“Do we get the coolest projects or do we make the projects we get really cool?”
Doug Carpenter savors this question. It goes to the heart of Doug Carpenter & Associates (DCA), which might carelessly be called an ad agency or PR firm. He calls it a creative communications consulting firm, a descriptive that is somewhat more vague but is also more accurate in its wider application.
What Carpenter wants to do are projects that engage him because they carry civic benefits, something the community talks about, engages in, has a stake in. That are cool.
Some of Memphis’ most visible and remarkable projects have the DCA stamp on them. It has been instrumental in bringing about Big River Crossing, Mighty Lights, the Tennessee Brewery’s Untapped project, Loflin Yard, Staxtacular, the Crosstown development, the Kroc Center, Opera Memphis, and Memphis Greenspace, which got statuary of Confederate figures out of public parks.
One of the biggest undertakings was Explore Bike Share, the public two-wheeled enterprise that developed as the city was becoming much more bicycle friendly.
“We were sort of being inquisitive about biking and found a study that indicated that the city could support one,” Carpenter says. “So we set up that effort and I would say that’s a project where we displayed all of our skill sets from business consulting to community engagement to fund development to operations structure.”
Like any businessman, Carpenter wants to turn a profit. But he also has to feed his sense of civic responsibility and the need to elevate what is around him.
“If I can do something that satisfies my intellectual curiosity,” he says, “and satisfies the responsibility to my employees and my family, and does something that creates something unique and something that benefits the people involved and the city in general, then it’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
Carpenter got into the advertising business when he was 19, selling ad specialties on commission. He absorbed the prevalent notions of sales, people, motivation, and fulfillment that inform his work today. From there he went to work at an agency and learned enough there that he felt he could go it on his own. “So I started an agency with little or no reason to do so,” he drily observes.
That was in 1988, and the years following saw Carpenter successfully ply his trade around town. In 2001 he joined Brian Sullivan to form Carpenter/Sullivan, which then became carpenter|sullivan|sossaman in 2006. In 2009, Carpenter wanted to take a year or so off, so Sullivan bought out his interest in the agency.
It turned out to be only a few months, though — entrepreneurs have to scratch that itch — and Doug Carpenter & Associates soon appeared with an office downtown, a clear vision, and a different approach to getting things done.
“In the past it took me three years or three months to recognize a shortcoming or a business flaw, whatever it was,” he says, “and now I wanted to recognize it in 30 minutes and act on it in three minutes. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes.”
One critical part of his plan was to “surround myself with really smart people,” Carpenter says. “Smarter than I am and who are driven to perform.” He wanted to do projects that were meaningful in several ways.
One such project was the Big River Crossing, the brainchild of Charlie McVean, founder of McVean Trading and Investments and the nonprofit Peer Power Foundation. Carpenter observed McVean’s remarkable determination.
“Charlie just would not let this idea of a pedestrian bridge go away,” Carpenter says. It was expensive, it was complicated, and there were reluctant bureaucracies from the railroads to the government that had to be dealt with. “He just kind of wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Carpenter says. “But when people have ideas that are outside the norm you can either call them crazy or you can realize that some of the most remarkable things that happen are things that people hadn’t thought of. Some people see ‘new’ as an opportunity and some see it as a threat.”
There was something similar going on with the Crosstown project back when it was but an inkling.
“I can remember talking to Todd Richardson [a co-founder of Crosstown Arts] very early on,” Carpenter says. “He was asking if I had any insight on it, and I said, ‘Every real estate developer has said no. Everybody who knows about it has said no. So if you’re gonna make a run at this thing, your team has to believe that this can work. Otherwise you’re just going down the same path.”
Projects like these are substantially changing how Memphis thinks about itself, Carpenter believes. “It’s the tapestry that has changed, the outward perspective of the city. But even more powerfully, it’s changed the inward perspective. People now believe that things can happen.”
And, he believes, there can be and should be less of Memphians comparing the city to, well, anyplace else. “If you can recognize that you are in a category of your own and how you want to structure and carry yourself as the leader in that category, then that’s what Memphis is starting to realize.”
Carpenter finds that these larger issues of self-regard require the very best he can provide. “If people come to a conclusion on their own, they would own it. That’s one of the communications challenges — it’s not telling people what to do. It’s presenting something in a way that they, on their own accord, find to be positive or life-enhancing.”
One of DCA’s most controversial challenges was the removal, in December of 2017, of the statues of Confederate figures that had been in public parks. Carpenter had to sign a confidentiality agreement before being told what the job was. The effort was organized by attorney Van Turner and there were many discussions in the short time available. “The public was overwhelmingly in favor of the removal,” Carpenter says, “but there was tension, and concerns about safety, and we talked about what to respond to and what not to respond to. But Van drove straight in and did something remarkable.”
Carpenter has come quite a way from the early days when he sold ad specialities. “This is an interesting industry in that it comes and goes,” he says. “I have two daughters and I’d like to be able to look back and have some sense that I did something beneficial in the world. A lot of advertising is consumed and gone, but being able to work on projects like these — that’s my profession. Advertising is not the business, it’s really the business of communication and how you can put it to work in a way that can change perspectives. This is the most powerful tool there is.”