The Education of Mr. Davis: How Honesty, Integrity, and Technology Can Change the Game

Ron Davis looks at digital marketing the way mechanics look at a car.

Experienced mechanics will acknowledge a nice paint job, appreciate a car’s aerodynamic lines, and even geek out over certain makes and models, but until they pop the hood, they can’t evaluate a car’s true worth. This analogy makes even more sense when you see Ron. With his short-cropped and peppered hair, grizzled beard, and long-sleeve tee and denim work ensemble, Ron could easily pass for a gearhead. But his middle-aged cool is not his most striking feature. That honor goes to the quiet gravitas with which he carries himself—the serene confidence you see most often in people lucky enough to have married their passion with their work.

I’m sitting in a conference room at Firewood’s San Francisco headquarters talking with Ron about his role as the company’s SVP of technology, and his mission to build up and oversee a full-scale, in-house development and support team. It’s an interview with surprisingly few questions. Ron has ideas to share based on a career’s worth of knowledge. Learning, as he sees it, is the wellspring of his work philosophy. It’s central to his whole process—both learning from clients and helping them learn what they need to know.

“Listening is a huge part of it,” he says. “Ultimately, the client makes the decisions, so your job is to empower them to make good decisions. You can consult. You can recommend. You can explain and educate. But, even with the most complex technical issues, the client has to make the final call. So you have to understand what they need to know. And, to do that well, you have to listen, to see things through their eyes, to recognize what’s important for them—and then help them work their way through the technical details and understand what they need to understand so that they can make an informed decision.”

He pauses here as if realizing the weight of the responsibility.

“And that’s not easy. It’s a skill [that] not everybody has, and I don’t think I’m necessarily better at it than anyone else, but I’ve worked at it. Diligently.”

"Ultimately, the client makes the decisions, so your job is to empower them to make good decisions."

He clearly has ideas. Practical ones. Weighty ones. Big ones. When I ask what that looks like in practice, he tells me about his 80/20 rule. The basic premise of the 80/20 rule is this: Approximately 80% of the time, agencies are trying to keep clients happy. The other 20% is spent having difficult discussions about what’s really possible within the constraints of time, budget, and feasibility.

In Ron’s experience, the easier 80% comes at the beginning of most projects (especially technically complex ones) because you haven’t yet hit the roadblocks that inevitably pop up. Consequently, it’s during the last 20% of the project—when timelines are tight, budgets are on the verge of strain, and nerves are frayed—when reality butts heads with expectations. And, Ron points out, people tend to remember the last 20% of a project more than the first 80%. So his philosophy, his 80/20 rule, is to make a concerted effort to flip the script and have the difficult discussions up front.

“I try to get clients to really hate me and question why they hired me during the first 20% of the project,” he says, his eyes betraying his sarcasm. “Obviously, I don’t really mean hate, but I want to have the tough conversations. I want to surface as much of the pain as possible early on, because if I can get that out of the way, the work goes better. Which means we can launch on time, on budget, and make everyone happy. This is the thing I stress to my team: make sure you’re having honest and transparent conversations with the client.”

"I want to surface as much of the pain as possible early on, because if I can get that out of the way, the work goes better. Which means we can launch on time, on budget, and make everyone happy."

And that’s when it hits me. The confidence Ron exudes is there for a very simple reason: he’s honest. And, because he’s honest, he doesn’t have to contort himself by saying one thing, thinking another, and doing a third. By relying on a ballast of integrity, he’s free from the fear and frustration that hinders so many business relationships. If you shoot straight, you don’t have to fire so many shots.

Ron learned that the hard way when he rode the crest of the first dot-com boom back at the tail end of the ’90s and then watched his company lay off over 75% of its workforce when the wave crashed. He survived the cuts, but then had to figure out how to do the same work with smaller teams and dramatically smaller budgets. Getting out in front of inevitable issues, setting clear expectations, and delivering on his promises were survival mechanisms, and those lessons became the touchstone of his current methods.

When I ask why he joined Firewood, he doesn’t hesitate. “I made the mistake of talking to Juan and Lanya [Firewood’s co-founders],” he says with a wry smile. “And it was clear from the start that they want a different agency, one built on the strength of its people. At the same time, they aren’t interested in just throwing bodies at problems. They recognize that their clients could benefit, when appropriate, not from more people on an account or project, but from more creative technological solutions. They understand that tech can be the lynchpin between strategy and creative. But more than anything, I was attracted to their commitment to honesty and transparency. We share the same values. That’s hard to beat.”

He points to a recent pitch the agency did. The prospective client said their budget was just under $200,000. Firewood reviewed the scope, ran its analysis, and came in at $300,000. “And we probably won’t get it,” Ron says. “But we were honest. This client will probably get bids as low as $70,000, and they won’t necessarily understand why there’s such a large discrepancy in proposed costs across agencies. So we explained it in our pitch. We made it clear that to reach the goals they were targeting, this is what it will actually cost, regardless of what others are promising. As I said before, you have to educate the client to help them make a good decision, even if they’re not yet officially your client.”

And with that, our time together is over. Ron stands up and thanks me for my time, despite me being the one who has imposed on his hectic schedule. Of course, after half an hour of listening to his earnest beliefs in integrity and honesty, I’m not at all surprised that he’s also unerringly courteous. Mama Davis, you did good with this one.

The confidence Ron exudes is there for a very simple reason: he’s honest.