Ted Davis, Principal at Davis Communications Management
If you’re a denizen of St. Paul, then you might recognize Ted Davis, as he is often seen trundling along the city sidewalks, on his way from one meeting to another. (If you hang out at CoCo St. Paul, then there’s a good chance you know Ted, who is one of the first CoCo members.) Ted is a fixture in St. Paul. He’s a known quantity in the Capitol, City Hall and other places of power—not because he participates in high-handed politics or anything like that—but because he works in the city on causes he cares about. Do that for enough years and you tend to develop a reputation. But success is rarely a linear path. And in this podcast, Ted was willing to talk about some of the bumps he’s encountered since he hung his shingle 17 years ago. Give a listen (or scan the transcript below) for an insight into the life and work of a grizzled PR veteran!
Show notes: selected links from the episode:
Connect with Ted:
Linkedin: Ted Davis
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
Don [D]: Alright. Welcome to Episode Four of the CoCo Dreamcast, where we talk to members to find out what makes them tick and what their dreams and aspirations are. For this episode, we’re going “old school” – nothing personal, Ted.
Ted [T]: [laughs]
D: We have Ted Davis: the proprietor, the owner, the chief bottle washer of Davis Communications, and one of our earliest CoCo members. We were just talking – are you number two, could you be number one? There’s a bunch of names that come up of people who were here in the first days, but we won’t dwell on that too much – we have good memories, but it’s not a contest, either. We sometimes talk at CoCo HQ about how the newest members are as important as the oldest members; that it’s not a club, we’re not trying to create a “Bull Boys Club,” or anything like that. So, to that extent, it’s great to have people who’ve been here long, but we’re always looking for more. So, maybe how you define business, right? – it’s always good to have new clients.
T: Yes, it’s great to have new clients – I love new clients. I’ve also got a lot of long-term clients that I work with.
D: Can you tell us something about what you do?
D: What’s your elevator speech when someone says, “Oh, you’re in communications – what is that?”
T: Well, indeed, I am a public relations and public affairs consulting firm. That can mean a lot of different things. I think, really, what I do for my clients is: I help them get their stuff done. And often, that includes the traditional use of media relations that you often see in public relations, but it’s a lot of connecting the dots. I help people find the people who are either “barriers” or “helpers” in helping things get done, particularly in the public affairs space. So, working at the connection between business, not-for-profits, and government; to move programs forward, to connect them to contracts, to make sure that barriers are removed so that my clients can do what they want to do.
D: And who are some of your clients that you can tell us?
T: Currently, I’m working with the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority. I work with the Saint Paul Public Schools, with a number of corporations, and I work with the League of Minnesota Cities on issues that cities occasionally face. In the past, I’ve really worked in higher education. I have worked, again, with regulated industries that have dealings with government, and I work with government agencies that have dealings with regulating companies, trying to make things happen, typically in the East Metro – typically in Saint Paul, but really all over the state of Minnesota.
D: And do you have a certain pull or cache? – is there kind of a sweet spot for you where you can do good work, where people tend to think of you?
T: Yeah, I think people connect me with Saint Paul; I’ve connect myself with Saint Paul over the course of my career. But, also, organizations that are going to the legislature that need help; organizations that are going to cities that need permits – government agencies, or not-for-profit agencies, that need to build grassroots support for whatever it is that they’re trying to do. So, it’s pretty much the space that I work in.
D: Do you feel like there are limits in who you would feel comfortable working with? Let’s say Monsanto shows up and says, “Well, there’s a lot of pressure against us and our GMOs, and whatever other evil techniques we have…”
D: “…We’re torturing farmers, we really need help with moving something through legislature,” or something like that. Would you feel okay with that? Or do you have a philosophy about that? –like: “everybody deserves representation.”
T: No, I look at all the cases; I’ve turned down work.
T: I’ve turned down work on issues that either I couldn’t personally support, or that I just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to support; I try to be real honest about that kind of thing. If somebody comes to me and asks for help and I can’t help them – either because I don’t have the capacity, or it’s not an area where I feel I have enough expertise, or it’s just not something I want to do – I typically help them find someone else to do it…because, I do believe everyone needs representation, but there are some things that I am really not the best person to represent them. Certainly, let a prospective client know that.
D: Fair enough. So, two part question here – One: how long have you been at this?
T: Well, I’ve been in my business, Davis Communications Management, since August of 1998. So, we’re in my 17th year here.
D: Okay, great.
T: Over the course of that time, I’ve merged the business into larger businesses; I demerged it from them, I’ve taken on some interim executive positions over the time. But, the constant has always been Davis Communications, since 1998. Prior to that, I worked for six years as the Communications Director for the Saint Paul Public Housing Agency, working around affordable housing issues in Saint Paul. Following my time at the PHA, I worked for the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce for three years, in both the communications and a grassroots organizing job.
D: Wow. So you’re known in all five boroughs, as they say…
T: I’ve, uh…
D: …if Saint Paul had boroughs. [laughs]
T: We’ve been around in Saint Paul.
D: That’s great. Well, so the second part of that question: With that much time in the game – we’re probably the same age, I’m not trying to say you’re old – but there’s something about having time in the game that breeds a certain level of confidence. I’m wondering if that’s part of what makes you comfortable being able to turn down work and say, “Hey, this isn’t a good fit” – like, you don’t have that desperate pull when you’re first starting out; it’s get whatever work you can get your hands on, you know?
T: Well, anyone who’s started a business knows that the first words that you say when anyone approaches you are: “YES, absolutely, I’ll do that!” Then, figure out how to get it done. And yeah, I do have less urgency; I have a really good sense of who it is I can help, and a really good sense of where I can be of value. Sometimes what I do is pretty nuanced, and I sometimes have to explain why I’m of value. But, no, the work that’s come to me, over the last 10 years or so, has been largely on referral – largely, people who know me; sometimes, people in crisis – I do a fair amount of crisis communications, and they get referred to me. And when you’ve been around that long, you do develop a reputation; you do develop some connections, and you can’t let them go cold on it, obviously. But, if you spend a lot of time doing similar things in a really good market, people know where to find you – and I know how to be found.
D: So it’s a little bit of a meritocracy: when you do good work, you tend to get good work referred to you.
T: Absolutely. I would recommend to anybody beginning any business, including this kind of consulting: be known. The real secret to long-term success in this business is to do good job after good job after good job, and be known for that. And that’s it – yeah, it is a meritocracy; you build a reputation, and then you protect your reputation.
D: Given that you have a bit of a glimpse into how people often make the decisions to hire somebody like you, imagine one of your kids is out of school; maybe they’ve been through their first job, and they’re like, “I’m ready to go independent.” How would you advise somebody who’s just starting out? – Because that’s a tough space to be in.
T: It is. You know, early on – in any career that involves politics and bringing lots of people together – you look around and go: “Man, why isn’t it about what you know? Why isn’t it that meritocracy? I know how to do all of this, but it looks like it’s who you know.” It’s both. I mean, it’s very important to have the base skills, and have done the good work. It’s also very important to network and know people. That’s one of the beauties of the CoCo community. One of the things that’s really made it work for me is I get to sit here and have this parade of really interesting people and interesting businesses go by; I get to chat with them and we get to talk to one another. Occasionally a need arises out of that; either mine – I know somebody who can do a website or somebody who really understands word press, because I’m sitting here at CoCo – or theirs. I’ve earned a fair amount of business out of CoCo, largely because people know who I am and people have an opportunity to talk with me; a need arises and there I am.
D: That’s great, that warms my heart. I remember Dave Allen awhile back – remember Dave?
T: Oh, yeah.
D: He once pulled me aside and said, “You know, you guys undersell yourselves.” I go, “What do you mean?” He says, “It’s just simple: you come to CoCo and you get work.” And I said, “Well, I’m really reluctant to say that, because it’s very promissory,” you know? It might not work for everybody. But, I’m really glad to hear when it is working for people, because I would like that to be the case, most of the time; that’s the Woody Allen role, right? – 90 percent of life is just showing up.
D: I think there’s something to that – when you see the person who’s just in, day in and day out; they look like they’re working, that they’re dedicated. That becomes a person you have a little confidence in; that if you maybe refer them, or even hire them, they’re going to show up for you, too. There’s just something about being seen on a regular basis that seems to infer something for people.
T: About three months ago now, I was going to do a presentation for a trade association in Savannah, Georgia. I looked at my website and it was stale; I needed to really tweak it so that it was focused specifically on supporting litigation with communications and public relations. I’m looking at my website, and I look across the table, and I see Dan Lynch. I say, “Dan, there’s a problem with my website. Can you talk to me about it?” He comes around the table. A couple of hours later, I have the new improved website and an invoice. It’s fantastic!
T: And it really worked out really.
D: He totally revamped it within a few hours.
T: Yeah. He did some great work for me, and he did exactly what I needed at the time that I needed it. Why? Because he sat across the table from me – that’s awesome.
D: As a plug for Dan we’ll his URL into the show notes.
T: He did great work for me.
D: [laughs] That’s awesome. Over the years you’ve shared some stories with me. My own experience of having tried to take up personal consultancy and scale it up – it’s a different kind of business when you do that; and hiring other people, then trying to make sure you can job out their hours and keep the whole machine running. So, I’m just curious, could you just run through that real quick? – What was it that you did back in the day, and how did that turn out?
T: You bet. About 2002, I merged my business into a larger existing public relations business, hired a fair number of people that I knew – and knew well – and we built quite an operation. We were cooking there for a time, and then it stopped. You know, it stopped cooking; it stopped doing what I needed it to do for me.
D: For you, personally.
T: For me personally, yep. I looked to my work – and it’s how I spend most of my time, Don. So it’s really gotta be something that matters to me. I looked around and I said, “You know what? – This isn’t where I want to be.” And so we–
D: Was it that you became a manager of other people, as opposed to being like the craftsman; the practitioner?
T: Well, I spent a lot of time managing people, and they were great people. I loved the camaraderie, I loved having that. But, it also changed your motivations; I needed to feed the machine, the machine is hungry, and–
D: [laughs] It comes every two weeks, the payroll.
T: Right. So you end up taking the work that you need to do to feed the machine. I thought – when I was working on my own, and building independent teams around projects – I didn’t have to take everything that came, or I didn’t have to look to the larger projects. I worked it out, unmerged, got out, and re-incorporated; and since then, have really been able to build really effective teams that are very focused on the very specific needs of the client. I need a web person, I go get a web person; I need someone who has very specific media relations contacts, I can go get that person. I do a lot of work with a friend of mine named Mike Zibko, who’s very, very good at media relations. He’s fantastic, and we do a lot of work together as a result. So, the model – and it’s a model that I see evident all over CoCo – is: people identifying a need that a client has, and finding exactly the right people to meet their needs. I find that’s a model that clients appreciate. It’s funny, because we have all of the capabilities of any of the larger agencies. I have access to some very, very senior talent – I’m senior talent myself. You can build a public affairs, or a public relations operation, on behalf of a client’s specific problem that way. It’s hard to get that communicated off in the large corporations; kings want to talk to kings. That’s, I think, the barrier to this business model: getting the degree of confidence, from the larger clients, that you’re capable of operating in this – in the same corporate spaces as they’re in. And that’s part of, I think, the business proposition that larger agencies offer. You can look at a large agency and be inside a corporation and say, “Yep, I get that.” For people who do what we’re doing, that’s the challenge – and it’s often a substantial challenge. But, once you start working with an organization with the very specific team that they need for that very specific problem, I think they begin to understand.
D: So if you have a chance to perform for them, then–
D: . . . then, perhaps, they start to develop some confidence that, “Oh, as their RFP, it’s a state.” At the point of getting an RFP and deciding if you want to respond to it, I suppose sometimes you think if the client’s of a certain size, you’re like, oh, boy, I don’t know.
T: Yeah, and hey, RFPs are a good example of something where you’ve really got to decide: is that client going to see the value in a series of names, or is just one name going to be what they buy?
D: Yeah, maybe they want one person to strangle…
D: …You know; one firm to go after.
D: Yeah, and (inaudible) Eric Hanson; he’s kind of been a member, and he isn’t anymore – I’m not sure, but you see him around and then you don’t. I assume he continues working on his business, but I know he’s talked quite a bit about not responding to RFPs. I remember back in my day, too, that RFPs were a thing where I figured that the more boutique-y you are, the less you feel like that’s a process that really returns anything for you – or that you want to spend your time following.
T: Well, and quite often, you end up giving away all the good stuff in the RFP. There are a lot of good writers around; there are a lot of good media relations people around, there are a lot of good website developers, and all of the other specialties that are a part of the communications business. The difference is strategy, and the difference is how you put a frame over what it is you’re going to do for the client; very often they ask for that for free, in the RFP. It’s a lot of work, and it’s a lot of the value that you bring to the project. That may work if you’ve got a team of people that you can put on to deliver the tactics; but, really, if you’re hiring me, you’re looking for the strategic thought behind it.
D: Yeah. You need to do that on a spec.
T: And I can’t give that away for free.
D: No, exactly.
T: That’s the value.
D: Exactly. That’s interesting. Going back to when you got out of that – the firm that you had joined – do you feel like you paid a price, personally, for that? Did you have to go back to square one? I mean, what was that like?
T: There was a real lesson in that for me in that – no, it really wasn’t. I stepped out, had a client, got more clients as we were doing that, and that’s been one of the real advantages of the kind of business that I’m operating now; I’ve had a couple of opportunities to step into interim positions. I was the interim Director of Marketing and Public Affairs for the Saint Paul Visitors Bureau.
D: I remember that, because…what was it? – The group at–
T: Right. I was the interim President of Midway Chamber of Commerce.
D: Midway Chamber, yeah – because you had all those good recommendations for Vietnamese restaurants.
T: Right, right.
D: Which was awesome; that made that work very valuable. [laughs]
T: I spent a lot of time eating in restaurants along University Avenue. You can do that with this kind of business; most of what I’m doing is project based. So, you can start it, you can stop it, you can keep it, you can keep it going, you can step back into it. But, the issue for clients in that situation is: when they need you, they need you. I do a fair amount of crisis work; being comfortable not taking that work – while I’ve got an interim position, or work with the organization where I have an interim position – to say, “There are a couple of clients who come to me when they really need me, and I’d like to be able to manage around that,” is very important.
D: So you can get crunched sometimes, I suppose.
T: Right, right. And that, too, is a danger in this business. Because, when you’ve got a fair amount of crisis work – critical situations, things that have to be solved right now – and they all happen at the same time–
D: And they do. [laughs]
T: It happens. And, fortunately, I’ve been able to manage through that when it happens. Again, the real value that I bring is 30 years of experience solving immediate critical situation communication problems. Including writing, publications, managing time – I can really staff up pretty quickly with those partners that I’ve talked about before, and get the job done.
D: Yeah, yeah – very cool. I think you’ve hinted as much, but I wanted to ask you a little bit about what motivates you in this kind of work. Obviously, some people are about the money; other folks, it’s about impact – or they’re feeling like they’re really contributing something to the world; some folks, it’s just life, so I want to control it. I feel like I’ve heard some elements in all this, but how do you describe what keeps you fresh and motivated, and enthused in your work?
T: Well, I’m really fortunate in that regard. I get to work in a community that really matters a lot to me – in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and often, St. Paul. [St Paul] is where I live, it’s where I’ve decided to raise my family, it’s a place where I’ve got enough depth of knowledge that I can get things done in these communities. So, working for clients like the St. Paul Public Schools, the mayor’s office, the Ramsey County, the League of Minnesota Cities, really does get me a lot of satisfaction. I do make a good living, but I also get to solve problems that need to be solved. I get to help people who I know are doing really, really good work. And, every now and again, I get to see something that has a real impact on my community. When I was working at the Chamber of Commerce a signature project, during that time, was legislative approval of bonding for a hockey arena that became the Xcel Energy Center. We really dumped all of ourselves into that project for about six months; grassroots organizing, bringing people to the table, giving a voice to people who really wanted that to happen on the basis of organizing the hockey community; organizing our own economic development community, knowing that that building would be a catalyst for significant economic growth in downtown St. Paul. And we won. It was a really hard fight, but we got the bonding that we needed to get that project done. And I get to drive by that building every day. I got to bring my son, when he was very young, around to watch them tear down the old civic center and replace it with that – “Your old man got to be a part of that.” I really do feel an ownership of that; and if I can make a living while doing that – awesome.
D: That’s really cool. That’s really cool. So one thing I’m curious about…With some of our members, there’s so much good – there’s so many good books, links, and ideas – that get passed around between members. Everybody kind of grazes somewhere unique and different to find their inspiration and ideas. If you ever listen to the Tim Ferris broadcast, he always asks people, “What’s the book that you’ve given out as a gift the most often?” But I’m curious, and maybe a spiff on that is: what’s a book that you feel like has been, for your business, or just your intellectual kind of thought, influential for you?
T: Yeah. I keep a copy with me a lot of the time; I do give it away to a lot of people. Because, in this business, it really is about making sure that others are lifted up, and making sure that large groups of people come together to get things done; which means you gotta be really comfortable with disappearing into the project. I think the people who are most successful in what we do are probably people you haven’t heard of. They’re probably people who can bring people together to do good in the community. I always turn to that when you look at a project; I described the Xcel Energy Center project – is my name on that? No. Am I the only one who made it happen? No. It was just a large group effort to bring something really good to a place that really needed it. And I think the DOW is a wonderful guide to that kind of thing.
D: Very, very cool. Are there any blogs or podcasts that you tend to come back to, or–
T: Honestly, no. [laughs] I don’t–
D: You’re blog free. [laughs]
T: Yeah, I’m nearly blog free. And it’s probably to my detriment. There are enormous amounts of knowledge that are being spread around that way.
D: Well, you know, it can be argued that if your stuff is in producing, you don’t have as much time to ingest and intake – because you’re in production mode.
T: Or maybe I’m just spending a lot of time on Facebook and reading celebrity gossip, I don’t know.
D: [laughs] I haven’t seen you do that…How long do you think you could keep doing this?
T: You know, every year I ask that question. Every year there are some opportunities to do some real good. Part of the reason that CoCo works really well for me is because of the noise; because of the sound around me. I really like building teams, and there’s probably the building of a big team yet ahead of me somewhere down the line. I like that. I think there are lots of opportunities around the kinds of grassroots organizing and strategic communications projects that I do to get things done. I like to work around transportation projects. I did a lot of community outreach in organizing work on what became the Green Line, the light rail line between downtown St. Paul and downtown.
D: That must have been many years ago, right? – Because, if you figure, they’ve spent the last five years building it.
T: Yeah, it was in the early 2000s. Well, shoot – I wrote for the Minnesota Daily in the mid-80s and I wrote articles about the light rail line that was going to be built on University Avenue.
T: Yeah, there’s a real good example of something that takes a lot of people and a lot of time. So, I think there’s a team to build ahead of me; I think there’s that opportunity.
D: Very cool, very cool. Well, I’d be curious to know what kind of project it would be that’s going to actually get you to set aside the consulting and jump into that; it would have to be something special, I’d say.
T: It would be.
D: You know, something that you feel like it’s a legacy thing.
T: Yeah. There’ve been so many of those kinds of projects; the things that I did with the University of Minnesota to get bonding for the art building, and the education sciences building, and these–
D: Was that the arts building that’s over on the West Bank?
T: Yeah, Regis Center for the Arts.
D: Yeah, my daughter – her dorm was right next to that; that’s a cool place.
T: It’s a magnificent place, and unlike the previous building, it’s not dangerous to the students. [laughs]
T: It’s a great, great building – and it’s another one that I get to show to my kids.
D: Well, that’s really cool. That’s really cool. Well, Ted, this is about our half hour. We’re trying to be merciful upon the listeners and not let things go long; although, they could, because we’ve had many beer sessions where you could stay all day and all night and just chat. If you like talking ideas, there’s a few people, and I could name them all – the ones I know at each of the locations – who you can really get kind of lost in thought, and exploration, and ideas. And you’re one of them.
T: Well, thank you. Thank you.
D: And we’ll try to track the rest of them down, too, because you know they’re all dangerous.
D: Not quite.
T: But having had those conversations with many of those people here is – it’s also turned into business.
D: Yeah, which is awesome.
T: It’s also turned into some of the most satisfying things I’ve done over the last five years.
D: That’s great, that’s great to hear. We have an intern right now from St. Olaf; a really bright fellow named Sagey Cataldo. I was explaining to him about coworking, because he’s still in college. I said the thing that strikes me about this coworking environment is that when you’re in college, you get to be around a bunch of people whose minds are busy, expanding and popping. It’s not everybody in college, but there’s always a subset of people who are really into the material and are having their minds blown; those people love to get together and talk, and they’re all different majors and stuff. It’s cross-disciplinary, and once you get out of college, in the work world, your boss doesn’t want to have that conversation with you; your coworkers don’t – they’re all busy thinking about their dogs, and their mortgages, and–
T: It’s expense, yeah.
D: Once you get out of college, you don’t have that intellectual, iron against iron, kind of experience – until you come to something like CoCo. And if that stimulates you, having those kinds of conversations, you’ll find those people.
T: Well, I think those are the successful workplaces, too…where you can have that; where that thought time is built into it so you can be smarter and better at what you do – for the customer, for the client, for your colleagues – as a way to make growing a business something that they care about.
D: Yeah. So, it’s good – and it’s been fun hanging out with you, and thanks for being a victim on our podcast. [laughs]
T: Very excited, thanks.
D: Alright, Ted…Well, thanks for listening to another CoCo Dreamcast. We’re trying to up our game, here, with the help of Garrio Harrison, who’s kind of our producer. So, you may notice that the sound has improved over four episodes. And, on top of that, we have a closing script, which we’re going to give a shot here. So, if you liked this podcast, please visit our website for more episodes and transcripts. We get each episode transcribed so we can have some techs there and maybe help some of our participants on the Google search side of things. Leave a comment; tell us what you found most inspiring and useful. The URL is: cocomsp.com/dreamcast. And, while you’re there, let us know the kinds of people you’d like us to profile in the coming weeks. We’re really open; we’re not just looking for startups, or consultants, but we will probably talk to a lot of both. We’re also interested in anything else. I think the general thrust of this has been, and will continue to be, trying to understand what makes people tick; their journey of independence, self-employment, self-direction – what that journey’s been, what motivates them, what are they striving for, and what kind of dreams they’re pursuing. And then, finally, if you are at the website, you can join our mailing list and we’ll be sending out updates on new episodes and other CoCo news. Again, that’s cocomsp.com. Thanks a lot for listening and we’ll see you on the next podcast.
About the CoCo DreamCast
Our goal for the CoCo DreamCast is pretty straightforward: we want to talk to CoCo members, find out what makes them tick and learn how they’re living out their dreams. Look for another episode soon!