Valerie Davis is a fat cat. And she’s quite content to be so. In fact, it’s a distinction that this co-founder of Enviromedia Social Marketing, along with her business partner Kevin Tuerff and their 50 employees, dons proudly. After all, FAT CAT is an acronym for fun, accountability, teamwork, creativity, accuracy and trust, all values held dear at Enviromedia.
Today, Enviromedia is the nation’s only full-service advertising and public relations agency working solely on projects related to the environment, public health and social issues. And it all started with … trash.
In the late 1980s, after Davis had graduated from the University of Texas with a journalism degree and was working for the UT Alumni Association, fate brought Tuerff in to her life.
“I had my own office then, and I’ll never forget the day that the executive director told me we were hiring for a PR position. We hired Kevin and it turns out we had to share an office,” Davis says. “We hit it off the very first day. We realized we have a lot in common. We worked together a couple of years there and one day Kevin said, ‘We should start our own agency some day.’”
Soon after, Tuerff went to work for what’s now the Texas Commission on Environmental
Quality, and Davis began working with the Texas Department of Transportation. But when the TCEQ launched its Clean Texas environmental leadership program, Tuerff hired Davis as the campaign coordinator, and the two began, once again, blazing an environmental trail. They started Texas Recycles Day, a statewide public awareness campaign aimed at educating Texans about the benefits of waste reduction and recycling. It was such a hit that several years later Davis and Tuerff set their sights on creating America Recycles Day, an outlet that enabled the two to finally open the environ- mental-based ad agency they dreamt about.
Enviromedia as an agency began its life in 1997, and after landing local grocer HEB as a client and picking up a contract from the city of Fort Worth for a household-hazardous-waste-collection campaign, Davis and Tuerff were well on their way to changing the landscape of the ad agency world.
Then, a year later, with only four full-time employees, Enviromedia put in a bid for the Don’t Mess With Texas campaign, which had been created by Austin behemoth GSD&M and solely handled by that agency for 12 years. It was an opportunity made for Enviromedia.
“We couldn’t have asked for a more primo environmental-education campaign,” Davis emphasizes. “Our initial goal was just to make the short list and be a finalist.”
But the company’s pitch, which included a simulated adopted highway stage set and actual bags of litter, really hit home with TxDOT, and Enviromedia won the account.
“Things changed for us overnight when that happened,” Davis says. “The phone started ringing off the hook. Winning Don’t Mess With Texas all of a sudden legitimized us as the environmental agency.”
Throughout the years, Enviromedia has faced its share of business challenges, but Tuerff
says the company has been able to thrive,thanks,inpart,to the bond he and Davis have formed.
“We’ve never really disagreed much in terms of where to take the business,” he says. “We’ve learned to compromise with each other. … Family is a good analogy for us. We’ve lived through tough times and we’ve celebrated great times, and that’s strengthened our relationship and our business at the same time.”
Davis and Tuerff also share a rare distinction as business owners: they are both gay. But this is far from causing strife, Tuerff contends.
“You don’t often see many gay men working with lesbians in a business setting,” he says. “There’s a stereotype that gays and lesbians don’t get along, but I’ve had the opposite experience of that, and encourage others to be more open-minded. It’s been nothing but positive for both of us.”
A full decade after Enviromedia was established and the company was growing at a rapid but controlled pace, the world suddenly caught up. Within a short period of time, the advertising and marketing industry was all abuzz about “going green.” It seemed nearly every other TV commercial boasted a company’s green products or environmentally safe practices. But with little oversight, the green marketing trend was in danger of quickly spiraling out of control. Before long, consumers wouldn’t be able to differentiate between advertisers that were using authentically green practices, and those that were simply jumping on the green bandwagon.
“I gave a presentation at Leadership Austin and I used the word ‘greenwashing’ to describe this phenomenon, but nobody knew the term,” Davis says. “That’s kind of how we came up with the idea to create the Greenwashing Index. It was a great way to teach consumers how to be savvy about buying green.”
According to the Greenwashing Index website, greenwashing occurs when “a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be green through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environ- mental impact. It’s whitewashing, but with a green brush.” On the site, users are able to submit and rate companies’ green ads, as well as read the comments of other users, all with the goal of creating more awareness among consumers and eventually making advertisers accountable for their green claims. Though only months old, the Greenwashing Index already has about 100 ads ranked, and more are being added every day. The site has helped establish Enviromedia as a national expert in greenwashing, and Davis was even featured in an interview about the subject on the “Today Show.” Also, Enviromedia recently launched a new subsidiary called Green Canary Sustainability Consulting in order to help businesses craft credible strategies and reach their goals in the booming green marketing world.
While Davis says she and Tuerff don’t consider themselves environmental tyrants (the two have a common saying: “We’re not tree huggers, but we can put you in touch with some.”), they do practice what they preach. Enviromedia’s motto, after all, is “change starts here.” To that end, the Enviromedia office is about as environmentally friendly as it can be. The company’s floors and wallpaper are made of cork that has been harvested from the bark of organically farmed trees, the walls are lacquered with low-level VOC paints, the carpeting is made from recycled nylon, the desks and chairs are made from recy- cled materials, and the office’s walls include steel framing and wallboard containing recycled and reclaimed content. Additionally, the company minimizes packaging in its client designs and has even adopted two Central Texas highways that Enviromedia employees help clean and maintain.
“Our philosophy is that everyone should do what they can when they can,” Davis urges. “Every little bit helps.”
Maintaining a green office is certainly a task, and one Davis and Tuerff have risen to. But maintaining an environmentally friendly home can present a whole other world of problems. Still, Davis and her partner of 13 years, Millie Salinas, have accepted the challenge head-on.
Five years ago, when the couple decided to build their dream home in the Hill Country region known as Ruby Ranch, they obviously had their minds set on building in as green a manner as possible. Salinas is from Durango, Mexico, and she and Davis longed to design a home that reflected Mexican characteristics, an enviro-hacienda of sorts. After collaborating with an architect on their ideal design, the women sought bids from three separate builders, but once the bids came in, Davis and Salinas were bothered to learn that not one addressed the idea of using green materials.
“At that point we said, ‘If we’re going to do this right, we’re going to have to do it ourselves,’” Davis remembers. So Salinas quit her job with the city of Austin, and became the project manager for their home build. It was a lot of difficult work, but Salinas was able to incorporate all kinds of green-building materials and applications including aerated concrete, stucco, plaster walls, real clay tile roofing, fly ash in the concrete foundation, Saltillo tile floors and magnificent reclaimed Chicago brick.
The result is a strikingly charming, 3,500- square-foot villa with a wrap-around courtyard, seemingly endless outdoor patio space and legions of gorgeous plants and flowers. Inside, oversized wooden doors inset with the most dazzling handmade stained-glass scenes lead from the kitchen and the master bathroom, and are as much art as they are passageways. And the home’s high ceilings, arches and wrought-iron doors are so enchanting that they virtually transport visitors to a posh Mexican resort. (Salinas’ ambrosial homemade margaritas help complete the effect!)
A monument to form and artistry, Davis and Salinas’ enviro-hacienda is the perfect example of how green homebuilding can serve an earth-friendly purpose while creating a warm, relaxing and handsome abode.
“One of our favorite things to do is plan a date for a Friday night, and just cook at the house,” Salinas says. “It’s a great way for us to spend time together. I love it, and it is part of what keeps us so close.”
Also keeping the couple close is their work. After completing the home project, Salinas joined the Enviromedia team, working in operations and community outreach, and “making herself indispensable,” Davis says. And though the two carpool to and from work every day, then spend countless hours together in the office and at home, they never tire of each other. Indeed, they are inseparable.
“We’ve just grown so much in our relationship,” Salinas says. “We have a lot of respect for each other and I think that’s why our relationship works. … I think Valerie has made me a better person.”
When they’re not hard at work, Davis and Salinas love to travel, particularly to locales hosting tennis events. They make the journey to New York City each year for the U.S. Open, and have a goal of attending every Grand Slam tournament.
Longer term, the women say they envision themselves spending part of their time in Austin, and part of their time living the good life in Mexico.
“It’s a bit of a fantasy,” Davis says cheerfully, “but one we embrace wholeheartedly.”