THE BLOG
09/29/2013 08:28 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2013

Unlabel: 5 Prescriptions for Authenticity

My name is Marc Ecko and I've been an artist and a builder of brands my whole life. I'm a white Jewish kid from New Jersey who was able to create a company based on the ethos of hip hop. From the packaging on the outside, I suspect i did not quite "look the part."

I dropped out of college but I've run companies that's generated billions of dollars of revenue over the last 20 years.

How did I do it? I can tell you there was no one singular step. But by far, the singular element that motivated me along the way was to " just be authentic self"...

I know what you are saying, "authenticity, really"?

Authenticity, in my judgment, is the key to all creative success. It is as a notion and word as mis-used/misunderstood as the word "love" is with your first girlfriend. It has inadvertently become code for "relevance." But is what is relevant, REAL... or authentic? I mean... really?

Authenticity. Consciously or not, it is an expectation that we build ourselves and our business to always be. Unfortunately this "measure of authenticity" can will/be used as a weapon against you. How? In our culture, it is too often "governed" externally, by outside gatekeepers in our lives or industries. Those gatekeepers may indeed formally be that "certifying body," or a boss, an "influential person" or just those cool kids that will roll their eyes at you for even having dare tried.

They will get in your way, but those GATE-keepers are not the GOAL-keepers. Dig?

They will be there; all passive aggressive or sometimes with their knives out -- shouting "I.D.G.A.F." (I don't give a fuck). But know this -- in order to break through and meet your authentic self -- you have to demand the opposite. You had better GIVE a fuck. Because, it may be all you have and it will always be more valuable than money.

Since the "realm of the authentic" is so murky and manufactured these days, I wanted to give my thought process for reclaiming it in our lives.

It's a simple prescription.

PRESCRIPTION 1: BE A CREATOR

Raise your hand if you're an artist.

Try saying that to a room full of kindergarten kids. Nearly every kid raises their hand. Then say it to grown-ups at business conference or in an executive meeting: almost no one.

What happens to us when we get older? Why did we let them beat the creative spirit out of us? What happens in adulthood that leeches our desire to create, to build, to get messy and explore?

As a teenager, I used to paint in my parents' garage. And now, even after so much has changed, I still follow that ancient ritual of retreating to my office, blocking out the noise, and unrolling my canvas bag of markers and color pencils and bristle paper. It is in that quiet where I harvest and mine inspiration. Its those quiet, often mundane moments in batting practice -- swing and miss, swing and miss, rinse and repeat -- that are the moments when you will create your personal brand. Don't expect a fanfare or flashing lights at those moments of eureka.

This is what I thirst for. This defines my purpose.These are the quiet moments when I create and work on the brand of me. What are your moments?

PRESCRIPTION 2: SELL WITHOUT SELLING OUT

Sellout. They said it behind my back, they said to my face. I've had an army of naysayers.

We like to imagine that there's a holy war between art and commerce. "One is creative and pure, the other is crass and dirty." But the two aren't mutually exclusive. I've learned how to be a starving artist without literally having to starve. Starve for the right things. Starve to create something new. But never starve your brand.

Creation need not only be the work of the divine. And branding need not only be the dirty work of the ad man on Madison Avenue. In this fragmented media culture hyper-enabled by efficiencies of social media and self-publishing, you are a brand. You must strive to be both commercially responsible in your business and creatively fulfilled by the exhibition of your ideas. If you find that balance, you will see that what makes you a good artist is what will make you a good entrepreneur. If you're authentic in the one, you'll be authentic in the other. The labels "they" will project on you will not matter. And if you're willing but unable to commercialize your art? That's okay, too. You're still an artist.

Every artist should live by these words:

Never feel bad about successfully selling your creations.
Never feel bad about creating art you can't sell.

PRESCRIPTION 3: CREATE WEALTH THAT MATTERS

In the spirit of being authentic, I need to share something. I've never been more financially stable and "worth more" than I am now. Okay, I said it. Why? You know when you go to the gym, you don't want a personal trainer who's fat, right?

Since 2008, a funny thing happened. I stopped making appearances on the Today show, but I started making investments in companies and quietly launched my latest platform, Artists & Instigators. We put the brakes on retail expansion, but I put the pedal to the metal on Complex, and it repaid us with explosive growth.

All I care about now is being wealthy in the currency that matters most. Wealthy with an authentic, actualized awareness of my personal brand and how it fits into the world. Authenticity isn't about Ws and Ls, successes and failures. And I hate talking about what's in my bank account as some measure of compliance to success. The reason I am wealthy today is because I'm free to better serve the Ecko beast, to steward and support new start-ups, to grow Complex media, and actually wax philosophical about life.

I've gotten so much value in life from Eckō Unltd. and the rhino brand. It has been a platform that has granted not just material wealth but also an education that could not have be granted in any other way than having lived it.

PRESCRIPTION 4: BE AN UN-LABEL

We as a society put things in a certain taxonomy. These labeling frameworks help us, as consumers, navigate the world. Without labels, we'd be unable to tell a can of peaches from a can of beans.

But this has unintended consequences. If we're not careful we find ourselves acting out the label that society has slapped on our tin can, wearing pleated khakis, making our résumé look just like everyone else's, and joining the herd of sheep. Even when we try to shake free of the herd, sometimes we end up as a black sheep in an identical herd of black sheep. (Exhibit A: The "rebellious" goth high school kids who all wear the same eyeliner.)

Fight this label.

Peel off this label.

UN-Label.

Refuse to be labeled by the gatekeepers. Or if you're going to be a label, be an UN-Label.

This takes work. In the same way that you exercise your body, you need to challenge yourself to shake free of the herd, find your own unique voice, and create your personal authentic brand. Make it hard for them to classify you. Make it hard for them to label you.
Don't let yourself be placed in a silo.

When you refuse to be labeled, suddenly you play by your own rules, not theirs. You measure yourself by your own standards, not the gatekeepers' standards. You define the terms of your brand, your creations, and your success.

PRESCRIPTION 5: FOCUS ON AN AUTHENTIC PURSUIT, NOT DESTINATION

We want to organize our life in rational, logical, quantitative ways. But humans are not rational. We are emotional creatures. And just like there is no straight line in nature it's impossible to imagine your life in such an organized fashion. We are, after all, just one big work in progress.

AUTHENTICITY is a work in progress. Too many business and self-help books give tidy little formulas and Venn diagrams for success like A + B = C. It's not that simple. Even if some Doogie Howser-type brainiac could actually crunch the numbers and compute a number -- authenticity score of 72.0829, say -- that score of "72.0829" is constantly changing.

The answer is a constantly iterative thing. It's not a measure that's neatly defined by a number. It's a moving target. The forces of life are always changing.

And the forces of life can hurt like hell; they're designed to. You thought it would be easy? They can make progress look like failure. These forces can at times seem subtractive--maybe they smack your ego, maybe they look sloppy -- that's okay. That's part of the ride of creating that will eventually reveal itself as the texture, the essence, the very definition of what it is you seek to create.

Conclusion:

My perscription isn't something you can just slavishly follow, and the formula will be different for everyone. It's not important that you use my formula to build an authentic brand, but it's critical that you develop your own.

It's critical that you dig deep down, from the inside out, and look outward and upward for your Vision for the Future. Not a vision of the gatekeepers' future. But a future that's authentic.

I am a brand.

I've shown you my brand. I've peeled back the label and showed you its guts.

You are a brand.

And your brand is...?

Marc 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, a network of 110+ websites that generate more than 700 million page views and 70 million unique visitors per month. Eckō serves as an emeritus board member to the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Big Picture Learning and Tikva Children's Home. Ecko's first book "Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out" is out October 1, 2013.