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Being a High-Performance Creative Firm
by David C. Baker

It doesn’t take an enormous amount of work to be an average firm, but it takes more dedication—and knowledge—to transform a firm into a high-performance one. Let me suggest some specific metrics for becoming a high-performance firm, beginning with the priorities a principal should follow.

Without a single exception, there are five priorities on which the principal focuses. It’s not just the list that’s important—but the sequence is also in a very specific order. Make sure you’re doing the first one, and if that’s all you have time to do, then so be it. But if you are doing the first one well, you can and should advance to the second priority—and so on, until there is no more time or energy left. We’ll walk through all five of them, but you really only need to worry about the first three (unless you’re a really small marketing firm).

No. 1: Minding the finances. The first priority of a principal or manager is to pilot the ship. That means ensuring accurate tracking of the firm’s financial performance against industry benchmarks, useful forecasting and prudent decisions about the source and use of money. Armed with that information, principals will make good decisions about staffing, benefits, facility, miscellaneous overhead and the use of outside resources. Other people can help do all this, but the principal’s finger must be on the financial pulse of the firm.

No. 2: Hiring/molding key staff. There’s been a shift over the last few years to the point where it’s actually more difficult to find the right people than the right clients. It follows, of course, that there’s more at stake when principals make a mistake with employees than with clients. A marketing plan for staff is necessary to yield so many candidates that a principal can be picky about finding that influential person with the right talent and perspective on the working culture of the firm.

If you are currently spending your time taking care of clients, you’re on an endless treadmill that’ll keep you running until you’re so tired that you collapse and fall off. You’re solving the same problems every day, and growth will only exacerbate it.

Of course, a major portion of your effectiveness in managing these key people will depend on hiring the right ones in the first place. So before writing the marketing plan for staff, start with the right positioning: crafting a place where great people want to work, in part because you’re there shaping them.

By the way, if you aren’t sure who is in this group, consider that you should not have more than six people or so reporting to you. That is the group.

No. 3: Positioning/closing opportunity. Once a principal has nailed those two things, it’s time to make sure the firm has a very clear and differentiated positioning in the marketplace, built around deep expertise that’s different from nearly every one of your peer firms. Even though that task is critical, it is not time-consuming, and need only be revisited every few years. From there, it’s important to have a presence in the process of closing opportunity while making clients out of prospects. While a principal doesn't need to orchestrate that process, the prospect should register that the principal has been visible, complimented the team that will serve them and described the culture of the firm—their new partner.

These three are as far as you need to go, but if you still have time and energy left, add the next two, in order.

No. 4: Strategizing for clients. You’ve been doing this for years (standing “naked” in front of prospects and clients, thinking on your feet), guiding recommendations to clients from your acquired expertise. The best way to be involved with clients without being their daily go-to person is to bounce in and out of the relationship, while you help them formulate the strategic portion of the marketing plan for their product or service.

Clients will be grateful for your attention, and your employees will soak up the shared knowledge that’s imparted in
the process. C. Baker
David C. Baker (, author of Managing (Right) for the First Time, is a leading management consultant for the creative services field. Through ReCourses, Inc., he has guided hundreds of firms through management issues, difficult transitions and growth.