EnviroMedia founder Valerie Davis is out to kill the ‘eco-friendly’ movement.
By Jennifer Hill Robenalt, Photos by Cody Hamilton
Valerie Davis created her first successful social-marketing campaign more than 40 years ago.
“When I was in the second grade, I won a poster contest. It was for fire prevention. I got out my crayons and I drew a picture of this house with a raging fire. And my caption was ‘Someone played with matches.’ I think I won five dollars for it,” Davis remembers.
And so it began.
EnviroMedia Social Marketing offers a comprehensive spectrum of communications services, including branding, advertising, market research, strategic development, marketing and public relations. In fact, it was recently named Austin’s largest PR agency in the Austin Business Journal’s 2012 Book of Lists. But CEO Davis, who co-founded the agency with long-time business partner Kevin Tuerff, isn’t out to rule the world. She just wants to change it.
“I remember attending a national advertising conference in the late ’90s and people talking about actually having advertising working with public relations on comprehensive campaigns. And we’ve had it all under one roof from the get go,” Davis says. “As a matter of fact, when we started EnviroMedia, we were thinking we’d just be PR because we started out with a big PR project, creating America Recycles Day. And then the big turning point for us advertising-wise was winning Don’t Mess With Texas.”
EnviroMedia is a uniquely Austin concept. Launched in 1988, it’s a thriving business occupying 18,000 square feet in Hartland Plaza near downtown, employing more than 70 of the best and brightest communications talents anywhere. What makes it a bit of an anomaly is that Davis is not the least bit interested in selling people things they don’t need. In fact, the business model demands the exact opposite.
“We don’t want to sell travel for an airline or sell hamburgers or shoes, but if you have a sustainability story to tell authentically, we can do that,” Davis says. “We can work on anything, from breast-feeding promotion to flu protection for expectant moms to infant-mortality prevention. Tobacco prevention we’ve been working on for 12 years, and emergency preparedness.”
Davis is stylish and calm, with a confident disposition. She’s at ease with herself, possessing an air of the authority earned after reaching the top of her field in the town she deeply loves. When she decided to “go niche” with environmental marketing, colleagues warned her it might be a huge risk. But she didn’t see it that way. In fact, it seemed like concentrating on the environment was the only way to successfully compete in Austin’s complex marketplace.
The EnviroMedia office is a maze of showrooms celebrating sustainable design, featuring repurposed furniture and art, tools for healthy living and the promise that small changes can make a big impact. But it’s not at all show, or a place where frivolous perks are handed out to potential new hires. There’s a strategy to the life of the company, which promotes well-being, good health and service among employees by offering daily workouts, time for community service work during the work week and a kitchen abundantly stocked with fresh, organic produce. For any self-respecting professional who ever struggled with the question, “Is this all there is?” EnviroMedia has created a professional utopia where performance, profitability, purpose and passion are all valued in equal measure.
How Green Is Green?
EnviroMedia now has a sister office in Portland, OR, another wildly environmentally conscious city, which seems like the perfect market for what Davis is trying to sell: the art of living. Both in Austin and now Portland, Davis’ focus is to redefine, through the company’s many campaigns, what being “green” really means. To Davis, simply saying you’re eco-friendly just isn’t enough. You have to walk the walk.
“Look at our company name,” Davis points out. “People see EnviroMedia and assume all our clients are green. In fact, the majority of our campaigns are about public health, things like tobacco prevention, immunizations, texting and driving, and obesity prevention.”
For Davis, the definition of “environment” requires an updated way of thinking.
“Infrastructure is the intersection of health and the environment,” Davis says. “A walkable city with bikeways, public transportation and carsharing gets us driving less, which is good for air quality and for our health.”
And, according to Davis, it’s a little too easy to just call yourself green.
“Green has hijacked the word ‘environment.’ It’s time to go back to the dictionary definition of ‘environment,’ which is our surroundings. That’s air quality, water conservation, recycling, and it’s also food we eat, infrastructure, access to health care and, yes, the advertising we take in,” Davis says.
By 2007, almost 10 years after the company launched, a flood of green marketing began to make its way in to the public conversation. While it was a welcome change after years of working on environmental campaigns, Davis saw a potentially dangerous precedent being set where no one seemed to really understand the truth about environmental responsibility, and everyone wanted to cash in a socially conscious marketing vehicle.
“There were suddenly tons of mainstream, expensive marketing campaigns from corporations talking about how green they are, which was great. It’s about time. And then there were a lot of bad actors, so we said, ‘Let’s put our stake in the ground,’ and that’s when we created the Greenwashing Index.”
The Greenwashing Index is an initiative developed by EnviroMedia and co-promoted by the University of Oregon. It’s an online space where people can rate and share information about companies who claim to be green. Although more companies are flying an environmentally friendly flag proudly, the truth is that they may not really being doing much of anything to earn that green status. According to Davis, it’s about working on client campaigns in a marketplace that’s honest and authentic.
Now Davis and Tuerff are using the success of the Greenwashing Index to extend in to the realm of authentic food marketing with a Leanwashing Index. This new index is another powerful watchdog tool designed to keep the food, restaurant, beverage, fitness and diet industries honest about what they’re selling to customers. The goal is to deflate the importance of marketing phrases like “natural,” “low calorie” and “made with.” But are these campaigns really making a difference in the way people live and work? And is change happening quickly enough to do any good?
“Yes and no,” Davis says. “For example, since launching the Water IQ conservation campaign in 2005, our client [North Texas Municipal Water District] has been able to curb projected peak-day water use by an estimated 200 million gallons every year despite a 49 percent population growth. But politics, budgets and priorities are barriers that slow down change for our clients and us.”
And that’s one area where Davis and EnviroMedia will never tread: politics. While it’s clear that Davis’ life’s work centers on protecting the environment, both in the areas of public health and the natural world, public affairs will never be a service she offers.
“In everything we do here, it’s something to promote public health or the environment. There is a common ground. And so it doesn’t do us any good to go extreme right or left. Our job is to find that common ground on behalf of our clients,” Davis says. “We are bridge builders.”
Davis a self-proclaimed “Air Force brat” who was born in Illinois. But her first childhood memories are of Okinawa, Japan. Her family moved throughout the country, then back to the States. They set up house in San Antonio, North Dakota, Alabama and upstate New York. Eventually, Davis graduated from high school in the Philippines. She put down roots in Austin in 1981 when she enrolled in the journalism program at the University of Texas. Staying in one place was a welcome change for a young woman easily uprooted most of her life.
She met Tuerff when they both worked in the alumni office at UT. They brought in Tuerff to do PR, and the two eventually worked together at the Texas Natural Resource and Conservation Commission. On Feb. 10, 1997, they decided to go all in and launch Tuerff-Davis EnviroMedia.
“Valerie is first a great friend, and we joke that we’ve been working together longer than most marriages last,” Tuerff explains. “We share a lot of values in terms of what we’re passionate about and how hard we work, and really trying to create a company that makes a difference. Within the culture here that we have, Valerie’s really been great about transforming the lives of people who work here so that they really understand the importance of health on a personal level.”
Davis lives with her partner, Millie Salinas, who is now the director of Hispanic marketing at EnviroMedia. In the first days of EnviroMedia, Salinas encouraged Davis to take that leap of faith to start one of Austin’s most successful homegrown companies.
“We had been together a couple of years by this point, and good thing she had a good job because we went awhile without getting paid. She didn’t even blink either,” Davis says. “And I said, ‘If this falls through, and it very well could, I want to just move to Taos and I’ll wait tables and write.’ ”
That never happened.
It’s her leadership style that attracts long-time friends and colleagues who share her enthusiasm for improving people’s lives. VP Tamala Barksdale believes Davis’ work ethic is contagious. After Tuerff and Davis left TNRCC, where Barksdale worked, she began a three-year campaign to get a job with the new company, which was located in a small office at 501 Studios in East Austin. The two principals had an intern, an admin and even shared a desk. It would take awhile.
“I always have to up my game. She’s so good at what she does. I don’t want to disappoint and she’s incredibly smart,” Barksdale says. “Her standards are always really high in a great way. It makes your work better. But we also have fun.”
Twenty-five years after meeting Tuerff and 16 years after launching EnviroMedia, Davis is happy with the work her team has produced and the difference EnviroMedia has made in the lives of Austinities, Texans and people throughout the world.
“It’s not our aim to be the largest. Kevin and I did not get in this business to manage people. We love our people and their passion and loyalty and galvanizing everyone. But it’s about the work that we love, and so we just want to be the best and make a difference,” Davis explains.
But what really keeps her going, and how does she continue to energize her staff?
“I’ve been telling our people at the end of the day, ‘Don’t forget. We’re saving babies, OK?’ ” she says.