Ask Webster's what "urban" means, and it'll tell you something like "of, or relating to, a city." Ask David Watkins, and you'll get a much different answer.
What makes Watkins different is his unrivaled perspective on the urban customer, the focus of his New York City advertising, marketing and event-production firm, Icon Lifestyle Marketing (ILM). As Watkins sees it, to be an urban customer is to be much more than just a part of the cit-it's to be young, hip, diverse and part of a cultural phenomenon-one that's propelled ILM well beyond the million-dollar mark.
"We think of urban customers in a much more sophisticated fashion than most: We give them more credit for being able to com-prehend things than the average advertising agency does," says Watkins, who started ILM in 1995 after a three-year stint at The Source magazine-a stint that gave him some insight on the world of advertising and marketing: "I realized there was no one who was addressing the urban consumer effectively," says Watkins. "The things that were out there for young African American consumers, in particular, were really tired and boring."
So Watkins gave the industry a wake-up call, hiring a staff of young employees who are always ready to get in the mainstream trenches. "To understand the market, you've got to have people in your office who live and breathe that market every day," says Watkins. "Twenty or 30 years from now, we'll still have 19- and 20-year-olds on the staff."
That might explain why ILM hit $4.4 million in 1998 and is expected to gross $10 million by year-end-not too shabby for a company launched from Watkins' basement. "I started this company with $2 in my pocket and an idea," Watkins recalls. "I'm glad we took that route, but it's been very complicated."
Complications aside, Watkins doesn't need much more than his concept to make ILM work. Clients can virtually taste his enthusiasm-and the profits just seem to follow. "It's important to have a passion for what you're doing," Watkins advises. "Clients see it in your eye; they hear it in your voice. If you don't have that passion, you'll never be successful. How are you going to sell it to anyone else if you can't even sell it to yourself?"