Media Mogul: Nancy Lazkani's Icon Media Direct Seeks to Quadruple Revenue in Just 2 Years
[As published in the April 2002 issue of Response Magazine]
While some people were waiting on mountaintops for deliverance from aliens or God during the final year of the 20th century, Nancy Lazkani was busy just hanging in there.
“[The year] 2000 was the most challenging in my life,” says Lazkani, president and founder of Icon Media Direct in Sherman Oaks, Calif. “My father passed away in January, I was going through a breakup with my partners, my son was graduating from high school, my dog got run over by a car, and I was starting a new company.”
Icon Media was the new company, which Lazkani formed in May 2000. In its first six months of existence, it earned $15 million in billings. The next year, that revenue went up to $43 million. Lazkani projects billings of $60 million in 2002.
Lazkani believes this success came even during trying times because of the way she confronts such episodes. “I’ve faced a lot of adversity in my life, and I’ve learned from each experience, ” she says. Rather than playing the victim, Lazkani prefers to use such situations as learning tools that can be turned into positive experiences.
Making Ripples and Loving It
Like many highly successful people, Lazkani focuses on the project at hand, rather than the profit from the project.
“I’ve never been driven by money,” she says. “Instead, I focus on my passion for doing something that makes a difference.”
How Icon Media can make a difference was brought dramatically to her attention recently when a client attended one of the company’s weekly “roundtable sessions,” strategy meetings to which clients are always welcome. The client pointed out the ripple effect his DRTV spots were having locally.
Lazkani recalls this client told the group that six months before, “We were struggling. We had layoffs. We were worried about growing our business. Since we started doing short form with your company, our lives have changed. Not just financially. The job you’re doing has made an impact on the economy in our city. We’re able to hire people, which puts food on other people’s tables.”
“I didn’t realize until then that the DRTV industry really does have an impact in certain ways,” Lazkani says. “I’m really proud of that.”
One Step Back, Three Forward
Lazkani has a capsule autobiography refreshing for its lack of pretension: “I was born and raised in Sylmar, Calif. — a dot on the map until the earthquake of 1971. I was 12 years old then. I attended the University of Utah, came home, got married, had kids and 10 years later got divorced.”
When she fills in the blanks, she is still somewhat diffident. Recalling her first job in advertising, she says, “I was 23, my son was two years old, and I decided that having only $100 in my savings account just wasn’t going to make it.”
A headhunter found her a position as a salesperson for an electronics-component manufacturer. “It was very challenging because it was a commission-based job. I was very intimidated,” she adds.
But not that intimidated. She made more than $50,000 in commissions in the year she was there.
But her passion for doing something special reared its head. “It was good money, but I just didn’t feel that this was the business I wanted to be in,” she contends.
A friend told her Kelly Brady Advertising needed a media buyer, and Lazkani thought she’d give it a shot.
“Everybody thought I was going backwards,” she says. The money was less, and the job was something she didn’t know anything about.
Lazkani stayed at Kelly Brady for four years, buying and managing media for short-form spots. Her boss there, Carol Santantonio, taught Lazkani two important lessons she has used since in her business and personal life.
The first was that the power of the written word can be negative or positive, and to be very careful about what she writes. “Every time I write a letter to get a point across, I remember that,” Lazkani says.
The second was to always have a Plan B. “Every time we came up with a strategy or worked on a campaign, Carol would say, ‘Okay. What’s Plan B?’” Lazkani says. “I’ve learned to have a Plan B for everything I do, because not everything goes the way you plan it. But if you have a Plan B in place, you’re okay.”
While at Kelly Brady, Lazkani became intrigued by infomercials, and in 1991, she migrated to Williams Worldwide Television, where she started a short-form division, rising to vice president of media.
It wasn’t easy, at first. “I worked from a cardboard box,” Lazkani says. “I didn’t have a desk. It was all so new, I remember almost crying on the way home every day in the beginning, saying to myself, ‘I just don’t understand this infomercial business!’”
She learned quickly, however. Within six months, she was a supervisor. Within a year, she was media director. And in two years, she was vice president.
At Williams, Lazkani found another mentor who gave her invaluable advice — Katie Williams. “She let me take the ball and run with it,” Lazkani recalls. “She gave you the opportunity to grow and to learn and she had trust in you. She also taught me that this is a business for the brave because we face failure every day.”
Expanding on that, Lazkani says, “In direct response television there is no foolproof plan. The survivor faces the failure and learns from it.”
At the time, Williams was one of the first infomercial agencies with corporate clients, and working with the likes of Hoover and Philips Electronics gave Lazkani invaluable experience.
Lazkani left Williams in 1994 to form the aptly named Focus Direct division for Focus Media. “All my experience had been in direct response, and I thought it was time to work for a general rate agency and learn what they could teach me,” she explains.
Here, Lazkani learned an important lesson in campaign planning. “Learning how a general rate agency would conduct research and statistical analysis in preparation to launch a campaign or pitch other types of business was invaluable to me,” she says.
Given the title of vice president, Lazkani created the division from scratch. “No one else in the agency knew anything about direct response,” she explains. “I was free to do what I thought was best.” She did all right with that freedom. In the three years she was with Focus, she took the division’s billings from $3 million to $24 million.
While there, Lazkani handled Sears & Roebuck’s RoboGrip campaign, the retailer’s entry into DRTV advertising. “It was gangbusters! By the time I left, we had about seven different tools in the Craftsman line,” she recalls.
Working with top-level Sears executives Ted Weldon and Joe Batagowski on the campaigns gave her greater insight into such companies and how they could fit or not fit into the DRTV realm. “I admired both of these men,” Lazkani adds. “I was very involved with their corporate strategies and they gave me the confidence to deal with corporate America.”
Going It Alone
Lazkani’s experiences at Focus Media gave her the confidence to strike out on her own, and in 1997, she formed Prime Time Direct with several partners.
After another three-year stint, Lazkani’s entrepreneurial streak came to the fore, and she felt it was time to follow her dream to open her own agency. “When you have partners, you have different business philosophies,” she says. Although the agency was moderately successful, with billings reaching $19 million in the first two years, she left the company and formed Icon Media Direct in May 2000.
Nurturing the Pioneer
At Icon Media, Lazkani says, “Most of my clients are entrepreneurs, and some are corporate clients.” She pauses, and continues, “Corporate clients are important to me and the industry, but I enjoy working with entrepreneurial companies like Smart Inventions and Orange Glo and being part of their growth. There’s nothing more satisfying to me. It’s fun to watch them grow into a huge retail business, and being there on the ground floor excites me.”
Having experienced the spectrum of advertising, Lazkani has found her niche with direct response.
“With general rate companies, you’re buying rating points, you’re meeting your cost-per-point goal,” she contends. “But are you really growing a company? Are you really selling products? Direct response is such an accountable business, and that’s what makes it great.”
“Corporate America doesn’t understand that,” she adds. “They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on research and different types of analysis, which is important, but it doesn’t really help you understand consumer buying patterns. The true success in this business is a hybrid of it all.”
Eighteen years of varied experience has put Lazkani in an enviable position. She knows where she stands, and where she’s going to take herself and Icon Media. And she ponders with some bemusement where she’s been and what she has built over the past two years.
“I’m only just now realizing what I’ve built. I have 30 employees. I’m responsible for companies I’ve helped grow into multimillion-dollar companies,” she says. She’s also responsible for the personal growth of her personnel in the same way her career mentors were responsible for hers, and she uses the same management style. “I don’t like to be called a boss,” she explains. “I like to give people their freedom.”
Experience and success have also given Lazkani the ability and confidence to be forthright when someone steps over the line. “Today, if people upset me or do something unethical, I speak my mind,” she says. “I try to be as tactful as possible, but I have a reputation for integrity and I value my reputation more than anything else.”
Further, she instinctively knows what will work and what won’t. “I’ve learned that when I don’t listen to my instincts, I get in trouble,” she says.
To build her reputation, Lazkani says she has for years used five words to keep her on track: passion, integrity, experience, loyalty and accountability.
“For every action there is a reaction,” she contends. “If you apply those five words in your work, with your kids, with anything in your life, you can’t fail.”
Father as Mentor
Lazkani says none of this would be possible without her father’s guidance. “He was my best friend,” she says. “He wasn’t a wealthy man. He was the manager of a gourmet grocery store and raised five kids on a clerk’s salary. But he was very intelligent. He taught me how to swim with the sharks without getting eaten alive.”
He also taught Lazkani lessons in self-confidence. As a teenager, she was active in her church and spoke to large congregations. “He always helped write my speeches,” she recalls, “and he taught me how to express myself standing in front of thousands of people.”
Lazkani forsees few changes for Icon in the near future. “The real focus now is to continue doing what I know best — to keep expanding into the hybrid DRTV-retail marketplace,” she says. “We know how to reach a national audience, account for the results and account for growth. A natural extension of this is to continue to grow our radio and print business as well.”