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ReCourses Blog | David C. Baker

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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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Maintaining Relevance Over Decades

Click here if you would rather listen to this blog entry (7:39).

It’s too raw to talk much about yet, but I nearly lost my business in 2013. The entire year was largely an epic fail and only now--with the situation in the rearview mirror--can I see it with any sort of perspective. I’ll write a blog post about it shortly (or maybe a book), but one of the threads weaving through those events is this notion of remaining relevant, and for a long time. On the drive to the cabin yesterday, where I am now, thoughts began to flow about just that. I wanted to formulate a perspective about being relevant over several decades, and I was thinking of myself and of you as this began to take shape.

  1. Maybe it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: it presumes that you are relevant in the first place. A certain relevance accompanies anyone making a living and helping employees make a living. That’s noble and rewarding, and it’s how developed economies thrive. But I’m talking here about rising from your peers as a leader, and that requires that you see all the same things they do but that you observe different things than they merely see. You develop a perspective that other people--not just you--believe to be unique and they pay you money to help them observe, too.
  2. Maintaining relevance doesn’t necessarily mean that you are consistently relevant to the same people. As your strengths deepen and creep, you may need a different audience if you want to remain relevant to anybody. Your audience will change organically, in good ways, and you will even lose part of your audience in that process. Just be sure it’s because they can’t keep up and not because they quit learning from you. This is one of the larger tensions I have struggled to navigate.
  3. It is solidly a privilege to remain relevant for decades and most definitely not a right. Doing great work once means that you have just one more chance to do great work again, and so the cycle repeats itself. But the cycle can be broken for any reason at any point in time.
  4. While I think that luck plays an outsized role in being relevant in the first place, I don’t think luck has much of any role in being relevant for decades. That result comes from....
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Getting to "Know"

I owned a pedestrian marketing firm for six years (this doesn't mean I sold pedestrians, but that it was very average). I had never worked at a firm, knew not a single soul in the industry, and had no role models to mimic. Average financial performance (I paid myself $60,000 in 1988), below average ability to manage people (with employees teaching me how I could do better), and above average effectiveness of the work. One thing for sure: I had no special methods or research that I could build into a twenty-year consulting firm known around the world. Shoot, for the first few years I was drinking water from a waterfall.

I started ReCourses through an odd and fortunate series of events where someone else suggested I do it, and gave me a platform with plenty of opportunity. It never would have happened otherwise, and I will always be grateful to Cam Foote.

I felt like I didn't have much to lose, really. At least I thought so, until the first firm...

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Reconsidering A Relationship with Money

I don't think I've ever posted a blog entry this long, but if you read it like I did, you'll forget about time and be so engaged that you read it all. It's from a friend (Schuyler Brown) who consults out of NYC. She graciously allowed me to publish this. More about her work at the end. Broadly, the subject of this is money and life, and based on the questions I've been getting recently, many of you are thinking about just that.


Like many Americans post-recession, I've been taking a close look at my relationship to money. To my surprise, what started simply as a responsible exercise turned into a deeply instructive philosophical journey.

I'd been ignoring the task of addressing my ideas about money for years, hiding behind an image of myself as Bohemian, an artist, a spiritual aspirant. Money seemed something too concrete to factor into my flights of fancy. Even as an entrepreneur I never stopped to think much about money. I worried when I wasn't making it and was jubilant when I was...it was a roller coaster.

It was my daughter's birth two years ago that unexpectedly initiated a shift in my approach to money, because she shifted my entire perspective on the future. Her presence forced me to imagine a future I'd been happy to leave to chance. One day, exiting the subway on my way home, I caught myself with a furrowed brow worrying once again about the numbers in our bank accounts...this time with no regard for my own needs, but for hers alone. I heard a steely voice of resolve somewhere deep inside say, "I never want her to suffer the burden of financial strain." At that moment, I felt my actual walk change. I became more directed.

But it wasn't until an incident this summer....

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Managing Client Relationships

I had trouble getting to sleep last night, and for some reason I started thinking about how managing client relationships has changed over the years. I'm not talking about my clients, but your clients. Do you know the really important things about how to do it right? I'm not sure i would have figured all these out, but I have paid attention to the hundreds of firms I've worked with and tried to cull out the best practices that have been proven in the field.

Just for fun, I started writing these down as they came to mind in a stream of consciousness style. Here are a few of them:

  • The only power you have in a client relationship is to withhold your expertise.
  • The degree to which you have power in a relationship is directly related to how long it takes to replace you.
  • There are only two ways to have more opportunity than capacity, which represents your ability to say "no" to prospects and clients: create more opportunity or reduce your capacity.
  • The most important criteria in evaluating a prospective client is whether or not they've used a firm like yours before. Never be the first.
  • Your cheap ass clients are the ones spending their own money. You want to work for clients with budget authority over someone else's money.
  • The clients who trust you say: "I have $140,000 for this project. What's the most we could do with that money?" The ones who don't trust you say, "Here's what I need. What will it cost?"....
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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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How Important Is It To Enjoy Your Work?

This is a question that has long intrigued me. It comes up more frequently, too, as individual workers find it harder to find work at all, much less work that they enjoy. But even in a difficult economy, employees regularly switch jobs to work in a more satisfying environment.

They are told repeatedly to "follow your heart…and the money will come." Even aspiring entrepreneurs are encouraged to take that path to fulfill a dream, chase their hopes, and attempt to "build it," hoping they will come.

But that's different than having a right to enjoy it. Not only do I strongly disagree with the sentiment, I think believing it has twisted our expectations and those of our employees. It's not all that different, in fact, from commenting on someone's gruesome death that "at least she died doing what she loved."

First, a lot of people who are "following their heart" are starving. It's just true. Even pseudo-entrepreneurs who follow a system via a franchise are failing in droves--in some, there's a 60% failure rate.

Second, just...

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More Transparent Client Relationships

I've had a hand in shaping four of the software products out there, including the two with the largest installed base. And for ten years I've been clamoring for more transparency, enabled primarily by allowing a client to log into your project management software (that's not BaseCamp, by the way) and seeing the status of things. For one thing, why make the AE do that? Every client is different, and this would let them interact with the data on their own terms, with selectable update options to boot.

Why hasn't this caught on? Two reasons:

  • Firms say something will take three weeks of work but they don't even start it until four days before the deadline, and this way the client would know that.
  • Firms are afraid of interferance in the creative process, where I think it should be more collaborative and with no "big reveals" as we call them.

Anyway, I was chatting about this with a client of mine, Greg Daake, who has a firm in Omaha. He has been thinking the same thing, and so I asked him to write some thoughts on this. Here's Greg...

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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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The Hardest Weekend I've Had in Many Years

About two weeks ago, I had one of the hardest weekends of my career. Many things came together all at once and pretty much brought me to my knees.

  • Our wonderful, special dog Lucy has cancer. We rescued her from a very abusive situation and she's been a wonderful companion. She's fighting it well, but we don't know when and how the end will come. When we got her, she was terrified of men, terrified of newspapers, and had a bullet in her hip. Now she brings me the paper and is as sweet as can be. She's a Rottweiler and Labrador mix.
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