I had previously dismissed a recent article by The Economist on the concept of “thought leadership” as just an opinion, until someone posted an intriguing comment on a MarketingProfs blog post that I wrote last year on the strength of thought leadership as a marketing tool in 2009, based, in part, on data from The Economist. James asked a very intriguing question in his comment:
Doesn’t the fact that The Economist itself said in a recent editorial “All consulting firms seek to provide what they annoyingly call “thought leadership” mean that they are effectively disowning this whole concept?
I have been stewing on this a bit after I had also read that article. I was annoyed, but not annoyed enough until James put it into context for me (or, it’s Friday and I’m just a bit excited…). Thusly, I feel compelled to refute some of the statements in the article as I don’t feel that they reflect the true nature of the discipline of thought leadership and the value it brings to professional services businesses when applied in the proper context of an overall marketing strategy. Considering that The Economist appears to be an editorial/opinion, I don’t know that The Economist is disowning the concept wholesale (the question raised by James), though I think that they’ve raised the collective level of skepticism on the whole concept of ‘thought leadership’ as we know it. Further, the whole article appears to have been written by someone who seems generally annoyed at any form of marketing, as evidenced by this statement:
“Their reports (and, increasingly, their webinars and podcasts) are an excuse to contact potential clients and a way of boasting about the brainpower they can apply to problems.”
An excuse? (that’s call business development) Boasting? (that’s called positioning…among other things). Brainpower they can apply to problems? (you were expecting a lack of brainpower? No one EVER says “Our company has challenges I can’t solve, so I hired the cheapest consultant I could find to try to sort it out.”)
I have seen a fair bit of discussion on the web where people are annoyed with the term “thought leadership”. I’m a bit confused as to why that’s so “annoying” as they’ve said. The article correctly points out that the firms put together these research reports and white papers at great cost to the firm, and that makes sense. If they’re applying the required rigor (among other things that make for a sound thought leadership piece), then of course it will cost money. Good advertising costs money too. (and many proclaim to find advertising annoying as well)
One of the ideas behind thought leadership is to ‘sell’ or ‘share’ an idea or concept and an organization’s unique point of view on that concept. A potential buyer of consulting services can determine a bit about the company they may hire by the quality of their thoughts and ideas. I would ask “what’s a better way than thought leadership?” Advertising in business magazines? Infomercials? Dimensional direct mail? At the end of the day, it’s a valuable tool for these consultancies.
I was a bit surprised that The Economist reported that “consultancies cannot prove they are” in reference to the question “is thought leadership worth it?” I know from my modest efforts as a solo consultant that thought leadership is effective. The number of leads generated from webinars, whitepapers, articles, speaking engagements is sufficient to keep a robust pipeline for my business based on results from organizations we’ve worked with, they’ve had similar positive results.
The article also, correctly I might add, pointed out that:
“Clients rarely say they hire a firm on the strength of its free publications.”
Of course they don’t. There are numerous factors that go into ‘hiring’ a firm. Just like no one would hire a firm based on the airport ads, their golf spokespeople or myriad other factors. Any smart marketer knows that those are all elements in a larger marketing equation.
At the end of the day, the editorial is just that. It appears to be a mere opinion manifested as an article on their personal pet peeve related to the words “thought leadership” that ignores a raft of marketing principles and dismisses much of what goes into effective marketing using thought leadership techniques as something that consulting firms have cooked up to coax companies into doing business with them.
Then again, in the spirit of the editorial in question, that’s just my opinion.