As an eighth grader in New Jersey, Marc Ecko would airbrush graffiti-style bubble letters onto his classmates jean jackets at their request. By the time he got to high school he had graduated to putting portraits of Nefertiti or Malcom X on their clothes for a fee.
"I grew up at a time when hip-hop and skateboarder culture were emerging. It was a time before they were hypercommercialized," says Ecko, 36, the chairman and founder of Marc Ecko Enterprises, a New York-based company made up of clothing lines such as G-Unit and Zoo York, retail stores, skateboards and media properties that play a part in commercializing the very culture Ecko venerates.
His company is currently working on a game based on Showtime's Dexter, a drama about a serial killer who hunts other serial killers. Last week it launched a TV and viral campaign from independent davidandgoliath, Los Angeles, for Zoo York footwear that features foul-mouthed roaches in New York.
In a 30-second spot, "Spread the Word," a group of skaters and bikers spray paint the Zoo York logo on a cache of cockroaches. They then head to Wall Street and throw them on what appear to be unsuspecting pedestrians who begin shrieking in horror and disgust.
"In grade school the idea that you could take the skill set of airbrushing graffiti onto T-shirts and then turn it into a business didn't seem possible," says the hyperkinetic entrepreneur. "It was definitely a better hustle than working at a Shop Rite, McDonald's or being a drug dealer."
His hustle began to pay off in college. While studying pharmacology at Rutgers in the 1990s, Ecko, whose real name is Marc Milecofsky, continued designing clothes and eventually dropped out to start his company. "I was a very average pharmacy student, [but] I felt I was above average where it related to my own art and my own hustle," he says.
In 1993, Ecko printed up six T-shirts and founded his business with his sister, Marci Tapper, and Seth Gerszberg, both of whom are still with the company. Gerszberg is CEO, while Tapper oversees the Zoo York clothing line.
After a few years, Ecko found himself $6.5 million in debt. After getting outside financing, Ecko turned things around. "I was able to focus on my core competency and define what it was: illustrations, T-shirts and sweatshirts," he says. "I came to the conclusion that my consumer has disparate means of consuming culture. That's where I said I could look at marketing efforts that would become businesses."
To promote the company and the graffiti adventure game Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, in 2006 independent Droga5 made a three-minute Web video, Still Free, that seemed to depict Ecko and several other men applying their graffiti tags to Air Force One. In addition to hundreds of newscasts showing the footage and debating whether it was real, the Pentagon was forced to issue a denial three times.
Indeed, Ecko seems to court publicity. Last year when Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run, Ecko purchased the ball for $752,467 and set up the site vote756.com to let the public decide whether the ball should be sent to the Hall of Fame with or without an asterisk or shot into space. Ultimately people voted to send the ball to the Hall of Fame with an asterisk. Ecko says he has not yet shipped the ball to Cooperstown, N.Y., because he is waiting for the case he designed for it to be completed.
Ecko's experience draws him more to business than academics and is one of the reasons he, along with Nell Daniel and Damon Butler, co-founded Sweat Equity Enterprises four years ago in New York. Designed to take the stigma out of vocational educational programs, SEE takes New York high school kids and matches them with brands such as RadioShack and New Era to research, develop, prototype and eventually manufacture products, such as the watch pictured above.
"After seeing things that were vocationally oriented were too industrial, that were not teaching the right skill set to our labor force, I thought maybe we could rebrand the idea of vocational education," Ecko says. "The idea is one part Willy Wonka and one part The Apprentice tweaked for high school kids."
Asked what kind of organizations should turn to SEE, he pauses for a moment and then says, "There are plenty of brands with a line item in their marketing budgets for promotional assets designed by someone half asleep at the wheel. Instead of that budget going to build some kind of towel night at a Knicks game, let kids design something that is a true rich experience."
Education: Dropped out of Rutgers University in the mid-'90s, where he was studying pharmacology.
Background: Born in 1972 in East Brunswick, N.J., Ecko grew up in Lakewood, N.J. His fake last name, Ecko, came out of an experience his mom had when she was pregnant with him and his twin sister, Marci Tapper. Unaware that she was carrying twins, a doctor told her the second heartbeat was an echo in the fluid. Ecko is a married father of three.
Honors: "Still Free," a campaign from Droga5 for the Ecko brand, won the Cyber Grand Prix and silver and bronze Media Lions at Cannes in 2006; Ecko named to New York magazine's Influentials fashion list in 2006; one of Crain's New York 40 Under 40 in 2005 .