Focus on alumni:
11 Communications Group
I have Oprah to thank for the entire trajectory of my career.”
So jokes David Levin about his decision to study industrial engineering at UW-Madison. Originally a chemical engineering student, Levin found himself talking about industrial engineering with a friend while watching Oprah Winfrey interview Michael Jackson. A sophomore at the time, Levin was convinced to switch by the end of the interview.
Affable, outgoing, and quick with a comeback or one-liner, Levin began working at ComedySportz Madison that same year, entertaining audiences with his subtle humor and sharp wit. Throughout college, he performed six to seven improvisational comedy shows a week and spent several weekends traveling around Wisconsin for remote shows.
At $6 a show, the job paid for laundry and not much more, but it provided more of an education than Levin realized at the time.
Today, as founder of 11 Communications Group and 11group.com, Levin has fused his technical and showbiz skills. The consulting company offers a variety of marketing, sales and executive communication services to high-profile corporate clients.
“I’m essentially a creative translator for executives to their key constituents,” Levin says. He describes his work as 50 percent creative director, designing creative press events, product launches and executive summits and conferences. Another 25 percent of his job is executive communications, which includes media training and speech-writing.
The last quarter involves being a host, moderator and humorist for corporate events. “That’s where I can let loose, be the funny guy and keep things moving and fun,” he says. In addition to hosting events, Levin has appeared on CNBC and NPR to discuss a variety of topics, from branding to annual stockholder meetings.
For the St. Louis, Missouri, native, an engineering background runs in the family—his father studied industrial engineering and his grandfather was a self-taught mechanical engineer.
“My father’s philosophy was that engineering provides a great education and a great foundation with which you can do anything,” Levin says, adding that his father was the embodiment of the philosophy with a career in the air force and several diverse industries.
After graduating in 1995, Levin went on to perform with ComedySportz in New York and Chicago, where he is currently based. In addition to ComedySportz, he has worked with The Second City and ImprovOlympic. Like engineering, Levin says his improv experience laid a foundation for his current work. “It’s a good chunk of what I’m doing now,” he says.
Levin’s engineering career began as an IT consultant with Ernst & Young LLP (which, he jokes, attracted him because it had the glossiest brochures). After two years of consulting work, Levin was approached to develop a video for the company’s quarterly meeting. He did, and the video was funny enough that Levin was asked to do it again.
He got the company chairman’s attention after portraying the executive as a child genius, and Ernst & Young created a special position for Levin: He became the first official Minister of Comedy—a lighthearted title for an important job as liaison for communication between the company’s executives and consultants.
For two years, Levin developed material for quarterly meetings and hosted live satellite broadcasts that parodied a news program. “I used humor to convey real messages,” he says. Partners all over the world used his talents.
Eventually, Levin began to run out of material and decided to move on. “I vowed I would never repeat a line,” he says.
Levin joined a communications agency, where he forged relationships and learned the ropes of the industry. Four years later, in 2004, Levin struck out on his own and founded 11 Communications Group (read: “a Levin,” a pun on his name).
11 Group has gained national attention, winning the Event Marketer 2007 Ex Award for Best Press Event for its launch of the Nintendo Wii console at E3 in Los Angeles. Additionally, 11 Group helped to develop the first truck launch in 20 years for the International Truck and Engine Corporation fuel-efficient ProStar and LoneStar vehicles.
Levin has worked with dozens of other organizations, and he says his engineering and technical training make him comfortable with a range of clients. “I feel that my engineering degree continues to differentiate me from my competitors,” he says. “There are other people who do what I do, but I haven’t met anyone with an engineering background.”
Levin says clients are surprised when they learn he studied industrial engineering and has a background in chemical engineering. “They’re totally floored and they generally love that,” he says. “They’re speaking to someone who speaks their language.”
Even though Levin has traveled and worked around the country—he jokes that he is on a first-name basis with the United counter at O’Hare International Airport—he still comes back to Madison to unwind and figure out what he’ll do next. Espresso Royale on State Street was his home away from home in college, and Levin says coffee shops are still where he does his best thinking and writing.
Levin also has returned to UW-Madison to speak to engineering students, whom he encourages to get involved with extracurricular activities. “Somebody with something different on their resume is great,” he advises, explaining that his improv experience intrigued recruiters and made him stand out. “ComedySportz led to job offers; $6 a show earned better dividends in the end,” he says.
And he also says to remember engineering terms—the more obscure the better. “Remember things like torsional,” he says. “I’ll drop it casually into conversation and suddenly some innocuous quip turns into a million-dollar marketing idea. That’s happened on more than one occasion.”
Apparently, $6 a show really has paid off.