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Icon Media strikes gold in urban marketing

David Watkins, president and CEO of Icon Lifestyle Marketing in New York, is the first to admit that starting a business with little money, bad credit and no financing is one of the worst ways to launch any entrepreneurial dream. But Watkins, with general manager and senior vice president Christopher Sabin, has found success with his own urban advertising and marketing firm, which generated $4.4 million in revenues last year.

Watkins was in the forefront when he started the firm, geared exclusively to the urban youth and young adults market, in 1995. Initially, Watkins never fathomed that his knack for producing and promoting parties and step shows as a student at Syracuse University could translate into a flourishing enterprise with over 20 employees. After graduating with a degree in community development in 1989, he put in a stint as an insurance underwriter. Then, in 1990, he began working in New York at The Source, the popular hip-hop music and culture magazine, where he eventually became general manager.

After working at The Source for four years, and later as vice president-general partner of Da Streetz Inc., a New York-based urban product placement agency, from 1994 to 1995, Watkins wasn’t only immersed in urban culture, he anticipated its burgeoning marketing possibilities.

“When I was at the The Source, I thought it was interesting that although this was the biggest emerging market, no one really focused on advertising and marketing to these kids,” says Watkins, 31. “Today everything is centered around urban youth, whether it is fashion, music TV or movies. This is the most important market since the baby boomers.”

Initially, Icon Lifestyle Marketing focused on producing events. From there Watkins was able to convince clients to allow his agency to expand into advertising and marketing. Today, Icon Lifestyle Marketing provides an array of specialized services that encompass market consulting, media placement, seminar and conference development, and print and video production.

“The first event we did was a benefit that had a budget of about $20,000. Last year we did [music mogul Sean] ‘Puffy’ Combs’ birthday party, which had a budget in excess of $800,000,” says Watkins. Icon Lifestyle Marketing’s clients also include Arista Records, Hugo Boss Fragrances, La Face Records and the History Channel.

Although Watkins is proud of the impressive growth of hip-hop and his agency, he believes some major companies still have reservations about including the urban market in their overall advertising and promotions strategy because they don’t view this as a viable market. For this reason, Watkins had few options other than self-financing when he started his company. His bank refused to provided a business loan or a substantial line of credit.

“I think one of the biggest problems young people of color have today is getting with a bank that appreciates and understands their business. Not getting financing hinders growth,” says Watkins.

Watkins has come a long way, and he has an eye on the future. His firm recently located to larger New York digs and plans to open an office in Los Angeles.

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