I’ve been involved with media in some capacity for 42 years. Radio, television, print, and web are all part of my career portfolio. One thing has been very clear: There is a dearth of African American professionals in the media industry, including public relations—we are underrepresented.
Alexis Davis Smith is the president and CEO of Atlanta-based PRecise Communications, an African American-owned public relations firm making a powerful mark in representing the auto industry (a beat I cover) and other big businesses. I recently spoke to Davis Smith about her pathway to success.
Black Enterprise: Alexis, you have a great story. Seventeen years ago, you walked away from one of the top 10 public relations firms in Atlanta to start your own firm, PRecise Communications. Now PRecise is spelled capital ‘P-R,’ lower case ‘e-c-i-s-e,’ so the PR in PRecise Communications is right in front of everyone.
A lot of readers of Black Enterprise are entrepreneurs in various fields, so they understand the trials of entrepreneurship. What was it like to walk away from a paycheck every two weeks and start your own public relations firm?
Alexis Davis Smith: Well, Brian, I have to say it was really a big step out on faith, it really, truly was. It was somewhat scary, but it would have been scarier for me to stay in one place. Steve Harvey talks a lot about jumping out and taking risks, and I knew that it was time for me to move on and to do my own thing. I was very happy of having the opportunity to work for one of the top 10 PR firms not only in Atlanta, but also in the world. It was a wonderful training ground for me but it was time to move on when I knew the job was eating at my soul.
I traveled the world. I worked with LL Cool J, Shakira and Prince Albert of Monaco, and several other celebrities. I spent a month in Australia. I did all these wonderful things, but it was taking away from who I wanted to be as a friend, a daughter, a sister, and a person committed to the community. When enough was enough, I decided to save my soul, jump out and start my own agency. However, I wanted to approach it differently and do it on my own terms.
BE: PRecise Communications is based in Atlanta, so you stayed at home, so to speak. How did you do it? There’s a quote in your bio from one of your former mentors, who said, “Good luck, you’ll need it. The last thing you want to do is be a multicultural agency working with 10% of a communications budget.” That’s kind of the reality for most people who reach out and take this step—starting with almost nothing. You’re not the first. You’ve certainly been successful at it, but what was it about you and about PRecise that allowed you to bridge that crucial gap to get from startup to viable, noted public relations firm?
ADS: One, is the fact that I did come from a big, international agency. Big agencies are wonderful training grounds for young PR professionals. I was able to work with some of the smartest people in the public relations industry and work on some of the biggest brands in the world. In doing so, I was able to not only build up my résumé and experience, but to also build up my contacts. My first client was Coca-Cola and that is a result of the impression I made on a project with my previous agency.
Once I got Coca-Cola, the world’s biggest brand, that opened the door to other things, but obviously we had to come in and prove ourselves and to do work that was not only creative, but also strategic and also delivered results. Most of our business comes from client referrals. We work hard to show our clients that we are their partners, invested in their business and we truly care about their business and communications objectives. I think our hard work and passion is what separates us from other agencies.
BE: What type of obstacles did you have when you first started? You landed a contract with Coca-Cola, which is pretty amazing, but are there any obstacles that you could talk about to smooth the pathway for someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?
ADS: Yes. I would say the biggest obstacle that I think most entrepreneurs experience is funding and financial stability. I was grateful that I had saved enough money that I could come out and start the business, so it wasn’t an obstacle in the beginning. However, as we’ve grown and project scales have grown, managing cash flow has become increasingly more important as it impacts everything. Fortunately, I’ve been able to self-fund and generate enough revenue to keep the business steady. However, I admit, there have been some mistakes and tough lessons learned on how to best do that.
The other challenge is competing with the big guys, the big agencies. There’s still a perception out there that bigger is better, and that’s not always the case. We pride ourselves on the fact that we are a boutique agency and that we are very hands-on. I tell prospective clients that when they get us, the team that they see in front of them upon introduction, which most of us have been in the industry for 15 years or more, will be the same people that will work on your business. We’re not going to get you in and then pass you off to someone who just graduated from college and you never see me, the president, again.
Competing against the big guys is one of the reasons that I have chosen to focus on multicultural marketing in particular. It’s proven to be a really good niche in this industry and it’s something that boutique agencies like PRecise do better than the big agencies. It’s not just our job, it’s our passion and that makes a difference.
BE: Now when you say multicultural, does that mean African American or does it mean the whole spectrum of the rainbow? Do you do marketing to Hispanic communities, Native American communities, Asian communities? What does multicultural mean for PRecise?
ADS: For PRecise, right now we focus primarily on African Americans and U.S. Hispanics, and we have since the day that we opened the doors, but I will be looking to evolve into LGBT and Asian communities as well. That’s actually something I’m working on.
BE: Your first major client was Coca-Cola. You’ve added to that portfolio by adding another major client. As a matter of fact, you have two of my favorite brands, Coca-Cola and Toyota. A ‘Coke and a smile’ and a very reliable automobile can go a long way.
BE: What do you do for Coca-Cola and what is the relationship like working with one of the top automakers in the world, Toyota?
ADS: It’s a blessing that we do have two of the biggest brands in the world. Of course everyone knows who and what Coca-Cola is, and it’s the same thing with Toyota. I have to say Toyota is not only a prestigious client to have, but it’s really a fun client to have. What we do for them is help to cultivate their relationships with African American media, consumers, as well as influential organizations. We also manage media relations outreach with African American and U.S. Hispanic media outlets, traditional as well as new media. Another objective, from the marketing perspective, is to create opportunities that will allow consumers to experience their vehicles.
When we first started working with Toyota, we were pleasantly surprised to learn more about their deep commitment to multicultural audiences, including the fact that they are the leader in ethnic consumer segments. They are the No. 1 brand among African American and Hispanics. Also, they have given back a lot in terms of scholarships and preserving history. These are stories we are delighted to tell and programs we are passionate about building.
When we develop client programs, we try to find opportunities for companies, like Toyota, to give back to the community. It’s great to get media relations exposure, it’s great to help market vehicles, but it’s also important for these companies to make a difference in the communities they serve. That’s an integral part of our counsel and strategic approach to multicultural PR because minority consumers care if companies are involved in the community. Plus, it’s just good to do good.
BE: If a company is interested in hiring a multicultural firm, what should they look for and what does PRecise offer that some of the other firms might not offer to a prospective client?
ADS: They should look for experience, their leadership, their client base, their results, as well as their relationships. But above and beyond that, I think that it’s important to look at their passion for the prospective client’s business. Passion and chemistry is important in the client/agency relationship. Although, we’re a boutique agency, we don’t go after every single opportunity that comes our way. We really look for those that would make good strategic partners and we feel passionate about their business and what they’re doing.
Usually clients see that. They like the work that we do, they know that we will deliver excellent results, but they like us as people as well because they know that we’re invested. When we talk about Toyota, we say, “Our cars.” When we talk about Coca-Cola, we say, “Our products.” We see ourselves as part of their team, and that’s important, and companies should consider that.