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Path to Prosek: A Random Walk to K Street

Jim David  Follow

In 2002, I left an entry-level job in book publishing to pursue a doctorate in history. The goal was to become a college history professor. I would need eight years or so to complete the degree and, upon graduation, confront a dreadful academic job market. I had considered more practical alternatives—journalism, law school—but never “communications” or “public affairs.” The truth is, I didn’t know the career I ended up in even existed when I set out on the path that led me there. 

In graduate school, I came to realize academia was not for me. While I had tremendous respect for teaching, I didn’t discover a passion for it as a TA or lecturer. I also felt pulled toward something faster-paced, more directly connected to what was happening in the world. But I loved research and writing, and I was invested in my dissertation project, which I hoped to publish as a book. So, I decided to stick it out.

As my dissertation defense approached in 2010, I began searching in earnest for non-academic jobs. I was 32 years old, with essentially no experience. In a dozen or so informational meetings, I presented myself as a strong writer who could learn fast and work hard—not exactly an irresistible proposition in the aftermath of the financial crisis. One day, though, I met Jim Abernathy, founder of Abernathy McGregor, a pioneering financial PR firm. While he didn’t have a job for me, he gave me the encouragement I needed and advised me on my discussions with other firms. It was a kindness I’ll never forget.

One of those firms was Kekst and Company, which hired me (after 16 interviews) as an associate, their most junior role. Founded by the great Gershon Kekst, the firm had blazed a trail for public relations in M&A and shareholder activism in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Along the way, they’d converted several Ph.D.’s into client counsellors. In my six years at Kekst, I got a crash course in the profession. I made many mistakes and had some success working on M&A, activist defense, bankruptcy, crisis, and private equity accounts. It was challenging work with phenomenal colleagues in an intense client-service culture—the kind of job where you take your laptop to the movies on Saturday night in case a client needs comments turned immediately. I worked more than most people and the demands were unpredictable, but I loved it.

Even so, I knew I had a lot to learn from other communications disciplines, and the longer I waited, the harder it would be to change stream. Around this time, I was introduced to Hamilton Place Strategies (HPS), a growing public affairs firm in Washington, D.C. My sense was that understanding D.C. would make me a better strategist, and I wanted to absorb all that I could from the campaign communications playbook. D.C. also offered a unique combination of stimulating work and good quality of life. (Since my wife and I had just had our first baby, this was critical.) So, rather than remain in New York and specialize in some aspect of what I’d been doing, I decided to make the transition.

Coming from New York, D.C. was like a foreign country. At one “salon dinner” around the time of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, I was asked what my favorite tax exemption was. I didn’t have one. Fortunately, these were the early Trump years, when no one in establishment circles knew what was going on, so I had time to learn the stakeholders and processes that make public affairs different. HPS emphasized learning and issue fluency, which helped me acclimate. In the coming years, I got to work with and manage super talented teams on all kinds of public affairs projects, from “always-on” advocacy campaigns, to policy thought leadership programs. I ended up specializing in complex legal and regulatory matters—merger clearance (antitrust and CFIUS), rulemaking, government litigation, etc.

When the opportunity to open and lead a new D.C. office for Prosek came up, I jumped at the chance. I’d long respected Jen, Andy Merrill, and many others at the firm, so the prospect of building something new with all of the resources of a world-class agency was extremely attractive. The more I got to know the firm, the more I came to believe that its proactive orientation and financial services roots would translate well in the D.C. market. And so it has!  

Academic history, it turns out, is excellent training for communicators. Research, writing, the use of evidence, narrative construction, intellectual curiosity—these are all fundamental to both fields. Kekst certainly would not have hired me without that background. And I wouldn’t have gotten an interview at HPS without the private sector and capital markets experience they knew was so rare in Washington. Similarly, the opportunity to come to Prosek was only possible because of the combination of unorthodox choices I’d made.

It was, in some ways, a random path. I don’t know anyone who has made the same choices. I certainly wouldn’t advise anyone to do so. But even if I didn’t always understand where I was going, each step was essential to what followed. In the end, I was fortunate to find that most improbable of things—a job I love.

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