Q&A with David C. Baker

I interviewed David C. Baker of ReCourses today on Twitter, talking about business, management, specialization and other advice for principals of creative-service firms. David is co-founder with HOW of the Mind Your Own Business Conference that’s happening October 12 to 14 in NYC. We think of MYOB as a focused business bootcamp for design pros, where they can learn from consultants who GET the design business, and network with other principals facing the same challenges.

First, tell us a bit about the work you do. You’re a “recovered” creative-firm owner, correct?
Recovering, not recovered. I lament that marginalization of print because I miss the smell. What I do? I write, speak, and consult for the marketing services field: advertising, design, pubic relations, interactive. I owned my own firm for six years, and have been doing this for 16+ years.

I enjoy collaborating on the Mind Your Own Business Conference. Tell us how it got started back in 2000.
In 1998 I met with Kathleen, the then editor of HOW, and suggested a partnership. I would help with programming and the mighty HOW would bring their event expertise to the table. MYOB gathered expert speakers to provide a context for principals to learn from each other.

We’re hearing signs that business is picking up for creative firms. What are you seeing on the ground as you work with your clients?
Some firms are slowly dying, usually from not making staffing cuts quickly/deeply enough.  Others are thriving, based in part on where they’ve focused. I think this isn’t a recession. This is the permanent reality.

You talk about specializing, choosing to focus on a market. Why is that so hard for creative firms to embrace?
I think it’s hard because they are afraid of narrowing their opportunities and saying “no” to anything. Really successful people say “no” a whole heck of a lot, and that’s what comes from specializing. That courage to say it

As we’re coming out of a period when clients slowed spending on marketing/design, what should firms do now to recover?
Make sure that their capacity is less than their opportunity, which means sizing the firm down a touch so that “no” is possible.

If you could guide a creative-firm principal to focus on one part of their biz, what would it be?
Managing people, probably. Understanding that they are in the people business, and the employees are in the design business.

I’ve learned a ton from your presentations about managing people. What will you be talking about at MYOB this year?
Managing people. 🙂 I’ll pull out the most relevant portions of my recent book and provide practical tips.

Can you give us a sneak preview of your Live Agency Review: Baring of a Business?
It’s the drama portion of the program. On stage, talking in person for the first time ever, I undress an agency. And then make specific recommendations on what they should be doing differently, all in public.

Design leaders often fear sharing info about their biz with other principals. You & I would encourage them to get over it. Why?
Because ultimately, especially if they are positioned well, there’s very little real competition.
Plus there’s enormous comfort in knowing that others struggle with the same things and you can learn together.

We’ve published great stories of firms that have thrived after #HOWCONF. Do you have a favorite success story?
Probably Tim McAlpine of Currency Marketing. To see how he’s thrived is amazing.

Describe the ideal MYOB attendee.
Principal of a firm. Open to learning. Has things to teach others. Likes challenges. Understands that two or three key insights bring more value to the experience than the expense.

You’ve said this year’s MYOB program is the strongest yet. Why?
I didn’t feel like we were reaching with any speaker. In fact, we had twice as many great candidates than we could handle.

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