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CLASS OF ’93

Creative Winds Still Blowing at Monsoon


Charlie Szoradi GAr’93 says he never worried about whether his new-media design and marketing firm was going to make it. Chalk it up to entrepreneurial bluster, but the president and CEO of Monsoon Microstudios says such concerns didn’t register during the past four years it has been conducting business inside a former church in North Philadelphia.
   
“It never was, ‘We’re going to build a business model and test it, and raise some money,’” he says. “If the business fails,” he figured, “it’s a failure of higher-order creative thinking.”
   
So far the creative thinking has held up to market forces, with the company, at press time in November, expected to pull in $2.5 million in revenues and post a profit for the year. It has landed accounts with multimillion-dollar companies such as Urban Outfitters, Sierra Global and VIP Wireless. And Monsoon is now looking to expand its operations well beyond Philadelphia’s borders.
   
Co-founded by Szoradi, a trained architect, and Taheem “Tyme” Gadson C’93 (now an independent producer in Miami), Monsoon grew out of an arts collective set up in an old church-and-warehouse complex within one of the poorer pockets of the city [“Alumni Profiles,” April 1997]. The offbeat corporate digs matched the edgy content of its work for a small number of mainly local clients. Monsoon’s accounts gradually grew. “$250, $2500, $25,000, $250,000. Budgets have ramped up in four years by a factor of 10,” Szoradi says. To get there, “it took doing all of the smaller projects really well.”
   
Penn alumni working for Monsoon include design director Jim Datz C’90 GAr’93 and research director Courtney Hanson C’99.
   
Szoradi now spends about two days a week meeting with clients in a shared Manhattan office and Monsoon has been in talks with a firm in Los Angeles to create a West Coast office. “We have a bite on a significant account for one of the major studios,” he says.
   
The long-term goal is to keep Monsoon’s “boutique model” and build a 12- to 24-person “A-team” in several major markets: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and possibly Miami. “For now, this is our home,” Szoradi says of North Philly. “In the future we may consider Old City because it has access to more of the amenities by foot in the neighborhood.”
   
Szoradi, who has been interviewed on CNN, says his small company can compete with Madison Avenue firms by providing numerous services under one roof and offering what he calls “integrated brand strategy.” It’s “really not asking how big [a client’s] advertising budget is, but what they want to do with their business. Then we work with them to leverage technology, if it’s appropriate, to drive traffic … and combine the brand image into all the marketing so there is a single unified message that distinguishes that client from the competition.”
   
Under the old model, Szoradi adds, “the agency sees itself as this outside provider of information. [Instead] we’re going into the trenches with the client to learn as much as we can about how they operate, becoming an organic extension of their marketing department.”
   
In the the Urban Outfitters assignment, for example, Monsoon brought the culture of the store onto the Web. “The music is so important when you go into an Urban Outfitters store, so we leveraged that by developing an online radio station so you can click and select tracks to listen to while browsing. Then we have links to the hottest sites about youth culture.”
   
Describing Monsoon’s growth, Szoradi says, “It’s a classic story of overnight success that took 100,000 hours.” Which doesn’t leave much time for vacation. Szoradi did spend a week in Los Angeles last fall—meeting with potential clients. “The work is so much fun. I’m happy to double it up socially.” After all, he says, “what are we really doing here, but telling stories?”


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