain. And it really speaks the subtext of this. Why I put this image in here is 'cause it speaks to the fact that words alone can't decipher, aren't enough to express the notion here, right? And if there's any book that I would like to share besides my book, it's a great book by Leonard Shlain called Leonardo's Brain. And basically, in this sort of, he's like a brain science guy. He actually, he had brain cancer while he was writing this book. He died before the completion of this book. The book's fucking awesome. But the basic premise is is that we've been taught that, you know, creativity in art is in the domain of the right brain, and all the logical, rational, orderly way we process information is in the domain in the left. And in fact, the truth and really, real genius exists somewhere in the middle, somewhere in our ability to balance these two things, and that you can, in fact, have orgasmic bouts of eureka on both sides of your brain, right? And that's where real creation happens. And so many times, people say, well, I'm not an artist, I'm not an artist, or they have, they fancy themselves, because often, their job makes them quote more left-brained, that they can't manipulate paint, sculpt, or music, so they no longer fancy themselves an artist. And I would challenge that. To be a creator means to problem-solve like an artist, allow yourself to allow both parts of your brain to really flourish and embrace the messiness of creation. So, be a creator. Number two, sell without selling out. Richard Attenborough. People are like, oh, that's the guy from Jurassic Park. Actually, he did a lot more than that, but he has a great quote. He says, "The arts are not a luxury. "They are as crucial to our wellbeing, "to our very existence, as eating and breathing. "The arts are for everyone, "and failure to include everyone diminishes us all." A friend of mine, Takashi Murakami, very successful contemporary artist. He speaks about how Japanese people accept that art and commerce can be blended, and he can't really figure out, and he's always surprised by the rigid and pretentious hierarchy in the West of high art. Sell without selling out. Like, Western artists are afraid to, you know, if you're successful, you're gonna sell out. We were taught that there's this holy war between art and commerce, that they can't somehow coexist. We are taught in the West that the cool approach or the necessary approach for validation from your peers is to starve, right? Words matter, so let's define, or at least let me tell you my definition of what I think selling out is. I think selling out is to double-cross one's creative intent for either pure financial gain or something more sinister, often fueled by hubris. Let's just put that out there. It doesn't mean that you can't be self-promotional. It doesn't mean that you can't, you know, dance like no one's watching, and try, and not be afraid to experiment and iterate, because in this fragmented media culture, you're a brand, and therefore, you're for sale, if you like it or not and if you know it or not, if you work in the middle of an organization, the top, of the bottom. That's ultimately a currency you trade in. So you gotta learn to deal with it. And you can sell without selling out. I often tell artists a couple of things. Never feel bad about successfully selling your creation. So many creators, like, feel bad, or they have like, sellers remorse. It's crazy to me. And number two, kind of equal and opposite, is never feel bad about creating something that can't sell. You tried. That's a part of the approach. Number three, create wealth that matters. Numbers don't lie, right? That's what they teach us. Well, you know, they don't always tell the truth. Sorry, the Jay-Z lyric, you know, not 100% right. Our feelings about the numbers often inform a different dimension. That's something the absolute, finite number itself doesn't satisfy. You know, we're so busy counting, culturally, counting, counting, counting. We spent so much time counting. So quit counting. When you count, this is one of the byproducts within sort of our culture, is we, we codify a meaning onto things, 'cause we assign so much meaning to these things and try to put them into an orderly fashion that we apply a value onto things that often, really, are not as valuable as our feelings about them, either as a group or individually. Like, take the diamond, for instance, okay? Great backstory of the diamond, this is a fact, is that in the 1870s, there was a huge amount of diamonds. There was an oversupply, and the prices were way down. And this supposedly rare commodity had a problem. So, in steps, Sir Ernest Oppenmeier, Oppenheimer, he goes ahead and he buys DeBeers Diamond and he starts consolidating all of the diamond mines, right, into essentially what became a monopoly so he could affect the market price. But like any businessman with a problem of commodity, he needed a marketing spin. So what does he go to do? He goes and finds an awesome pitch man to take these shit diamonds that weren't really being consumed in the way we culturally understand them today, and he wanted, he challenged them to come up and assigned them as a beacon of luxury. Guy named Gerald Lauck comes in. He was an ad man, and he concocts a plan to drive the illusion, to codify our relationship with the diamond as the diamond is this valuable commodity. He goes and he places the diamonds into movies, and he uses movies to set up this idea of engagement rings. Totally a marketing 101 brilliant stroke. He didn't win a Cannes lion, but he probably fucking deserved one. So, we codify. We assign meaning, we assign value to these constructs. They organize our perception of things that are valuable. But you have to be cautious with this. Personally, in your professional pursuits, in the things that you assign value to, the people, the processes, 'cause you could often deify these things. You could often learn to worship them and revere them for something more than they're not, 'cause they're not gods. And luxury is one of the great marketing illusions of our time, right? I mean, if you're talking about real luxury, we all know what's really luxurious, right? These are the things we long for. This is real luxury. So, quit counting. Stop seeking validation that can only be found in finite numbers. Wealth that matters cannot be counted, can't be collected like stuff on paper. Number four, the fourth prescription is to be an un-label. What does that mean, besides obviously me being utterly self-promotional?
Hello, my brand is white, black, Jewish, Catholic, poor, or rich, smart, numb, talented, or dumb. ♪ You see the world will try to package ya ♪ ♪ And put ya on a shelf ♪ ♪ So if you're gonna be one, brand it for yourself ♪
That was an excerpt from a promo for the book that's a couple years old. You can probably tell I was fixated with Schoolhouse Rock! So what does it mean to be an un-label? Well, as a society, certain, we put things into certain groupings, taxonomies. We organize it like the grocery store or retail, so we can organize things by their label on the shelf, and this, it creates certain efficiencies for us, certainly as consumers and perhaps without intimate backstory or knowledge of the person, product, or thing. And we buy our dairy in the same place, and we go to get our condoms at the same place, often not in the dairy, unless you shop in this one little town I once found in Pennsylvania. Anyways. These labeling frameworks help us. As consumers, they help us navigate the world, and as I said. But if you're not careful, you start acting out the labels that have been either assigned or developed consciously or subconsciously by yourself, right? And you start focusing on the outside in attempt to remain in fashion, right? Fit in, to be in front, or to, or sometimes, to even differentiate, right? We will often dress the same, make our resumes look the same, all the best practices, and we find ourselves in herds. Fashion, words matter. It's a group of people acting together, right? And fashion has a tendency, like other words, that if you're not cautious, and this is the place for fashion, the zeitgeist. Like, look, I'm wearing my black t-shirt and my black hat and my black sneakers. You know, I believe in the zeitgeist, and these things happen, and we all participate, but if you're not careful, the rules of fashion could become very fascist, right? And very harsh control and an unnecessary authority, again, and we often assign those meanings from the inside out, and we become subordinate to it. And there's nothing more ironic, where, in a spastic fit of defiance, we declare ourselves black sheep, sort of like all the goth kids that defiantly end up just being another herd in and of themselves. Speaking of a herd and goth kids, an anecdote I'll share is in 2008, it was October sixth, I hosted a board lunch for the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the CFDA, which I sit on. And I'll never forget that day. It was the day that the, the market just shit the bed. I'll never forget Kenneth Cole was spazzing out looking at his stock and was totally distracted by what was going on in the market, and there I was, and Vera Wang and Stephen Kolb, the president, rest in peace. Oscar de la Renta was there, and Diane von Furstenberg. And I had this whole initiative, 'cause I was hosting this lunch. I wanted to make the point that there was a new domain for the CFDA to acknowledge, and that was the domain of sport and street. It occurred to me at the CFDA Awards, menswear designer, or women's wear, accessory, jewelry, shoes. Why not add a new category? Let's celebrate the sport and street domain and broaden our base, heighten our tower, invite a more diverse group of folks into the umbrella. So I went on and prosecuted a case about this. And I said, when Tinker Hatfield designed the dunk, for whatever reason, it's perceived as industrial design. But when Marc Jacobs copies it for Louis Vuitton, it's fashion. It didn't make sense to me. I said, why don't we celebrate this domain of sport and street that yes, maybe has industrial design as a part of their approach, but is no less fashion than what you guys are celebrating as fashion. And everyone was like, oh, this is amazing. Oh, we have to do this, and let's have a committee. Let's have a committee. I was like, yeah, we're gonna have a committee. This is kind of awesome. So, I waited for the committee, and the gatekeepers are finally willing to listen to this idea of just the vision of like, them announcing this year's, you know, sport and street award goes to, and celebrating some of my friends and my cohort. I'm waiting and waiting and waiting, (crickets chirping) and no committee. You know what this is? You guys know what that is? It's a blivit. What's a blivit? A blivit is an undecipherable figure, an optical illusion. It's an impossible, it's basically something really fucking annoying. And what I was faced with was a blivit. Of course they weren't going to take the, the committee meeting. What's my point? I sound bitter, don't I? I sound like a bitter real shit, don't I? My point is that divergent ideas breed independence and innovation, and really, what I was guilty of at that time was wanting the validation of my peer group, or these gatekeepers, actually. They weren't even my peers. And I was willing to shave the edges from my square to fit into their round peg. And it taught me, with all that frustration, why get frustrated, because really, what I was dealing with was groupthink, and groupthink often breeds gatekeepers and institutions, and we have to ask ourselves, why do we have these institutions? Why do we assign so much power to these institutions? Do we allow them to exist for their pomp and ceremony, or for their impact and actions? 'Cause impact and actions is what really matters. Gatekeepers. So much of my career, so much of your careers, have been fixated on wanting to appeal the gatekeepers, and we often lose sight of where it really counts, the goalkeepers, the person we're transacting with, our consumer, right? So when rules start to look like blivits, defy them. Measure yourself up to your ultimate standards versus the gatekeepers' often abstract and irrelevant compliance metrics and rubrics. When you refuse to be labeled, suddenly do you play by your own rules, not theirs, and you gotta ask yourself, shave your edges just to fit in, at what expense? So, un-label. Number five, authenticity is a pursuit, not a destination. Remember, I talked about the anatomy book for a brand? Kind of love this image. What do I love about this image? There's not a straight line in it. We want to organize our life in rational, in logical, quantitative ways, but I challenge you, when you're in the park, you're at the beach, you're out in nature, I defy you to find a straight line that exists in nature. It doesn't. There's no body of mass that is built in an absolute and probable straight line. But why do we design our expectations that way, right? People say, oh, that's not true. There are straight lines in nature, orthogonal, like in spider webs. Okay, orthogonal, yes, indeed, right angles relative to one another, but with respect to the ground, they sag. Gotcha. Rays of light, haha, gotcha again. They curve through space, and remember, they're not mass. Hexagonal basalt or quartz. Indeed, yes, the lava stone organizes in straight lines after massive volcanic actions. But they do not form probably in nature. There are no straight lines. Stop trying to find them. Remember that formula that I said was genius? It's horseshit. (audience laughs) Okay, there is no absolute formula for any of this. There's no silver bullet answer to how'd you do this, what advice you got, none of that, all right? Really, if there's any sort of mathematical conceit, it probably looks more like longitudinal differential calculus, right, where over the axis of time and actions, your brand has its ups and downs. Authenticity is a pursuit; it's not a destination. And you should never stop moving. It's a part of the process. We're all works in progress. Finished? Says who? Focus on the authentic pursuit, guts to the skin, skin to the world. So, these are my prescriptions. Be a creator. Sell without selling out. Create wealth that matters. Be an un-label. And authenticity is a pursuit, not a destination. Capiche? Capiche, good. That's the New Jersey language. Anyways, thank you for having me, and I understand maybe there's questions, so. (audience applauds)