Outdoor ad exec succeeds with smart surprises

To get into Brooklyn Outdoor’s Eastern Market office, you have to cut through the entrance for Detroit Vs. Everybody, scale four flights of concrete stairs and then knock on a silver-handled hulking metal door. This low-key entrance opens to surroundings that hardly vivify the fledgling company’s success: Within the office’s 2,000 square feet are a long white wooden table, four oak barrels doubling as coffee tables, a pair of living room chairs and a couch, an Ouizi mural, and a wide open space and a kitchenette, all stationed beneath jeweled chandeliers.

“We do events here,” explains the company’s founder and owner, Candice Simons. “Everything in here is made by Detroit artisans.”

Housed in the 1897 Del Bene building, the setting, like its owner, offers a muted example of her real-world success. Brooklyn Outdoor, which provides outdoor advertising sales and merchandise, counts among its clients Shinola Detroit, Sprint, General Motors and Warner Brothers Pictures. It has grown from a two-person, $600,000 business to a staff of 11, and was recognized with the 2017 Enterprising Women of the Year Award from Enterprising Women magazine, for companies achieving annual revenue between $5 million and $10 million. Besides Detroit, the company has offices in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and has some 800 sign properties in its inventory.

Nationally, the outdoor/billboard advertising has been dominated by three major firms: Clear Channel Outdoor, Lamar Advertising and OUTFRONT Media, according to Ken Klein, executive vice president of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. So it’s significant that Brooklyn Outdoor has such a heady client list and national visibility.

“We’re a women-owned business… It’s really important to me to empower young women,” Simons says, and for them to know there are “different paths you can go on; you don’t have to know everything.”

Simons, 33, revels in bucking so-called stereotypes — even down to owning a Detroit-based business named Brooklyn. She’s spent her life straying from the norm, from leaving Michigan State University after two years for Chicago’s DePaul University to being deliberate when she weighed the 20 job offers she had after graduating with her marketing degree.

“My parents have been married for 46 years, so, if I’m going to get ‘married,’ I’m not just going to say ‘yes’ to the first person who asks,” Simons explains. “I wanted to find what I felt was the right opportunity.”

The blend of ambition and fortitude is no surprise. Her father, Jerry Simons, was an electrical engineer for GE and the first among eight siblings to go to college. Her mother, Jackie, managed a Burger King restaurant and styled hair. Dad was “very business-minded,” Simons notes, explaining how he counseled her to get a business license for her first sales venture peddling rocks she found in her Northville subdivision. From her mother it was:

“Do your thing and don’t count on a man for everything.”

“She was pushing me in one direction: to be independent,” says Simons.

After graduation, Simons kept her work as a hair stylist and bartender for a few more months. Then a bar patron mentioned that his aunt had just started a company that was in the market for a salesperson. Simons got the job and wound up spending seven years at the company. It met her passion and she was good at sales.

“I love traveling, people, and having something that’s not the same every day,” she says.

Simons mastered the art of relationship building, “coming in guns blazing.” Her first big coup was locking down Miller-Coors, “the first account I built solely by myself,” and eventually her sales would account for two-thirds of her company’s revenues. “It felt like… all the buyers were middle-aged men, and I remember walking in and everyone saying, ‘who is that?’” Simons remembers, characterizing the competitive nature of outdoor advertising sales.

Who Simons is now is a person who left the safe surroundings of that first company, bought a house back in Michigan, hopped on the road and never looked back. Calls about working together pinged her phone before she’d even made it home. Companies wanted her to represent them — a partnership or client-based relationship, rather than as an employee. Other companies interested in outdoor advertising wanted her to market their products. One week after returning from Chicago, Simons was a full-fledged entrepreneur.

Sales Manager Emily Nelson, whose friendship traces back to high school, has worked with Simons since Brooklyn Outdoor’s inception. Nelson describes her friend as both personable and professional, but says it’s Simons’s candor and relationship-building that have made them successful.

“When we’re in presentations, Candice will be the first one to give it to other clients if it’s not something we’d do,” Nelson explains.

The company’s move from Simons’s home to Eastern Market in 2014 was typical Simons. She’d spent a little time in Detroit for the annual fireworks display and she found the energy of the market area “electric.” Being a person who sees “beauty in the most unexpected places,” she began the blog J’adore Detroit.

Detroit distiller Sara Aldridge, who met Simons when she stopped by three years ago for a tasting, says the sponsorship, advertising and social media that Brooklyn Outdoor provided for the Murals in the Market art festival helped the annual event grow to national notice. Simons took that a step further, hosting local artists for lunch in the Eastern Market space and commissioning a mural on her office wall. Brooklyn Outdoor is “just so passionate about what they do in the city and supporting local businesses, local artists,” Aldridge says.

The firm makes a specialty of creating anomalous advertising. For example: A wooden trailer propped at the base of a building, painted red and converted into a live stage and ad for Best Damn Brewing Company, won several ad campaign awards.

During a recent staff meeting, as tech music piped in the background, Simons chatted with a Fortune 500 executive about a year-long campaign that involved creating outdoor paintings to celebrate a key anniversary. Then the team, some seated at the candlelit white table, rattled off a list of proposals to potential clients. Metro PCS. T-Mobile Chicago. A luncheon featuring a private chef who works in Eastern Market. Simons pulls up a map on her laptop of a string of bus shelters in New Jersey that the company’s been contracted to sell. It all feels a bit overwhelming.

“It’s all in my head,” she says, half-jokingly. “But we have so many markets we sell for, so our sales partners are the experts in each market.” Recently the company secured $150,000 in financing from Chase to hire more staff.

Simons also works on life balance. She hired a life coach, is teaching dance, loves traveling and hopes to go to Bali someday.

“The biggest misconception is that I have it all together all the time and that I always know every day what I’m doing,” Simon says. “What makes a good leader is someone who is willing to make mistakes and willing to learn.”

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