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Marc Ecko: Embrace the Mess

About this talk

Whether it’s due to exclusive communities in your industry or a slavish devotion to page views, tweets, and awards, it’s easy to get caught up in pleasing others. Entrepreneur, media mogul, and designer Marc Eckō tell us that, if we’re not careful, we can let others label us and define our career, robbing us of our natural potential. The solution? Stand up for yourself. What the gatekeepers may cite as a reason for your exclusion may very well lead to your success.

“Wealth that matters cannot be counted,” says Eckō. In this presentation, Eckō shares three strategies for taking control of your creative career, one gatekeeper at a time.

Marc Eckō, Founder & Chief Creative Officer, Marc Eckō Enterprises

Once a graffiti artist with no connections or fashion pedigree, Marc Eckō left the safety net of pharmacy school to start his own company. Armed only with hustle, sweat equity, and creativity, he flipped a $5,000 bag of cash into a global corporation now worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Eckō is an American fashion designer, entrepreneur, investor and artist. He is the founder of Marc Eckō Enterprises, a global fashion and lifestyle company. He is also the founder and chairman of Complex Media, the world’s leading provider of fashion, entertainment, lifestyle, and product trends to young male tastemakers.

Eckō serves as an emeritus board member to the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Big Picture Learning, Tikva Children’s Home & Everloop. Marc lives in NJ with his wife and three kids.

Full Transcript

I thought what I would try to do, with the limited amount of time, is give you three big takeaways that I think, as if you could deduce– like I give you three, you know– like people ask, tell me one thing. Well, I’ll tell you three things. I’ll try. And hopefully these will be of value for some of you folks as it relates to your personal brand, your personal creative journeys, et cetera.

So you guys ready? Yes Show me you’re really ready. It’s Friday. [CHEERING] You’re lying. This guy’s– no he’s ready. All right.

So number one prescription from a pharmacy dropout, embrace the mess. Embrace the mess, OK. So, Thomas Edison, right, 99U, right? You know what the 99 comes from, right? One of the great American entrepreneurs, genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. Great entrepreneur. Who, of you guys, thinks by a show of hands, who here fancies themselves an entrepreneur? Show of hands. Who are the entrepreneurs? Who are the next Thomas Edisons? Keep your hands up. Keep your hands up. OK. 99 percenters. The perspirers, you entrepreneurs. And the rest were the 1 percenters, I suppose [LAUGHTER] Entrepreneur, you know, as a word I kind of um– I think the word entrepreneur sucks, frankly. I don’t like the way that it’s been, kind of, commandeered in, kind of, a post financial crisis as like the new rock star. It’s like the new black. It’s very fashionable. And it’s been, kind of, thrown around quite a bit. Ever since, you know, your crayons were dropped in second grade, it seems that if I were to ask the same question of you– maybe perhaps not this audience being such a creative audience– how many of you would have fancied yourself artists? If I asked that to you in second grade, you probably would all raise your hands. But it’s interesting that when I ask that question, entrepreneur or artist, disproportionately, today, people raise their hand on the entrepreneur thing, and they don’t on artists, which really kind of boggles my mind. I kind of have a beef with this whole Thomas Edison quote thing to be honest with you. It kind of implies that genius is related to one’s ability to manage the pain of the grind, right? 99% perspiration, embrace the rigor, this all sounds like this is what entrepreneurs do. Hard work is at the heart of genius. This is, kind of, the subtext for me. Also, I think, when you’re Thomas Edison, you have to motivate a lot of labor to get things done. It’s very helpful to say, hey, look remember 99% is perspiration. I’m just saying, not to be cynical. Inspiration, on the other hand, needs to be dosed carefully. Ooh, 1%, careful. No, no 1%. It is romantic and, perhaps, distracting, right? Imagination. After all, it could be a bit of a rabbit hole. This notion of ideation and how, many times, you get two people a room, you get 20 opinions when they’re trying to imagine and ideate on things, right? So, this is where I, kind of, have a problem with that quote. And I think when you grind on the 99%, you kind of lose sight of, perhaps, the inspiration that’s all around you. You’re so busy perspiring, just perspiring, 99ing it all the way. Even if you think you’re an artist– like you’re really just working on the perspiration piece– losing sight of, in fact, the inspiration. And dosing it in a way that may not get the best yield. I think that’s because of the mess that’s implied, that we’ve forgotten, somehow, to imagine. , Somehow, we think this notion of artist, or creator, culturally, is an indulgent notion. It’s what self-indulgent, self-philosophical people that get to dress in all black, and lean back, and you know, get to be moody, and self loathing. That we’re sloppy. That we don’t necessarily have– we’re right brain. Right brain artist, right brain. Don’t give them the spreadsheet. [LAUGHTER] Or it’s just not for you because as you get older, maybe, you lose, perhaps, some of that swagger, that freedom, that when you were in second grade where you just would raise your hand and say, yes, I am, in fact, an artist. We also think that this notion of creator and artist is divine. There’s some divine thing, like the famous Michelangelo image. And then we struggle in commercializing it. So we think that there’s a holy war between creative, and art, and commerce. And this inhibits our ability in our relationship with our art. So I challenged folks who, perhaps, don’t necessarily fancy themselves artists that, just because you can’t manipulate paint, or sculpt, or music, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t problem solve like an artist. You have to learn to embrace the messiness of creation. Embrace the mess. Problem solve like an artist. Give yourself more than 1%. Chill on the dosing, OK? Number two, create wealth that matters. Create wealth that matters. It’s always like the guy who’s like, oh you know, money doesn’t matter. It’s like, the guy comes in, and he’s got money, and says that. It’s always like so saccharine and nauseating. I don’t mean for it to be. I just want you to follow me on this for a second. We all went through, I presume, your K through 12 sentence. You guys did the K through 12, 13 year sentence. And where they teach us that math– you know, that numbers don’t lie, x plus y equals z. Well, I say, they might not lie, but they don’t always really tell the truth. Our emotions about them frame how they really work and what they really mean. And, kind of, culturally, today, if you’re in the design industry, or media, or broadcasting, or even just using the efficiencies of social media and self-broadcasting, self-publishing, we, culturally, live at a time where we are just obsessed with counting– our money, our grades, our wins, losses, followers, KPIs, page views– counting, counting, counting. Count, count, count. Quit counting. All right? Quit counting. Oh, yeah, big data matters. How can we– what kind of jerk is like– the biggest companies are the ones that are getting the most funding, are– It’s all about data. It’s about what we’re do– No, being human matters, OK? And, you know, in a pursuit of quantitative gymnastics, you can’t lose sight of qualitative intent. All right? You can’t lose sight of the human factor– that being human matters, the why, the how. You dig what I’m saying? The shit that really matters that you should be really counting. [LAUGHTER] That’s what matters. That’s what we should be counting. Qualitative excellence cannot be hacked. I don’t care how much funding you’ve got. I don’t care what brand you’re serving– who from the valley, what media company, no. Qualitative excellence cannot be hacked. Nature will not allow it. I don’t care how deep and dark part of the web you look at, you mine and harvesting, aw, you could predict it before it happens, right? Being brats. Trying to seek validation that could only be found in the finite, as if something could really– as if humanity could be so definitively organized like a number. Wealth that matters cannot be counted. You follow? All right, number three, be an un-label. Be an un-label. This is going to be harder for you to predict. This is, kind of, up view of what the spirit of my book is about, “Unlabel.” I’m being self-promotional. I will allow that for a moment. Let’s let that settle. OK, I did it. I’m sorry. So be an un-label. What does that mean? Well, in fashion, I remember hooking up with, like, my first big PR agent. And the PR agent was like, Marc, perception is reality. Perception is reality. You have to control. This is all about control of the room. You need to control the room, right? And what I’ve learned is actually, no, you know what? Reality is reality. It’s not really the same thing. (ON VIDEO) Hello, my brand is white, black, Jewish, Catholic, poor, or rich, smart, numb, talented, or dumb. (SINGING) You see the world will try to package you and put you on a shelf, so if your going to be on label, brand it for yourself. That’s from the trailer– you can find it on YouTube– for the book, but it’s a little excerpt. But the spirit of what I was trying to do with the book and really, kind of, the spirit of what it means to be an un-label is to recognize that, as a society, we put a certain taxonomy on products. We like to group them and organize them like we do the shopping store. It happens to us, personally, as brands, as products ourselves. We buy our dairy in the dairy section, and the meat in the meat section, and the condoms in the condom section– because that’s the order of how you should be shopping. But we know how– there’s a reason for this. And not that it’s all bad. I don’t begrudge it. But these frameworks are designed to help us as consumers, and from an information management, navigate the world, places people, things, ideas, notions. So we get a sense of where they fit. We need to understand their label. But, if we’re not careful, we find ourselves acting out the label that society has slapped on to our tin can. That, kind of, skin to the world view of our brand. We lose sight of our guts to the skin brand in the process. And we almost play to– we parrot to this perceived version of ourselves. We focus on the flourishes, the outside, attempting to remain in fashion and relevant. This is what we do. You change your hair, your clothes, who you roll with, what you’re listening to, what you’re reading. And there are parts of this that are natural, and, for sure, are hopefully built on the values guts to the skin. But all too often, if you’re not careful, we do it from skin to the world. And we end up dressing the same, making our resumes look the same. Basically, group thinking– you know like a big herd of sheep. And in fashion, what’s interesting– because in my industry, coming out of that, and as like an etymology nerd, I like to break down a word. It comes from this Latin word, which it’s the idea of a group of people acting together. And fashion, there’s a logic there. It’s a beautiful industry. It’s a great medium. I love expressing in it. And I get the zeitgeist and wearing, you know, I’m wearing drop crotch pants, now, and jog jeans, I mean, I get it. There’s a place for it. But I found, in the industry, that fashion could be unintentionally fascist. And assign very harsh control and authority. And isn’t it funny that fashion, which should be about art and expression– and even in the arts industry– isn’t funny how we do this to ourselves. There are no rules. Let the rules go, express. But then it ends up being a lot of rules, right? So this was, I’ll never forget this date, this little anecdote. I won’t forget it because it was at the board meeting for the Council of Fashion Designers of America. I’m an emeritus board member of the CFDA. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with that. It’s kind of like the Justice League for fashion designers. [LAUGHTER] So I was having this moment, you know, professionally, I was really, kind of, disconnected from the operational side of the business. I was out there full time promoting my perceived brand, and not really in the nuts and bolts of the business. And there it was and, basically, the financial market shit the bed. That was the day that’s like there was the TARP announcement where Bush did that first round of financing, and did the big bailout, which led to the bailout. And here I was, you know, Vera Wang was there, and Steve Kolb, who was the president, Oscar de la Renta, my sorry butt, Diane Von Furstenberg, and Kenneth Cole, who was sweating. I just remember him sweating, like, looking at his stock. It was a mess. But I was there preaching the gospel of street wear. I was on this mission because I realized like, hey, guys, it was the first board meeting that was being held in my office, which was kind of like a big deal. Like, all these gatekeepers are in my office. This is a big deal. So I make the big ask. I say, hey, you know, I think that the CFDA should offer a new award category. I think it should recognize sport and street. And here was my thesis. I said, when Tinker Hatfield designs a Nike, or let’s say a designer at Arc’Teryx or Burton snowboards, it’s somehow perceived as industrial design. And our ecosystem doesn’t necessarily look at it in the right manner and give it the respect that it’s due. But if Marc Jacobs does it for Luis Vuitton, it’s fashion. I said, I think we could broaden our umbrella and invite, perhaps, this other cohort of street, and skate, and active design into our tent by having an award that recognizes that cohort. Oh, they loved it. I presented it, and I remember Oscar de la Renta was like, (FRENCH ACCENT) I love, this is such a brilliant idea, refreshing. I like Oscar. I didn’t mean that in a mean way, but that’s how he speaks. And they’re like, let’s have a special committee. Let’s have a special committee to assess if this could happen. All right, now remember this TARP thing just happened. So, what a great opportunity. All of these gate keepers at my door and we’re going to have a special committee. I could now shape and change their view on this. Wouldn’t this be a major breakthrough. So I waited. [CRICKETS CHIRPING] And I waited. And I kept waiting. And eventually I could tell– I tell Katie, who’s here tonight. I said, let’s call them and I said, what happened with the committee? Get the call back, speak to them, and they’re like, look, the economy isn’t good. We don’t think it’s time. We don’t think that it’s necessary inside the CFDA. We think that the stack of the awards are good as they are. There’s no need for any committee. I was like, ah, damn. It didn’t make any sense. It was indecipherable. It was confusing. It’s, kind of, like a blivet. You know like that thing. You know it was an optical illusion. [LAUGHTER] It, basically, the whole thing was annoying and pointless. [LAUGHTER] And I found myself in the maze of this blivet, trying to make sense of it. But it wasn’t real! Perception, reality, reality, reality, right? What’s my point? I was so busy trying to round off my edges, so busy assigning so much value to this third party power structure, these gatekeepers, they weren’t bad people or having ill intentions. It’s not their fault that I had this point of view. But my divergent ideas– I didn’t give myself credit of the kind of independence it had bred for me. I was really looking for their gatekeeper anointing. I was looking for their approval. And I was letting myself get frustrated by this. And the point is, in life, in business, in your profession, whatever those third party existential forces are, we often give so much power to them. They gate us. They gate you. And when you’re going to ask for change, it’s going to be with friction. You know, it’s going to be work. Perhaps, you’re going to ask for enemies. And changing and having to ask, to soften your edges, or to apologize for your square edges doesn’t make any sense. Gatekeepers inadvertently breed group think. And that’s not to say that there was– like I said, I have no– I don’t begrudge the CFDA. They’re a great organization. It’s been amazing to watch them emerge. They’re now finally recognizing Shayne from Hood by Air this year, as one the up and coming Perry Ellis designers of the year, which is really exciting– about time. But the point is, is how much energy in my life I gave to those gatekeepers. How much energy you have given. You know what I’m talking about. It might have been your boss. It might have been the dean at the school. They might have been– whoever. Now, look, there’s certain gating that needs to happen. The law is the law, OK? There’s certain gatekeepers– like, don’t go out there and shoot somebody, or like you rob someone. That’s wrong. But don’t, like, just settle for the way that the distribution is. Don’t just settle that because the shelves are stacked a certain way, that you have to fit in that way, right? Don’t lose sight of the goalkeepers. The goalkeepers, who care more about what you– not only care about what you’re making, but they’re expecting how you make them feel to be as equally as important, if not more so. They’re the ones to keep track of– the goalkeepers, not the gatekeepers. When you refuse to be labeled, suddenly you play by your own rules, not theirs. And when rules start to look like blivets, 4 defy them, challenge them, even if there’s going to be friction. Measure yourself up to your own ultimate standards versus gatekeepers often abstract and irrelevant compliance metrics. All right, come on, SATs? They make you better? In life I’m not saying– I’m just saying Educational Testing Service? Just saying there’s some compliance standards that are kind of old and not really relevant, all right? But we give them so much power. Be conscientious on that. No one should have a monopoly on validation. Unlabel, that’s why the formula. As if someone could organize it in some mathematical Ponzi Scheme. Come on. You think I was serious with that shit? [LAUGHTER] OK, I kind of am. But so was he. Have you ran the numbers on that– e equals MC squared. But for sure genius isn’t necessarily 99 and 1, x plus y is not always z. And, ultimately, on the axis of time and action– which is really what your brand is going to be behaving on– it’s about your body of work, man– and women– folks. [LAUGHTER]

It’s about your body of work. Your brand– it’s differential longitudinal calculus. It’s not finite. That’s the problem, you want it to be done. But as artists, as creators, if you embrace the mess, you know, if you unlabel, you know that it’s never really finished. It’s a work in progress. OK? So embrace the mess, create wealth that matters– quit counting– and be an unlabel. Those are the three high hats, capisce? All right. Thank you for your time. [MUSIC PLAYING]

Comments (4)
  • Duane

    This reminds me of the points Marc made about Kanye West in his interview on the Breakfast Club. Have respect for the gate keepers but you don’t need their permission to succeed. Great talk.

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  • Bridget

    Wow! Great talk — loved the points on gate keepers and quantifying.

  • Dumile

    Wow…. Words to live by. Refuse to be labelled, think of the goalkeeper and not the gatekeeper.

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