By: Dominic-Madori Davis.
In the beginning, it was just Deon Graham and his nightlife website, City Never Sleeps.
Now, it's Deon Graham and Combs Enterprises, where he's chief brand officer, leading marketing for everything associated with the mogul Sean Combs — otherwise known as the rapper Diddy.
Deon Graham, 35, is the chief brand officer at Combs Enterprises.
He oversees the marketing strategy for everything associated with its namesake founder, Diddy.
He told Insider about his rise, spurred from a nightlife website he founded in the early 2000s.
"Year after year, I've seen him grow into a savvy, gritty and forward-thinking executive," Diddy told Insider, "for big and bold digital and brand strategy ideas that are crucial to what we do and our success."
Indeed, years before the 35-year-old Graham started working for Combs Enterprises full-time in 2015, he had caught the attention of the rapper, who, with a net worth topping $700 million, has become one of music's most prolific businessmen.
If anything, Graham can say he has helped play a part in that.
In an interview with Insider, Graham talks about his rise to becoming the mogul's chief brand officer, what nightlife taught him about digital marketing, and the importance of creating content for and by Black people.
A nightclubbing platform for 'people that looked like me, who went out every night'
Graham told Insider he was a heavy nightclubber while he was a marketing student at Florida International University in Miami.
But one night in the mid-2000s, he said he began to pay attention to the world around him — the bottles, the girls, the photographers. Graham said he realized photogs were taking pictures of everyone except for him and his friends. When he would go to the club websites, only the white partygoers were depicted.
When he asked a bottle girl why this was happening, Graham told Insider, "she flat-out said, 'because you're Black.' I realized there was an opportunity for me to create a platform that serviced people that looked like me, who went out every night."
So, in 2008, he launched City Never Sleeps, a website that helped Black people navigate the clubbing scene. He went on to make deals with club managers around the country, hiring photographers to take photos of the Black clubgoers, which he would then put on his website. It helped clubs look "less racist," he said, but it also helped Black people find which clubs would let them in.
Graham said he dropped out of FIU after a semester to focus more on City Never Sleeps.
At its height, Graham said club managers were paying as much as $20,000 and he was taking paid advertisements on his website, making as much as the low six figures.
During this time, he had also been advertising a popular vodka brand on the site. Those advertisements caught Diddy's attention, and the mogul's advertising agency, Blue Flame, reached out to Graham, asking if it would advertise Diddy's Ciroc instead.
Soon enough, Graham signed a contract with Ciroc in 2009. From there, he began working more closely with Diddy and Combs Enterprises. "I had the urban market that nobody else had across the country," Graham said. "We worked well together."
The clubbing scene moves fast — just like Twitter
Graham came on as a freelance digital consultant for Combs Enterprises in 2009. He recalls the phone conversation that helped set it all off. He was speaking to one of the marketing leads at Blue Flame who was talking about redesigning the Ciroc website.
They were throwing around big numbers "like $120,000 to redo the site," Graham said. So he took himself off mute and chimed in, "I was like yo, I could do that site for like 20-grand," he recalled.
"I had no idea what I was getting myself into building a site at that capacity for a company that large," he continued. "But that just opened another door. Every opportunity that would come, I would try to jump on something."
By 2010, City Never Sleeps had begun expanding globally, to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, London, and Toronto. Graham said he had, at times, nearly 30 photographers around the country, but he was struggling to pay them. Club managers were late on payments, and Graham said he himself often wasn't making a dime.
By 2015, he got a call from Dia Simms, then-President of Combs Enterprises, who had a role for a full-time digital director open, and Graham in mind. Three years later, he was appointed Combs' vice president of digital, and two years after that, he became chief brand officer.
He's worked on everything from Ciroc advertisements to films with Apple Music, and music with Bad Boy Entertainment. He focuses on building and fostering long-term relationships with consumers, even if that means having Diddy make TikToks, post a few Instagrams, or hop into Clubhouse for a talk.
Graham said he likes to take it slow. "I'm not chasing, like, the headline. I'm not chasing that one-day growth."
It turns out, the clubbing scene moves quickly, just like Twitter. It doesn't take long to figure out if a social media campaign worked, just like it doesn't take long to figure out if it's going to be a good night for the club.
"He's relentless in his pursuit of goals, scrappy and innovative," Combs Enterprises President Tarik Brooks told Insider. "He's a key leader on our team."
Graham seeks authenticity
Perception is a big thing to Graham. "How you're perceived is what people think of you and how they approach you," he said.
Combs Enterprises likes to bring on people who can help push out authentic narratives that let customers know "It's coming to the culture, by the culture," Graham said. "If you want to reach people, you gotta reach them with people that look like them."
For example, Ciroc has been sponsoring and doing placements during the Verzuz battles that take place on Instagram Live. The event sees artists such as Ashanti, Jeezy, and Brandy musically compete against each other to see who has the greatest hits. To help promote the events, Graham said the Combs team typically shoots trailers and makes a few fliers, but also depends on the natural interest of users on social media to help drive the conversation.
Creating moments of authenticity is one of Graham's main strategies, he said.
People liked when, in the "Can't Stop Won't Stop" documentary, Diddy jumped around his office with excitement, after presumably just closing a deal, screaming, "I'm a Savage. Whatever I want I have to get." That clip goes viral, even to this day, he said.
As a marketer, he said he's always focused on how projects will land with audiences. As a Black marketer is always paying attention to "culture vultures" — the often non-Black people who exploit Black culture for profit and gain.
He said that some companies and executives were guilty of this during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, when they suddenly released statements and pledges about increasing racial equity. But he said he's happy that some consumers are beginning to take a stance against those who steal ideas, appropriate cultures, and who become socially conscious for monetary reasons.
"Nobody is forcing you to support companies that don't support you, that don't hire executives that look like you," he continued. "You're making that choice."
That's one thing he learned from his years in nightlife and now, working with Diddy — people like feeling seen, and they support the places and the people who make them feel good about themselves.
"I'm lucky to be in an enterprise that's owned by a Black man," he said. "It's a good feeling to walk into a building and see people who look like you, who are making decisions that are culturally relevant. I want everyone to have a chance to feel that now."
Picture: Deon Graham Darryl Omar/City Never Sleeps