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ReCourses Blog | David C. Baker

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How Not To Act Like An Expert

I've been offering business insight to help experts achieve higher financial performance, manage people better, staff appropriately, and provide services that their clients value. In the last 20+ years of doing this, I've observed a few practices that contradict expertise. Here are some things that I notice experts doing that seem to contradict how they want us to see them.

  • Be Too Busy to Articulate Thought Leadership There are all sorts of reasons why experts don't write and speak, but none of them are legitimate. If you don't have the time, you aren't making enough money. If you don't know what to say, you aren't an expert. If you don't know how to say it, you haven't practiced enough. If you find too many audiences when directing your writing, you haven't focused enough. Aside from the content itself, having the time to write it sends just as powerful a message.
  • Be Immediately Accessible to the Client Whether misguided or not, developed cultures prefer that their experts be largely...
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Advantages of Horizontal Positioning for Your Agency

In the last blog, I covered the four advantages of vertical positioning. I want to finish that series by covering the four advantages of horizontal positioning.

As before, you can derive more value from this exercise by flipping each advantage around. For example, a primary advantage of vertical positioning is being able to locate your prospective clients. Flipping that around, a primary disadvantage of horizontal positioning is that it's hard to find your prospective clients because you usually can't purchase a list of them. Very few agencies who are positioned horizontally are also successful, but there are nevertheless many advantages and it is worth your consideration.

First, horizontal positioning brings more variety. This is in fact why eighty-five percent...

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Advantages of Vertical Positioning for Your Agency

Positioning decisions probably last longer than most marriages, so let's get it right! Ignoring the dozens of nuances to consider, for a moment, let me help you think through the biggest issue: the pros and cons of positioning your firm vertically or horizontally. I'll start with vertical because the vast majority of firms who are positioned well have a vertical positioning. These are the four advantages of vertical positioning.

First, verticial positioning makes it so much easier to find your prospects. Whether you buy a list of prospects or not, think of it like this: can you buy a list. Conversely, if you cannot buy a list, you are likely going to struggle finding your prospects. That's because your targets don't share sufficient characteristics to be on the radar of the world trying to sell things to them, and from their point of view, their problems aren't so unique that they value working with an agency that specializes in solving them. If you can't buy a list, you are looking for a group of prospects that nobody else thinks is worth tracking.

Second, vertical positioning benefits from decision makers who...

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Thinking Digitally...If You Do Digital or Not

Click here if you would rather listen to this blog entry (8:16).

Marketing firms have been understandably concerned about how digital they must be in order to remain sufficiently central to the marketing mix. We’ve lost something, though, by framing this discussion around whether we should actually develop digital properties instead of around the broader question of how we should learn from digital thinking. In other words, we might need to approach our work—digital or not—with a more digital mindset. I want to talk about that, but I also want to talk about how you might go about deciding the degree to which you do digital, too.

At the outset of this movement, there were so few firms developing digital properties that it was actually difficult to make a poor positioning decision. The tools were rudimentary, no one knew what good digital really was, and that world was there for the taking.

Developing digital properties, though, now shows more signs of being a mature market, meaning that there are few gaps to arbitrage. Strong tools are widespread, we have nearly twenty years of experience to inform our work, and suddenly kids in the garage don't seem to own this anymore. (They have gotten bored and moved on to social media.)

The last two decades have ushered in a new medium, but the true impact of digital is barely felt. Worst of all, even digital firms aren't thinking digitally. But—and this is so exciting to say—the promise of digital impact is at your doorstep. If you miss the promise of digital thinking, you'll suffer far more than missing digital itself. I'd like you to consider thinking digitally....

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Life is What Happens WHILE You Fix It

My Declaration for Your 2014: The Year of Your Own Oxygen Mask

This year I will jot down some clever ways to peg the amount of "care" my clients bring to the table, and I will willingly match that level, just because it's the right thing to do. But for my own sake, I will not exceed that level, just because it's also the right thing to do.

I will quit pretending to solve the potable water crisis in Africa and I will take a glass of cold, refreshing water to a randomnly chosen employee on occasion. I am tired of the hypocrisy of wanting to change that world while being a #@%!) shitty manager in this one.

Not inconsistent with this, I will finally boot that one employee out of the nest. Yes, they have done every job in the place and been with me as the organization has matured, but they no longer have the presence, objectivity, ability, or hunger that we need. If I hear them tell one more new employee that they've been here the longest, have done every job, and know how and when to present things to me, I may just make a decision on the spot.

I will be so, so grateful for whatever health and intelligence I've managed to retain through these years. [Pause and be grateful, please.] I won't view life as something that happens after I fix it, but something that happens while I fix it. The journey itself must be savored, along with the control and freedom and opportunities I have to NOT feed the machine.

If what I've just said still doesn't...

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Losing a Gorilla Client

A "client concentration" problem refers to having a single related source of work representing more than 25% of your gross profit (fees + markup income). That's usually the point at which the yellow light should blink on your financial dashboard. That same light should blink red if it moves to 35%, because my research shows that to be the median at which one-half of firms fail. In other words, one-half survive the loss of a client that represents ca. 35% and the other one-half fail. Maybe not immediately, but they can usually trace it back to that point if they were not prepared for it. This is meant to prepare you for it.

You either had, have, or will have a gorilla client. Don't be afraid of it, and don't say "no" to the work. A problem like this almost always comes from something great you've done and you deserve the accolades in the form of even more work. Don't get a huge head, though, because unusually high spikes in your top line revenue typically stem from a client concentration issue and not unusual and sudden strong new business skills.

First Step: Honesty

When I talk about this to clients, the first thing they always say is this: "Yes, but all this related work is coming from different departments, and even different contacts in the same department. In fact, they hate each other and we'd probably get more work if we lost one department!"

That's bullshit, if you'll pardon me, because it assumes....

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Using Tweriod to Analyze Your Twitter Account

There are thousands of tools for social media, and only a few dozen that strike me as useful. One of those is Tweriod, which analyzes your Twitter account, including when followers are most likely to interact with you, and thus when you should post. Best of all, it will auto-populate your account at Buffer, building the schedule for each of your accounts accordingly.

Click to download a 9-page PDF of the data from my account to illustrate what you'll see.

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What Success Looks Like at Your Firm

A great client recently asked me to outline my definition of success for their firm. I really enjoyed doing that, and below is a version that you can adapt to your own situation, putting your own stamp on it:

  • Partner compensation equals or exceeds industry benchmarks.
  • After that is achieved, you still 20% net profit.
  • The more entrepreneurial employees are satisfied that their contribution to your gain is recognized and accounted for.
  • Partners and employees in key roles will have already tasted competence in the area of your focus, or they will experience it within nine months of joining the firm.
  • There will be few or no young employees who value variety over expertise.
  • When employees talk about your firm, while still employed, their private comments will be complimentary.
  • When partners and employees head out the door to work for the day, they look forward to the challenges, the companionship, and their participation in the overall culture.
  • As a firm you will not require extraordinary people....
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Should You Start Your Own Firm?

I seldom give up my 17,000-person blog platform to guests. Keeping your attention is important and my primary marketing tool. But, I read a blog last week that Mark Busse wrote, and I thought it was brilliant. I'm sharing it here with his permission:

Rushing into starting your own design business can turn a dream into a nightmare.

Recently I heard from two former students of mine. As they entered the industry a few years ago we had some honest talks about their options, and against my advice they decided to skip internships or junior positions--which they felt were both beneath them--and went into partnership together with another classmate to form their own design studio. After some early success working for friends and family, their studio quickly fell into chaos, the partnership dissolved, and the company folded, leaving their clients in rough shape.

I'll spare you my story of how running my design business has still not brought the freedom, flexibility or financial reward I'd hoped for after 15 years--and I have a business degree--and how I often miss the days of just working for someone else. Instead, let's talk about how lazy, short-sighted and dangerous starting your own business can be.

You heard me: lazy, short-sighted and....

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Why Your Firm Might Fail...and Preventing It

Forgive me for the ominous subject line of this email, but there are times when it's best to be objective and forthright. I've been talking with the executives of large associations and educational institutions in this field, hoping they'll drop the status quo and beginning offering real help to their members and graduates. So far I've made very little progress, so I'm just going to use my own platform (16,000+ of you).

Look around, think back through the last decade, and make a mental list of the firms you knew that are no longer around. Did any of them fail for lack of creativity? Even if you don't think they were that creative, the answer is a resounding "NO". Here is why those firms--and possibly yours, if you don't listen--will cease to exist, in descending order. I'm going to list seven reasons firms fail, and then seven things to keep a very close eye on.

What to Keep An Eye On

  • Make Poor Business Decisions. I'm thinking of things like leasing too much space, incurring debt instead of examining the issues behind why you need it, spending more than 45% of your AGI on compensation, establishing unnecessary satellite offices, ignoring standard embezzling safeties, and not really understanding what the financials are saying.
  • Let Growth Happen to You. This is the land of opportunity, as we're told from a young age, and so one of the most difficult decisions an entrepreneur must make is to turn down opportunity. By avoiding that, they let the marketplace determine how large they will be, in spite of all the additional management load that brings, and worse yet they match their capacity to their opportunity and forgo the ability to say no to clients who don't fit. Eventually they end up consistently accepting work to keep the butts in the seats busy, focusing on cash-flow rather than profit.
  • ...
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Expertise is Like Cocaine

What kind of information are you giving people in a business setting, and how are you delivering it? I have a reputation for complete candor (deserved), deep and thought-provoking content (deserved), and a less-than-engaging conversation style of delivery (deserved). I speak 30-35x/year, and if the event happens to give audience members feedback forms to complete, on a scale of 1 to 5, I typically get a 4.9 on content and somewhere around 4.0 on delivery.

I only use PowerPoint or Keynote when the audience is too large logistically to provide handouts (200?). I much prefer handouts, because I hate last minute technical problems, I'd rather look people in the eyes the entire time, I want them to write, and I want them to take something home. For larger audience (200-3,000 typically), I just include a URL on the last slide so that a PDF can be downloaded for their later use. I tell them that in advance so that they can relax, listen, and not bother with too many notes.

I'm an intense introvert. I'm so far off the scale in that direction that I jokingly call it "unabomber land." That just means I like to be by myself to recharge. I can be with crowds, large and small, in little doses and no one would know I'm "acting the part." Oddly enough, speaking totally invigorates me, too, which may not fit in your mind with the idea of a deep introvert.

Do you know when I began to love speaking?...

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Why You Don't Publish Pricing

You'll have to look long and hard before you find a marketing firm that publishes much, if anything at all, on their pricing. That's been true for years, and only recently are firms experimenting with a little more transparency around the financial aspect of what qualifies a prospect as an appropriate fit. And if they are feeling particularly bold, they might even publish some pricing for a few services that they've packaged up so that they have fairly similar deliverables from project to project.

Reasons You Don't Publish Pricing

I'd like to think outloud with you about why that is. I think there are five primary reasons why this is the case. See if any of them resonate with you.

First, most principals don't really believe that the main purpose of their corporation is to make money. They know that it's probably the right reason the company exists, but underneath it all is the truth: the business is an extension of what they want to do personally. The money is nice, but the work is more important.

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How to Become an Expert

Have you ever had a huge corporate client and delved deep inside the organization only to find incompetence around you? I have, and it makes me wonder how we've become the richest nation in the world. It's also encouraging, because the bar is set very low and therefore it's pretty darn easy to be an expert!

One thing I get asked a lot is this: "What is an expert?" There are many ways to define that, but here's how I think about it. I picture myself keynoting a conference. In the auditorium are 3,000 people. After my presentation, I open it up to questions from the audience. There's a microphone on a stand in the center aisle, and soon a line forms with people who want me to elaborate or they want to disagree with me.

Picture yourself in that place. How do you feel? Prepared? Nervous? Naked? Eager? Being an expert is flat knowing that you can answer any question about the narrow field you serve. By the way, you don't need to be some amazing speaker or a strong extrovert to captivate an audience. Essentially, it boils down to two things: do you know what the hell you're talking about, and are you presenting it with a personal authenticity.

So the next question is how you get to that place where you think of yourself as an expert, and where markeplace acceptance confirms that belief. Here are my seven specific, practical suggestions:

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Storytelling and Real Storytelling

Bill Baker (no relation) is nicer than I am, so don't pin any of my introduction on him. I recently spoke to an auditorium of C-level executives, and the title of my presentation was long but revealing: "The Happy Death of Branding, the Next Fad of Storytelling, and the Hopeful Rise of Alignment."

I guess that expresses my view of branding: there are a few firms really doing it, and the rest (and majority) aren't doing anything differently than they did before, but now they are calling it branding because it sounds upstream. There was no training in marketing, no classes, books, or even real processes. The typical four circles with the ubiquitous use of alliteration doesn't count and should be taken off your website.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with my view of branding, it clearly is yesterday's news, and storytelling comes up frequently. Rather than being marginalized even more, I think we ought to jump on this one early so that we don't relieve the word of even more meaning.

Bill (disclosure: a client) is one of the very few people really doing story telling. While the concept has been around since people wrote on cave walls, modern storytelling was really maximized by E+S (Envisioning and Storytelling) in Vancouver roughly three decades ago, a place where Bill was Chief Strategic Officer. Now, under BillBaker&Co he continues that great work with clients like GE, Relais & Chateaux, Johnson & Johnson, The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, etc. Here are some of his thoughts on the difference between faux storytelling and real storytelling. Real storytelling is a very complex skill, and I can sit for days listening to Bill point out the subtleties involved. This is just the outer layer.

Here's Bill:

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You Might Need to Change the Name of Your Firm

Most creative firms are poorly named, especially if they are named after the principal and perhaps multiple partners. Unless you turn out to be a very large agency with a 40+ year track record, your name matters. Naming it in the traditional way after yourself does this:

  • it makes it a tad more difficult to sell
  • it encourages new clients to work with you when you should be doing other things that the firm really requires of you
  • it makes it difficult to add significant partners, because every time you do so the name will likely change
  • it makes your agency look small

Chances are that you didn't put much thought into naming the company when it began with just you as an employee. The attorney was pressuring you to come up with some name that s/he could put on the forms, and so you defaulted to the easy choice. If I had done that, my company would be Baker Inc., or Baker & Associates, etc.

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