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The Business of Expertise with David C. Baker


Chris Butler: Welcome to the Newfangled Agency Marketing Matters Podcast. I’m Chris Butler.

Mark O’Brien: I’m Mark O’Brien.

Lauren Siler: I’m Lauren Siler.

David Baker: I’m David Baker.

Mark O’Brien: Hey, you don’t work here.

David Baker: I know.

Chris Butler: We do have David Baker with us as a guest and David, you just wrote a book.

David Baker: I did.

Chris Butler: Again.

David Baker: Don’t act so surprised. Yeah.

Chris Butler: There are many copies of it floating around the office because you were really generous and sent us a box of them. I think everybody’s read it at this point.

Lauren Siler: Yeah.

David Baker: Really? Seriously?

Lauren Siler: Yeah.

Chris Butler: Including not people in this room.

David Baker: And nobody quit?

Mark O’Brien: Nobody quit.

Lauren Siler: So you can walk around and just quiz people at will. It would be a really fun game to play.

David Baker: I did get an email from one of your folks who was referencing something that they had read the other day, I was impressed.

Chris Butler: Really?

David Baker: Yeah, yeah, that’s good.

Mark O’Brien: Scott.

Lauren Siler: Was it?

Mark O’Brien: I think so, yeah.

Lauren Siler: I know he was really enjoying it, I know he was telling me that he was really enjoying it.

Chris Butler: I’m looking at the book, which I think is beautiful by the way. I had a Twitter interaction with somebody who disagreed-

David Baker: Yeah, I know, I appreciate you slapping them down.

Chris Butler: Yeah well, I had to. It was just a dumb comment he made about it. But, it’s a really cool looking book. If I didn’t know you, I would probably be pretty interested in it. But I’m curious-

David Baker: Wait a second. Did you hear what he just said? He just said, “If I didn’t know you, I’d probably be very interested, but since you do know me, you’re not interested in it.

Mark O’Brien: Even if-

Chris Butler: I don’t have to worry about it jumping off the shelf because it was delivered to our house.

Mark O’Brien: Okay, okay, yeah.

Chris Butler: Yeah. But I’m kind of curious, you’ve written a couple books before, you’ve written a book about management, which was actually very helpful to many people in this room, and outside this room. And you’ve written a book about financial management of Creative Services Firm.

David Baker: I wrote a book on seed corn as well.

Chris Butler: Did you?

David Baker: I did.

Chris Butler: Wait, seriously?

David Baker: Yeah I did.

Chris Butler: Did you know that?

Lauren Siler: Were you ghostwriting that one or-

David Baker: Ghostwritten, yeah.

Chris Butler: You ghostwrote a book about seed corn.

David Baker: The genetic underpinnings of seed corn, yeah. All the research of Purdue. I just want people to realize, I’m well rounded.

Chris Butler: I didn’t know that, I’m learning.

David Baker: Yeah, it never got published, the manuscript is gone. So yeah, it is the fifth one. But it’d been years before the last one was written. I don’t know, maybe four or five, and it was too long of a gap, so it feels really good to be writing again.

Chris Butler: Too long of a gap because you enjoy writing, or you feel a need to continue to publish, or both?

David Baker: Honestly, its more about my need to write. I was telling Mark this at lunch the other day. It feels like when I start to get off my game, or unsettled, or unbalanced, or unfocused, like some people have to do something, I have to write. That’s when I’ll write an article or do something, and for the larger mental health picture, I have to write. It’s just what I have to do. So in that sense, it took to long. I had got sidetracked by too many other things, and I’m committed to now writing a lot more regularly, especially as my life runs out. I want to write more regularly. I don’t mean runs out literally, that just means I get older.

Chris Butler: Right, it’s not that anyone would go to your website and think that something was wrong with your lifespan.

David Baker: Right, to see my obituary. Yeah.

Chris Butler: For people who are confused by that, if you go to David’s website and look at his about page, there is a picture of David with years under it that imply that you’re deceased.

David Baker: And one year, I forgot to change the end date of the obituary span, and so yeah, it freaked some people out. It made some people happy.

Chris Butler: Why do you do that again? Remind me why you do that.

David Baker: I don’t know. I guess maybe because other people don’t. I don’t mind being different. But it’s mainly a reminder to me that I have a certain number of years, I want to maximize them, so when I make it to … like right now it expires at 2020, but if I make it that far, then I’ll just add another couple years to it.

Chris Butler: Right, if you make it that far.

David Baker: If I make it that far. I’m intending to.

Lauren Siler: This is so morbid.

Chris Butler: Yeah I would hope so. Yeah it is kinda morbid, but I get it.

Lauren Siler: It’s morbid and optimistic at the same time.

Mark O’Brien: So have we mentioned the name of the book yet?

Chris Butler: Well right, I was going to mention it. It’s called the Business of Expertise. One thing that is interesting when I was mentioning your other books, those other books were more focused on a particular kind of firm, and a kind of way of expressing that firm. And the subtitle here is, how entrepreneurial experts convert insight to impact and wealth. And we’ve had lots of conversations in your visit, about this idea, entrepreneurial expert, and I was thinking maybe that’s a great place to start our conversation. What does that mean? Why this book now, but also why do you describe in that way, why do you describe that kind of firm in that way?

David Baker: Part of it is, I’m intentionally excluded a large percentage of the population. Sadly, because I have such admiration for craftsmen. And I don’t just mean male, I just mean people who use their skills, usually hands, eye coordination skills to create things, but this is more about people who are selling their thinking primarily. That’s what I mean by expert in that category, as opposed to a fine woodworker. Then the overlap is between those experts and people who are entrepreneurial in nature. There are a lot of people who are making their world better through how they think, but they’re not doing it through entrepreneurial avenues. In other words, they may be working for a large government organization or something. So, this is meant for people where both of those things apply.

Chris Butler: Is that in terms of your focus? Is that a new way of expressing the ideal type of person you can help? Or is that actually a different kind of person than somebody you might have helped five years ago, in terms of your career and your focus? Again, I’m thinking about that managing right book, and the way that’s been framed in a lot of your material.

David Baker: There is a little bit of spill over. So in the past I only worked with marketing related firms. So PR, Digital Advertising, Design and so on. But I’ve tended to work with a smaller subset of those folks, who are the ones who are most entrepreneurial, and who are most interested in selling more of their thinking, and less of their doing. That’s been very clear movement, but there’s also been a little bit of spill-over, so that other principles in professional service firms, are also finding the work helpful. So this book is really directed to anybody in or out of the marketing field, and the examples in the book are architects and engineers and medical doctors and so on.

But I’ve also realized there’s been this slow turn in my thinking that, I knew what I did, but I couldn’t categorize it very well in my consulting career, but now I’ve started to understand that I really help people make better business decision, so I don’t help them deliver their services to clients, I help them think through what financial decisions they make, what staff decisions they make, what performance metrics to watch. This is sort of a departure, it’s more about, what is an expert, and how do you become more of an expert, and then how do you position yourself and how do you think about delivering expertise.

Lauren Siler: One of the things you make really clear in the book, that was interesting to me was, you make the point about how important it is to make time to express your expertise, that the principle or the expert inside of the organization makes time to right, or to go speak somewhere, or really that they are taking the time to be the ones to craft, and deliver their expertise. And I feel like I’ve heard a lot of creative principles kind of push back on that. And just say, I just frankly don’t have time, and I want to buy my way out of it, and I’m curious if you heard that objection a lot.

David Baker: I do, partly because … well in some cases they don’t enjoy that process, but others, they don’t necessarily see the ROI, and when they do get a chance to speak for instance, they may be more excited about speaking to their peers, which has no marketing value, than they would be excited about speaking to a group of prospects. Right?

Lauren Siler: Right.

David Baker: But I’ve always felt like part of what it means to run a strongly positioned firm, is to be charging enough so that you’re not having to work every minute in order to make ends meet. So you’re charging enough, so there is extra time in your schedule to get smarter. And it really is about that, and that’s why its so important to be writing and speaking, even if you’re speaking to an empty room, or writing to an audience that never reads your stuff, you’re never going to get smarter unless you’re doing this stuff, right? So its an impassioned manifesto championing this idea of expertise, I so believe in it, that I wish people … and there are so many people who also believe in it, and who’ve tasted confidence around expertise, and once they have, they never want to go back. It’s this feeling like, “oh my goodness!” And whether its speaking in front of somebody or writing, or explaining a concept in an elevator. Watching the light go on in somebody’s eyes as you’re talking to them is an amazing sense.

Lauren Siler: So if its not an interest issue, and they claim it’s a time issue, then your solution to that is you’re not charging-

David Baker: Charge more, right.

Lauren Siler: Got it.

David Baker: Exactly, and also another part of it, I’m sure you’ve seen with clients is, like if your positioning is so broad, you simply don’t have the capacity to get smart in all those areas. Until you start focusing, it’s really hard to get smart quickly.

Lauren Siler: Right, that’s interesting, because one of the things that you write in the book, actually, is positioning is public and it must be declared. Sometimes, when I’m working with clients, that they’re a little afraid ti go that far, and narrow their focus, such that they will scream it from the rooftops, all over their marketing channels, and on their site. So what they want to do, and what they’ll often do, is ease into it. So, there’s more generic language on the site, or across the standard positioning pages, but then, maybe in a few of their marketing channel, they’re a little bit more specific, or maybe when they purchase their list, they’re a little more specific, if they start designing a content strategy around that. How do you feel about that?

David Baker: My dad used to say … he didn’t understand marketing, but he used to have this saying … it’s in my mind all the time because he used to say it so frequently, and I got tired of it, you know when he was alive and said it so much, he would say, “wetting your pants in a dark suit.” You get a warm feeling that nobody notices, and that’s what half-assed positioning is, you get a warm feeling because you think your experimenting with positioning, but nobody notices, because they go to your website, and it doesn’t look like you’re being positioned at all. And then they say, “Well I tried it, and it didn’t work.” Well, see that’s not a fair test, because the prospect came to your website, and what they thought was a well positioned firm turned out to be a totally generalist firm, so it didn’t resonate with the prospect.

Chris Butler: I’m curious, you know, in the book, and actually in your recent episode of your podcasts with Blair, you both were talking around the concept of both positioning as an expert, and what that means, as well as becoming an expert, which are two different things. And I’m curious about that dynamic. If you’re working with a firm, and urging them to narrow their focus, lets say they’re a classic generalist, right? How does that dynamic work out in the sense that, if they’re truly a generalist, they probably haven’t developed a deep expertise, so they’re gonna choose a position which is … actually what they’re really doing is choosing something to become an expert in.

David Baker: It’s a license to drive.

Chris Butler: Right, but they want to start immediately marketing as an expert. How does that work? If they were to say to you, “okay, David I want to make this choice, what’s my next step to declare it.” Does it actually make sense for them to put immediately on their website, if they haven’t even gained the expertise. What is the actual next step.

David Baker: It is to put on the website. Yeah

Chris Butler: And take that risk.

David Baker: Yeah, and that’s the positive step, and the negative step is to pull things off the website that don’t fit the focus. Because like you said, its a license to learn, a license to drive … it’s never going to be created out of nothing. That expertise is going to emerge from some experience they’ve already had.

Chris Butler: Sure, yeah.

David Baker: That’s what so painful about choosing it. They’re not saying yes to something, they’re saying no to many more things. So they have to put a stake in the ground, and make it public back to what Laura was saying, about making that public statement, and then there is all kind of things. To me, that is the watershed moment. Unless you’re willing to put it on your website, its not going to count.

Lauren Siler: I feel like I’ve talked to so many agencies, where that is such a dicey decision, because they’ve maybe got a couple of portfolio pieces, and a couple of different verticals, and maybe they’re sort of outdated, and its really unclear of where that would be, and if they were to pull everything else off of the site, it just looks like they haven’t been doing much at all.

David Baker: Well, in some cases, that’s why they start a second firm, not a real legal one, but a separate DBA under that same legal umbrella, and then they take the clients who fit from the current generalist’s firm, move them over to the specialist’s firm, leave all the rest there, that’s a way to engender a little bit less panic, because now they still have a way to accept this generalist stuff, and not say no to everything, right? But their standards are impossibly high, honestly. Their constantly telling me that, “oh well we cannot use that example, because we haven’t worked for them in a year and a half.” My own standard is within the last 5 years. I don’t think it matters. It doesn’t have to be more current than that. And how many examples do they need? I’ve seen firms build it on two, but ideally five, six? That’s plenty.

Mark O’Brien: I want to derail this a little bit. We’ll get back to positioning. Eventually to this. Just the fact that you’re here, you know, you’re live for this podcast is really exciting. David’s been here for two days now, and we’ve had the opportunity to put him in the client’s seat, and talk about all kinds of things relating to your business.

David Baker: You do all my marketing stuff behind the scenes, it’s great.

Mark O’Brien: And to have you here for two days, just to really dig deeply into that has been a ton of fun. And we were talking just before this podcast recording, that we met 17 years ago, when David first consulted Newfangled. And that was a few months after I was hired, and its been a great 17 years. I’ve come to think of you … and I just realized it this week, you’re kind like a godfather of Newfangled.

David Baker: The grouchy guy who kills people?

Chris Butler: Or like a bishop, you’re like a bishop. Planting agencies around the world.

Mark O’Brien: But I’ve said it many times, we’d have gone out of business five times over, if it weren’t for your advice, and one thing that strikes me about your books, is how much you give away in your books. And it feels like you’re trying to put yourself out of business by writing these books. Particularly this one, and the financial management book. When I read the financial management book and I read much of the best advice you’d ever given us right there in print for anyone to read. I couldn’t believe you were giving it away. And you charge quite a bit for that book, and you should, “I said that’s a zero too short, it should be 2,000 instead of 200.” Just because of how much is in there, and here as well, I’ve heard you say many of these things, but in closed paid contexts, right? Now for 30 bucks or something, you can get this book, which is amazing.

But a positioning concept, that I heard outside of your knowledge circle, recently that I’d like to get your opinion on, is the idea of the adjacent possible. So, this guy Steven Johnson writes about this idea in his book, Where Ideas Come From, that Dan Sullivan recently mentioned in a podcast, and the analogy … I’ve been trying to find an analogy for this thing, but this is a really good one, I want to hear your thoughts on it.

The idea of the adjacent possible, is that you’re in a room, and you just came in through one door, and there are three more doors, so there is four walls, and there is a door in each wall. So you get to choose one of those doors, and each one of those doors represents positioning, a step in a particular direction. And it takes courage to take any of those doors. You could just stay in the room you’re in, forever, right, and live and die in that room. But if you do choose to go through one of those doors, then you’re in a new room. And once you’re in that new room, because you’re there, you see the three new doors that are available to you. Impossible for you to see those three doors prior to going into that room, right?

And this is an aspect to positioning that’s been so intriguing to me, and I see it so true for Newfangled, and for the clients we’ve shared were. Once they choose to position, every two to five years, they see things they simply didn’t see before, the pattern watching you talk about all the time, and then they position deeper, and deeper, and deeper. And I don’t think there is an end to it, I’m not sure there is. For Newfangled it hasn’t been, and we’ve been at this thing for 20 some odd years, the positioning. So I’d like to hear your thoughts on this adjacent possible analogy, and the nature of this, the nature of the ever refining aspect of positioning.

David Baker: Yeah, that’s a great analogy. I haven’t heard it expressed exactly like that before. I’ve heard the concept in slightly different terms. Its interesting the way you just portrayed that. What stops us from making those positioning choices? In some cases, it really is lack of information. We don’t really know yet, whether this is a good idea. In other cases, it’s not that at all, it’s really lack of courage right? So, in some cases the world underneath us is changing, so our positioning needs to change a little bit.

But like all … I’m trying to think if this is actually true, I think it is … of all the firms I’ve worked with over the years, as they have chosen an initial positioning, they have narrowed that down over time, right? And that has been a very healthy thing, but the process means that they are saying no to so many things along the way. And I’ve often said, kind of in this context, when you look back over your life, and if you aren’t as successful, how do you define that as how do you think you could have been?

Will it be because you didn’t have enough opportunity? Or will it be because you didn’t make choices? So like in that room image, they had three rooms. So that opportunity, what keeps them in the room, is not making choices to do that, right? And then, not falling in love with your positioning. When we were talking about your redoing my entire web presence now, or getting started with that process. And we were talking about getting started with my positioning and we made a huge decision today, right? That probably I’ve thought about for probably a number of years, and its possible that it’s the wrong decision, but I think it’s pretty unlikely. It’s just fear, it’s an issue of fear for me, should I make that?

We both know Tim McAlpine. Remember? Like a generalist’s firm, wasn’t sure where the opportunity was, and so he had two placards up on the website, which none of us would have recommended, but one of them was high-end tourism, the other was Credit Unions, and Credit Unions was the clear choice, and then, next, its like only social media for Credit Unions, and then only social media for Credit Unions who sign up for this kind of a program, and we could tell that story in so many ways, right? Yeah. And it’s about expertise and that pattern matching.

Lauren Siler: One thing that you had said, is that one of the dangers ifs just not falling in love with your positioning. What do you do if you are at a crossroads where there is a clear choice as far as, where your expertise would lie, if you’re going to choose to narrow your focus, but you don’t want to do that work?

David Baker: Like it’s not enjoyable to you?

Lauren Siler: Yeah, I mean I worked for an agency, they happened to be located in an area where there are a lot of CRO’s. They did a lot of business for CRO’s. But they did not want to be the CRO agency. They didn’t want to focus in FARMA, they didn’t want to do that. They were really good at it, they had a lot of experience, a lot of connections that kept bringing in that business, and had to say yes to it, because it kept the doors open, but they would never, to this day, they will not-

David Baker: They just resisted it?

Lauren Siler: Yeah, because they don’t like the work, it’s not sexy work.

David Baker: Right, well how we answer that question changes a little bit as we age. So, typically the employees, and up to their low 30s would have a really hard time making that positioning choice, much harder time than people older than that. What happens at that boundary is, they’re still not really sure what they want to do, so they’re wanting to explore many things, and then they exchange that for confidence, but I think we all have to answer that question differently. Personally, I fall in love with confidence. I don’t have a problem … to me confidence is never boring. I don’t know exactly how to process that, but I certainly do understand that concept.

To me, enjoyment comes from a business that has the right balance of making money, having impact, primarily those two things, and if those are balanced. And then if you have employees, culture is very important to me. So those three things, and those are like the tripod, and then enjoyment hangs from that. But I think the problem comes in chasing enjoyment and then bending the legs of the tripod to support enjoyment. That’s what doesn’t work very well.

Mark O’Brien: That’s really good.

Chris Butler: I think you also have to think about where you’re getting that need met. For instance, I referenced the recent episode of your podcast, and really the heart of the debate you were having with Blair on that was the nature of where you draw information from. And you described, which I thought was a really interesting analogy, the idea of positioning as a T. Right? So the depth of the expertise is the post of the T, and then the horizontal span of the T is the application of that, that your scope. Blair didn’t say this, but was Blair was arguing for, was that somebody who was going to be the most effective and long-term expert, is actually going to be more widely exposed to things that are not directly related to their expertise, and I thought, well that’s actually kind of an inverted image, like a tack. So he’s widely studying widely, or widely informed, and so in incisiveness is going to be even more unique because of what he’s exposed to.

David Baker: And the incisiveness is anchored to a context that works, right?

Chris Butler: Right.

David Baker: So he’s not just some weird expert that people can’t relate to.

Chris Butler: Yeah, and I was listening to that today, and immediately that just put something in my head that I had put on Twitter. I wrote that philosophical specialization makes you dumb, uninteresting, and poor, but practical. Specialization makes you money. And that I think ties into the question you asked, which is that if you’re getting the need knack, like Blair’s talking about all these intellectual avenues he’s going down outside of his business, and how he might learn from like a bricklayer, just as much as he’d learn from someone that’s in his place. But also Blair’s obsession with all kinds of other things that don’t directly apply to his business, but he’s getting a need knack, and therefore he doesn’t need to pursue pleasure all the time at work. He can narrow the focus of business and enjoy the confidence. But also, if he’s really interested in some kind of scientific idea, he can pursue that outside of work, and in fact, the competence, the reliable competent of his work, supports his ability to detach from work, and go and get that need met.

Just one other thought to add to that that I’ve referenced is that Phil Johnson, who we’ve talked about before and is a former client of ours, wrote an article years and years ago, that I never forgot, for adage, where he basically said that you have to get your ego’s need met outside of work. In order to allow your team to bring out their best work, not try to be the smartest person in the room. Now if you take that concept and apply it to the positioning issue, yeah, maybe choosing an area where you have uber competence, but maybe not that same level of passion, may end up being the best choice, because your passions fulfill somewhere else. Or, you bring in your passions from somewhere and find interesting ways to apply that to your practical expertise.

Lauren Siler: Well right, and that’s a concept you write about this in the book, about being a well-rounded individual and making sure that you’re exploring different areas of interest just to be an interesting. The more that you’re exposing yourself to different perspectives, you can come and apply that to your expertise in different areas of focus, and that’s actually going to make you better at your job.

David Baker: Yeah, yeah absolutely.

Mark O’Brien: It’s been fun.

Chris Butler: It has.

David Baker: Thank you.

Mark O’Brien: David C. Baker, The Business of Expertise, How Entrepreneurial Experts Convert Insight into Impact and Wealth, already an international best-seller. Well is it 40 countries?

David Baker: Well, except for that last-yeah, yeah.

Mark O’Brien: 40 countries?

David Baker: It’s a little early, but thank you for the anticipatory compliment.

Lauren Siler: And where can everybody buy the book?

David Baker: On Amazon, or they can go to our website, which is And I’d be happy to sign a copy if you want as well. It lowers the value and makes it a little bit harder to resell but. And thank you for all of the work that you folks at Newfangled have done for me over the years.

Mark O’Brien It’s been a pleasure.

Chris Butler: Yeah, it’s a real pleasure working with you. Thanks for joining us today!

David Baker: Sure, thank you.

Lauren Siler: All right.