The Economist Gets Thought Leadership Wrong

Posted on by Dana VanDen Heuvel

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.

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  • Anonymous

    It is impossible to separate thought leadership from content marketing–which is the currency of B2B marketing. Dana, as you have said, you have built your business on the strength of your content. Perhaps no one hires a vendor based on the strength of its free publications, but do they notice a vendor based on thought leadership? Absolutely.

    There’s no question that the types of reports discussed in The Economist’s article are effective content marketing vehicles–otherwise the good people at McKinsey, BCG et al wouldn’t invest in creating them. The author of this article simply doesn’t get B2B marketing. The answer to the question in the subtitle, “Why expensive consultancy firms are giving away more research,” is the same for all B2Bs: thought leadership is a differentiator; it makes good marketing sense.

  • Craig Badings

    Dana, I have purposely stayed away from commenting on the Economist piece for a few days so I wouldn’t say what first came to my mind when reading this article.

    Fortunately this is the great thing about non-evidence based articles – they are merely opinions and we are all free to share those. This is merely just another opinion from a commentator who has been annoyed somewhere down the track by some thought leadership material or the loose use of the term. But then on the latter aren’t we all?

    However, if it was the Economist’s stance one would have to entertain words like hypocritical. Afer all what is the purpose of The Economist Debates, The Economist Intelligence Unit and The Economist Conferences? Yes you guessed it, The Economists’ very own thought leadership platforms.

    Maybe the commentator who penned this article should ask the Economist’s customers whether this thought leadership is ‘annoying’ them.

  • Miles Channing

    The irony of course is that there is a whole (and very lucrative) industry selling thought leadership products i.e. white papers and surveys to these consultancies. The number one player in this market? The Economist through its Economist Intelligence Unit subsidiary. A quick online search reveals that they happily use the phrase “thought leadership” on this website and that they have on-going thought leadership projects for PWC, CIMA, Siemens and others. What Contentfactor also assumes wrongly is that it is a single journalist at The Economist voicing an opinion. The Economist speaks with a single voice i.e. no journalist is attributed to an article because whatever is written is effectively an editorial opinion.

  • Christopher Sankey

    It does seem that commissioning thought leadership products from The Economist Intelligence Unit is not unlike buying your bacon from a mosque

  • Guy Dunn

    I work for the Economist Intelligent Unit’s thought leadership business. I have to defend The Economist as it is not being hypocritical here. There is a complete church and state chasm between the Economist editorial team and the Economist Group’s more commercial business, including its ‘thought leadership’ businesses. The Economist journalist team feel free to express their opinion on any subject they choose, regardless of (as in this instance) it effectively means they are criticising another part of the company. In fact, criticising another part of the company could even mean that the journalist is even keener to make the comment!
    This editorial independence is a cornerstone of The Economist and something to celebrate. It can bring problems for other parts of the Group though. For instance, we recently had to cancel a conference in an emerging market as several of that country’s ministers (including the prime minister) withdrew as keynote speakers after an article in The Economist criticised them. The writer of the article was completely unswayed about whether an event was taking place or not: they saw a story and simply wrote it. That is how it should be.
    Our thought leadership businesses maintain the same editorial standards of rigour, transparency and integrity as The Economist. They have to as they operate under the company’s brand. However, the same church and state chasm does not make sense as it operates as a consultancy and clearly needs to meet clients etc.
    I hope this helps.
    Very interesting website, by the way.

  • Isabelle Cave

    Guy, at the end of the day clients buying your thought leadership are doing so to associate themselves with the power of The Economist brand. It is disingenuous to claim that criticizing your own products (which The Economist Group makes millions out of) is somehow a sign of integrity. It is at best an unscripted “Ratner” moment that indicates the contempt the journalists have for the commercial people who ultimately pay their wages and at worst breath-taking hypocrisy.

  • Guy

    I think it is more complicated than that. Clients are certainly trying to associate themselves with the Economist Group brand. They want to do so because of the perceived editorial independence associated with the brand. That editorial independence effectively gives the journalists the option to comment on any subject they like in the way they choose – even if, in this instance, it ends up indirectly criticising another Economist Group business. The editorial ethos is that if this is what the journalist thought, s/he should be free to write it. Not to write it – simply because of the Group’s thought leadership business – would go against the notion of editorial independence and integrity.
    At the same time, the thought leadership editorial team draw on the same editorial tradition and that is what can make our content quite powerful.
    The article referred to may or may not be irritating for those of us working in the thought leadership business but that is just the way it is here.
    It’s certainly not a Ratner moment. IMHO.

  • Guy

    As you can see from below, I work at the Economist Group.
    The Economist team writes anonymously to give the notion of there being a collective voice. However, in practice that is more practically applied on the big issues – should we be in Libya? Whom should we vote for in the next election? etc.
    In this instance, the article would almost undoubtedly just be an individual voicing an opinion. The Economist editorial team will not have a collective voice or view on thought leadership, not least because several of them have worked for that side of the business as well.