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Deon Graham is a new type of leader in the stuffy business world — get used to it

For National Boss’s Day, REVOLT Senior Managing Editor Isha Thorpe spoke to Combs Enterprises Chief Brand Officer Deon Graham. Read here!

Deon Graham Dunnie West / REVOLT

It’s so easy for people to be defined by what they do for a living or the company they’re employed. But there’s so much more to a person than just their current profession. Since his youth, Deon Graham has been a boss in his own right – and in a number of different ways. From selling CDs in high school to launching a nightlife site, City Never Sleeps, to hustling, he’s always had a mogul mindset. And it would take him far.

Far into rooms that he never dreamed of stepping foot in and next to the most famous names he never expected to rub shoulders with.

It was that drive and calculated million-dollar mind that made the biggest entertainment mogul’s team reach out to Graham to partner with his nightlife website — and the rest would be record-shattering history.

So, Deon Michael Graham. Who is he? Where do I even begin? …He wears more hats than LL Cool J.

Well, if the name already sounds familiar to you, you might’ve heard or read about him and his business moves working with the one and only Sean “Diddy” Combs. So, it’s no surprise that he’s all about that “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” life.

Climbing up the ranks at Combs Enterprises for almost 13 years now, Graham currently serves as chief brand officer at the company. Initially joining the team as a digital consultant, the now-leader oversees the brand image of the mogul’s entire portfolio of businesses from REVOLT Media & TV to CÎROC, DeLeon Tequila, Sean John, Bad Boy Entertainment, AQUAhydrate and more. However, the title that he’s most proud of is dad – a soccer dad at that.

The man with a million duties who seems to always be pulled in a million directions is a proud family man with a wife, two daughters and a son – the latter popping up in his dad’s lap during the final moments of our Zoom interview and giving me an adorable side-eye before bidding me a “bye y’all” when the chat ended, and Graham was off to his oldest daughter’s soccer practice.

An introvert by nature, Graham gave a rare look into not just his career but personal life in our chat. As we wrapped up and he thanked me for the convo, he said, “Make me look like a legend” with a smile. From what you’ll read of our discussion, that wasn’t hard at all.

Peep my chat with the legendary Deon Graham below.

How did you get your start in marketing?

I got my start in marketing in high school. I didn’t know what I was taking, but I ended up taking a fashion marketing course in high school. I don’t know why I took it, I just think it was one of the electives. Obviously, in high school, everybody’s into clothes and stuff like that and I thought it would be cool. But at that same time in high school, I understood marketing... I sold CDs, I made sure the album cover was done correctly, I didn’t just write... And if I did write the name of the album on CD, I made sure I used a girl’s font so the handwriting was good.

I understood very early perception and how you appear. My mom was very much into that because she came from Belize and she ended up getting in banking, and she was always like, “You have to appear a certain way. You have to dress well.” And that to me, that’s all marketing. So, high school is when something triggered in my mind, like, “Oh, there’s an interest here.”

How did hustling help you grow in marketing?

Various ways. Learning competitive set. Who are your competitors? There are other people out there that have access to the same products or infrastructure. How are you making your thing different, recurring customers and even things like spending back money into the product? You could just be all money in like the late great Nip. But there is an element of taking some of that money to get more money to come in. And whether that’s packaging, whether that’s quality of product, all of those things play very much into real-world experiences with some of our biggest products. It’s no different.

You could be selling lemonade. Supply and demand. It’s a hot day, you’re out there, your lemonade has to be a certain flavor, it has to taste a certain way. Do you have the product available? Can you keep it cold? It’s literally the same thing. So, all of those elements throughout the marketing spiel, I think I just learned it at a quicker pace because of hustling. And there’s a level of fear and urgency that may cause you to tweak things quicker, just given the intensity of the environment.

What attracted you to the marketing field? What do you like so much about it?

I think there’s a few things. I’ve always been aware of how things are perceived, how people are perceived, how I’m perceived. My spidey senses always go off wondering what people think of either the work that’s being done…me when I’m not there. What does someone actually think about CÎROC when the door closes, and it’s no longer hype? Are they with their girlfriends or homies being, “Yo, this is product is actually good?” We reeled them in with the tricks and the big marketing schemes, but is the product good? We garnered your attention with the Druski spot and owned by a Black man, and you went and bought DeLeon. But, how does that actually compare to Casamigos Reposado?

So, that has always been a thing of mine. That’s high school, grade school stuff. I played competitive soccer all through high school and that was a place where that feedback was always happening, “What did the coach think of me?” when you’re not there. What did whoever think of you? How can I stand out? I would wear bright-colored cleats. I would wear my socks high. I would pop my collar. I was always just naturally aware of trying to separate myself from everybody and stand out a little bit. But then, back it up with a quality product. For the soccer example, you can’t just like dress like a baller, you have to actually be a baller. And the two of those combined are what garners the attention and is a successful campaign.

Would you say you’re a people pleaser? Do you care that much about what people think about you?

It’s weird because I get criticized a lot for this because I care. I genuinely care what you think of me, but then I don’t care at the same time. So, it’s almost like I care to know what you think of me, but it’s not going to affect how I move necessarily. Or it may be a compounding effect. Like if I hear three, four times, I need to get better at public speaking from somebody, I’m going to be like, “You know what? Maybe you’re right because that’s going to lead me down this path.” So, I am taking the criticism or the positive reinforcement, but it’s not affecting my day-to-day. But it’s being internalized and processed in some way.

Explain your role as the chief brand officer at Combs Enterprises.

In my role as chief brand officer, I oversee marketing, creative, PR communications, and Puff’s personal brand across his portfolio. So, my day-to-day responsibilities are REVOLT — our media property — CÎROC, DeLeón, and other spirits initiatives at CE SPIRITS. His personal brand, which is now known as Love…

We have a startup for Black businesses coming. We have Our Fair Share, which was our hand during the pandemic helping Black and brown businesses get access to PPP. And you have the ventures that we have popping up, I take that role. If we’re going on tour, like the “Bad Boy Reunion Tour,” I’ll come into that role of overseeing the creative and the marketing and the comms. And even recently, our step back into music with Love Records. Helping source creatives. What is our campaign message? What is our marketing strategy? How are we showing up in press? It’s my job to make sure those things are running at not only a level that Puff would appreciate and demand, but also bring in my perspective of what we know will work and push each thing to the next level.

So, the day-to-day for me is pretty wild, but all these things are connected. Puff has built his enterprise that all of these things coexist. If you’re watching “Drink Champs,” you’re seeing CÎROC and DeLeón on the table. He always has that statement where he was like, he wanted you to wake up, put on some Sean John cologne, get dressed in Sean John, while you’re watching REVOLT, get in the car while you’re listening to the Bad Boy music, go to the club and pop a CÎROC bottle.

So, you definitely don’t have a normal day-to-day or 9 to 5.

No, there’s no school that could train you for this. This is bit by bit, obviously inspired by the stuff that I’ve seen him do in his career and then when I got in the building, it was like, “Oh, I’m taking full advantage.” I always had a mogul mindset, so when you get a chance to work with one, you’re just like, “All right, I see how this shit goes.”

How long have you worked at Combs?

I’m in year 12 right now going into year 13.

And you started off doing what? What was your role?

A digital consultant. Started off building websites, managing small digital marketing campaigns through Blue Flame, which was Puff’s marketing agency...

Was it hard at first to work for him when you had your own nightlife website?

No, because I’ve always had that mogul mindset. I always could multitask, do different things. My site was a nightlife company, so I’m working with CÎROC at the same time where they’re trying to push stuff. The synergies were there and slowly but surely as my responsibilities became bigger and bigger, obviously, you had to re-look at your entrepreneurial ventures.

If you enjoy what you’re doing, there are difficult times and periods, but if you’re looking at whatever the goal is for yourself, it’s never been like, “Oh my God, I can’t do this.”

Would you say there is a challenging part of your job?

Every job has challenges. Challenges for me personally is I’m [not] necessarily the best people person, I would say. [I’m] very much introverted and obviously the position that I’m in, in this organization, I have to push through that. Because in order to get everything operating on a certain level, I have to communicate, I have to express myself, I have to lead. So, there have been difficulties in learning how to do that correctly. And I was taught by someone who gets away with a different managerial style (laughs).

So, I credit a lot of the best of both worlds to Tarik Brooks, who helps me see the other side of how to move organizations and move people, mixed in with the PD stuff. Family difficulties, I have three kids, I travel a lot. I don’t want to not put that in writing because that’s important. Obviously, those things exist. My wife isn’t happy every time I’m getting on a plane, the kids want to see me. That’s the value proposition that you look at every day. But, it’s constantly weighed against how to create a better future for them.

Does being an introvert help you in your career?

I would say it does a lot. It started in nightlife where I was starting to get access to these really dope parties. Being introverted, I wasn’t really trying to be seen necessarily, so I’d always find some spot in the cut — wouldn’t have a big personality. It would actually start to attract the right people. Because I think that celebrities, tastemakers, successful people tend to shy away from the loudest person in the room.

They don’t necessarily want that attention, so they would end up being around me. And I guess I never gave off a personality that was trying to take advantage of them. I always carry myself like I belong in these situations. I could be standing next to JAY-Z at a bar and say, “What’s up?” and just turn my back. One, I would love to talk to him! But, the introvertedness comes in. But two, also recognizing that that time will come and, for him, it’s better to leave that alone and just show respect and that’s it. So, fly on the wall type of thing...

Where do you see REVOLT in the next five years?

REVOLT in the next five years will be the biggest media company in the world. That’s where I see it.

That’s straightforward.

There’s a lot of people saying the biggest Black-owned media, I think that’s like...

Put’s us in a box.

It’s not just about that. You could be the biggest media company in the world that happens to be Black-owned. That could be the line.

Okay. I like that. So, what still excites you about your job all of these years into it?

Every day is new, it’s always changing. And then, I think once you start to climb up and you see that you can inflect change and things, you wonder, “What else can I do?” So, at first, it starts with raising the social media profile of Puff, “Cool. Oh, look, the followers increased.” Then you’re like, “Can you do that for CÎROC?” And then it’s like, “Wait, can I affect the sales?” Can you help something become the number one in its category? Can you hire more people and change their life? There’s always a new opportunity and challenge that comes at each level.

I start to meet just more and more people that just inspire me to be constantly on. I tell this to people all the time, I’ve driven every car, I’ve seen every house, been on every boat… You’ve experienced all these things and all of those people are still driven by the next level of success and that’s important to me. So, every time something gets checked off, I’m just like, “What’s next?

I’m not even supposed to be working here. If you would’ve told me in high school, “Oh, you’re going to be working for whatever,” I’d be like, “Yeah right.” Or “You are going to be affecting the sales of a billion-dollar enterprise.” “Yeah right.” You constantly keep checking off these boxes. What’s next?

What do you hate about your job?

I don’t know if it’s in my job in particular, but I think it’s more just in our field. I hate how I can be perceived by people we work with. That bothers me; it’s a driver. I don’t know if I hate it though, but it bothers me. I definitely use it for motivation. But it’s one of those things — When are we going to get past [how] X person’s supposed to look and talk and move like this to be in this situation? But hate would be a pretty strong word. I don’t know if I hate anything.

What role do you see REVOLT playing in culture?

A place that gives us a truthful, unapologetic, unedited voice to just move and do things the way we think they should be done. That unfiltered voice, whether it’s us talking about politics, whether it’s us talking about music or fashion, our perspective. REVOLT is the platform for our perspective because I feel like we really don’t have any major platform that is fully controlled and [has] decisions all the way up [that] are made by us.

It’s a bunch of people that look like us in a room coming up with, “Well, no, we should allow this person to have a voice.” And the reason they’re not getting a voice somewhere else is because that place is controlled by people [whose] messaging isn’t aligned with what they’re trying to put out into the world. So, imagine a world where we have a platform that can reach hundreds of millions of people globally and be an unedited, unscripted version of ourselves in whatever genre that is.

You’re a man who wears many hats. How many hours do you sleep at night?

I sleep. Anybody who’s close knows that I sleep (laughs). I leave my phone downstairs in the home office now — COVID world. At first, I didn’t because I didn’t want to miss the call, whether it was Puff, whether it was whoever. I felt like if I didn’t do that, I would get fired. But then — mental mind state in the trenches — just physical wellbeing and mental health, managing a family, rest is important. And I spent a lot of years on the road staying up at night, getting on 5:00 a.m. flights. I’m the first person, like, we can be out for drinks and I’ll be like, “I’m going to sleep, bro.” You know what I’m saying? Try to get my eight hours.

Oh, that’s a lot!

I definitely sleep. So, I don’t want to be one of those people saying I don’t sleep. But I also recognize and understand times where I’ve done the all-nighters. If we’re doing war rooms or creative sessions or festivals and things like that, those are periods where I’m like, “Okay, I got to stay up, got to get this done.”

If you had a whole month off, what would you do?

I’m like a super soccer dad with my kids. That’s our pastime that we share. I’m definitely a beach person, like beach and chill. But right now, if I had a month off, I’d be in Europe. I’ve never got like any extended time for real overseas. I do all like tropics and maybe do work trips here and there. But, I’ve never immersed myself in someone else’s culture, just day-to-day. And I’d be interested to see what that’s like.

Besides marketing, do you have any other talents?

I think just like business-wise, I think now the CMO, CBO, heads of marketing or branding also have to have that business savvy. And I’ve always been a person who felt like I can affect the bottom line. FIFA, if it’s not business-related (laughs). If I could, I’d be running a youth travel soccer team just because I was a youth player. I got into it, my oldest daughter when she was younger [did too].

If I had more time, I’ll be more involved with youth sports because it helped me a lot. Some of my best friends, most of my best friends, we all played soccer together. And there are a lot of life and business lessons within the sport… I could see myself coaching a pro team.

What’s the best piece of advice Puff ever gave you?

Everything is possible. Anything is possible. He opened my mind up to not taking no for an answer — there are countless examples. There’s one in particular, which I don’t think I told anybody publicly. We were backstage at Clive Davis’ Grammy event. Tarik and I had wrote like 50 different speeches, we were trying to get something across, which was the famous Grammy speech. We were going at it for a week, all these meetings, “How can we do this? We got to use this stage.” And we had some changes at the last minute for the teleprompter — just some points he needed to hit. Because how we usually write for him is points and then he articulates through those points. And he told me to go put on the teleprompter. Mind you, this is like the Clive Davis event! Nobody can get in.

You feel so small there. Even the way they treated us when we get there, they’re like, “Five people in only.” And he’s like, “Yo, go put it on the teleprompter.” So, I go to the teleprompter room and they look at me crazy like, “What?” And I go back to him and he’s sitting at the table next to JAY-Z, Beyoncé, all those people that were there — Whatever pressure environment you think would be around to come back and tell your boss you can’t get something done.

And I get to the table and I lean down to talk to him quietly and he just looked at me. He just gave me that look of like, “Whatever you’re about to tell me, don’t tell me. Go get it done.” And I turned around and didn’t tell him, went straight backstage — just walked into the teleprompter room — and was like, “I need to use this computer. Show me where Puff’s remarks are going to be,” and just started editing the things right there. Again, that was something I literally thought was impossible in my head walking up to him and it was possible.

And to some people, that may not sound like the craziest example, but it’s happened numerous times. So, I take that with me everywhere and that’s something I give to my kids and just everybody I work with. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot, it’s possible.

Do you ever celebrate your achievements? Because I feel like you’re on the go so much, you never sit back and pat yourself on the back.

I think there are private moments, but the thing is I haven’t done... The bar I have for myself is so high. I’m looking at billionaires and young cats getting millions of dollars and affecting the world and being extremely successful to where it’s hard for me to be like, “Oh, great win.” And there’s this saying that we have at CE, “No sleeping in the trophy room.” So, it’s like objective complete. Me, I may smoke a joint, have a drink and be like, “You did that. What’s next?” So, it’s that constant pursuit and mindset, the marathon mindset that you take the small wins, but you’re after something so much bigger, that sometimes you can’t even explain it. If someone asked me, “Where do you want to be in 10 years?” It’s so ambitious that I think people that don’t have that mindset will be like, “Why you even tell me that?”

What is a win for you? What would make you celebrate yourself?

It’s hard for me to celebrate myself, but things that have happened in the past or the change in REVOLT’s numbers, huge revenue change, huge traffic… Getting close to breaking the former CÎROC record numbers is a major win because I was a part of the team that broke it the first time and now that it’s my era, I want to shatter that record, so I stamped that. I feel like I stamped REVOLT, [also] making DeLeón tequila successful

We have some metrics and stuff that when we hit those, there will be a moment for a short celebration. There’s a bunch of things like that scattered around. I have personal financial goals that just when you get there, you check it, may buy yourself something nice to cement the moment and then keep it moving onto the next one.

Do you splurge?

I kind of have a compulsive personality when it comes to shopping. So, I don’t know if it’s splurging because I’m pretty fiscally responsible. I’m in a lifestyle industry where you got to have the $60,000 watch; you got to have a $200,000 car; you got to have these different things. And not to say I can or can’t get those things, but I don’t necessarily even if I can because of stuff like this (smiles and points to his son who he just picked up and seated on his lap).

I’m really into like Black designers… I’ve always been conscious of what I put on, but I’ll buy seven Rhude shirts — like I won’t just buy one. If that’s the thing I’m into, I’m getting all of them.

If I can’t get seven shirts, I can’t afford it. So, I’m like that. I got RIMOWA luggage, I’ll be getting luggage so the whole family’s traveling like that or I’m not doing it. So, it gets a little dangerous sometimes financially, but it also keeps me away from doing certain things because I go all in (laughs).

So, my last question is what advice would you give your teenage self?

So, it’s not really specific to work or anything... But at those ages — and this is why I have that keen responsibility to youth sports. Soccer is the one thing I didn’t give my all in. So, I literally have a soccer game on right now, my kids are going to practice... So, I use that as a reminder — remembering the thing I love so much — I took advantage of it and didn’t give my everything to it. So, if I could go back and tell me at 13, “Just give everything.” As long as you do that, you won’t be in the position that I’m at 35 where I literally have sports regrets, where I knew I could’ve worked harder. I knew I could have done certain things different, so that would be the advice.

I have a teenage daughter, she’s 14. That’s the biggest thing I give her is if you’re in this thing, just make sure you’re giving it your all. Because you don’t want to go back and be like, “Man, I could’ve what?” It’s not if you win or lose, it’s on that field or in that thing, did you give it everything? When she walks off the field — and she’s relatively competitive — she travels and all that good stuff. A lot of that stuff is difficult and I’m not being like, “You didn’t score, you didn’t do anything.”

In that 90 minutes, did you give everything? Did you leave it all there? If the answer is yes, high five, we out, let’s go get a burger. We’ll work in practice and you’ll get the result you want later. That’s my biggest thing for the young bucks and young myself.

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