/ Jesse DeCosta, The Brand Man

Jesse DeCosta, The Brand Man

May 16, 2013

Despite working with some of Hollywood’s brightest stars, this Canadian entrepreneur keeps his focus close to home.

These days, celebrities are more than just pretty faces on magazine covers. They’re brands in and of themselves; their names and faces valuable commodities traded on a global level. It should come as no surprise, then, that just like Apple and Coca-Cola, actors and music artists feel the need to enlist experts to help cultivate their brand, strategizing everything from their social media presence to which online poker company they endorse.

What is surprising is just how many of Hollywood’s elite end up telecommuting north of the border for that expert advice. For the better part of two decades, DeCosta Marketing has built and managed the brands of Will Smith, Kevin James and Jennifer Hudson, among many others. How did founder Jesse DeCosta manage to turn such powerful heads? By putting himself at the forefront of a very necessary service, before most people even knew they needed it.

“That term ‘brand management’ in the entertainment space, really didn’t come into play until about 10 years ago,” the 41-year old entrepreneur explains. “Before that, no one really thought of an entertainer as a brand. But because of technology, and things like mobile games and slot machines that are now digital, an entertainment brand exists, because you can now license it onto new things.

“In the early to mid-’90s, we had a chance to really kind of play because a lot of the stuff that we were doing had never been done before,” he continues. “We were able to network quite easily with likeminded or creative people to say, ‘Why don’t we try doing something?’”

Starting out modestly enough with Toronto-born R&B songstress Deborah Cox, today the company’s influence can be felt across the industry. If you follow Jamie Foxx on Twitter, for instance, you’ve seen the influence of DeCosta’s social media manager. Ditto if you’re among the 40 million fans drawn each month to the Facebook page of late hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur.

Around this time last year, DeCosta got to ply his trade in service of some of his personal heroes, taking over the marketing and licensing duties for the Jackson 5 and deciding how to reintroduce the seminal pop group to an increasingly digital world and fan base via their first official website. Beyond the standard concert info and performance clips, www.TheJacksons.com features an interactive timeline highlighting the group’s impact on pop culture and never-before-seen personal footage. One of DeCosta’s stated goals at the time was to “dispel the many myths about the family.” In other words: a rebrand.

DeCosta and the Jacksons also worked together on last summer’s Unity Tour, honouring the group’s late brother Michael. His work was greatly appreciated.

“[They] presented me with a platinum plaque of their albums,” he recalls. “And it was given to me as a gift with an amazing letter that had some really nice words. That meant a lot to me because I’d been a fan for all my life.”

Uncertainty is something that upstarts in every field must face. But for DeCosta, more or less working in uncharted waters, this has been doubly true. Once specializing almost exclusively in crafting extravagant websites for its clients, DeCosta Marketing recently found itself compelled to focus more on social media and product licensing to adjust for the increasing ease with which even the average consumer can build a suitably flashy site on their own. Fortunately, the man in charge has an attribute that facilitates staying on the cutting edge.

“I’m curious about everything,” he says. “I want to know how it works, I want to know why it works and how can I make it better. So I’m constantly asking those questions and thinking of things that way.”

Of course, it took more than vigorous curiousity to cultivate a client list that impressive, one which, in addition to celebs, also includes corporations like Sony, Universal and even the government of Canada. His background as a designer and a knack for quickly comprehending exactly what his clients are looking for, certainly plays a part as well. But they’re secondary to something else.

“I’m a really real person,” he explains. “I’m the same guy in the kitchen cooking with my kids as I am with my clients talking about some massive million-dollar project. And I think that’s the asset I have — that I am who I am, and that’s it.”

Indeed, despite hobnobbing with the Hollywood elite on a professional level, DeCosta has never felt the desire to move his wife Sandra and their two daughters to Los Angeles. Though he does keep an L.A. office with a 15-person staff, his base of operations when not travelling is his Mississauga home. Looking back on his tumultuous early years, that grounded nature and devotion to his roots is easy to understand.

Compelled to leave their native Tanzania in the mid-’70s in the wake of political upheaval, DeCosta and his parents struggled to find financial stability upon immigrating to Edmonton, often scraping by on the barest of necessities. Things seemed to be looking up when his father found more gainful employment in Toronto. But soon after, he passed away from a heart attack.

“I’m very grateful for the things that I have — my wife, my kids, the opportunities that are given to me,” he explains. “Every day, I get a call from all types of people who are very powerful and famous, and they want my help or advice. I could’ve just done nothing with my entire life, and I probably would’ve been in a very bad space. But when I look back on those years, it taught me to be grateful for what I have.”

Viewing the pursuit of money for its own sake to be an unhealthy endeavour, DeCosta is adamant there must be, in any entrepreneur, a deeper purpose guiding decisions and spurring the business forward. His purpose is simple enough.

“Being able to give my children amazing experiences,” he says without hesitation. “That’s the best part of my job.” And more than just being a good provider, DeCosta is repaying a debt to the greatest contributors to his success.

“You’re going to fail over and over and over again. But [then] you’re going to succeed,” he explains. “And then after that, you will fail [Laughs]. You have to have a really strong stomach and a very strong infrastructure of friends and family who will constantly support you . . . I don’t think of what I do as a job, I really don’t. It’s my life. My family’s involved in what I do and it’s a lot of fun. I’ve never stopped loving it.”



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