Why Thought Leadership

November 07, 2010

Why Thought Leadership

 Busy week with travel and such.  We had an event for Corporate Communications Officers in San Francisco on our new survey, Rising CCO, which we conduct every year with Spencer Stuart. We had a terrific panel and engaged audience and added more to our growing knowledge on the challenges facing CCOs. More on this as we put our notes together on the stimulating discussion.
On the plane back, I had a chance to read an article about “Thought Leadership.” The headline was “Free Thinking” and the sub-head was Why Expensive Consultancy Firms Are Giving Away More Research. Good question and one I think about often since a good portion of my job is directly related to thought leadership. Why do consultancies do research, issue white papers and distribute them for free (aka Rising CCO)? There must be a good reason for thought leadership if firms such as McKinsey, Bain, Boston Consulting and Accenture are spending all this time on thought leadership reports. Although thought leadership is not new, my inbox seems jammed with thought leadership reports and promotions. I am not alone.  According to Sourceforconsulting.com, management consulting firms have upped their games — the number of reports from the top 25 firms have quintupled since 2004.  

Here are the reasons cited in the article for why thought leadership is growing faster and faster. Mind you, no one is able to deliver a financial return on thought leadership (ROTL–does not roll off the tongue like ROI) but that does not seem to matter from what the article says.

  1. Thought Leadership is a form of marketing since it is an excuse to call on clients or show your wares with podcasts and webinars. I agree with this because  insightful research does get your company name in front of the right people either through word of mouth, online search or third party mentions in the online and offline media.
  2. Thought Leadership attracts the best talent.  I agree here. For consulting firms, thought leadership promises intellectual stimulation that investment banking might not do as well. The fresh crop of MBAs might be swayed to investigate a consulting firm or even join based on these kinds of reports and insights. Apparently, positions at McKinsey‘s Global Institute, BCG‘s Strategy Institute and IBM‘s Institute for Business Value are all highly fought over among the graduate school set. In the industry I work in — public relations, top agencies compete on ideas and insights in addition to accounts. Not only does it attract talent but it builds employee pride. I hope I am not all wet here but I think it makes a difference internally and helps retain employees.

I would add one other reason to why thought leadership matters to firms which The Economist did not add. Thought leadership adds depth to a company’s reason for being. We often write about and talk about the factors beyond the bottom line that build reputation, factors such as purpose and responsibility. It seems to me that thought leadership deepens the personality of a firm, telegraphs where the firm thinks the worldis headed and is a form of giving back to clients by informing the industry about new trends and transformational ideas that count.

As I mentioned above, the sub headline of the article was “Why Expensive Consultancy Firms Are Giving Away More Research.” Part of the answer to this query is because Firms Are Giving Back Leading Thoughts that benefit us all and perhaps shine a light on the purpose of it all.

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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of corporate and CEO reputations.

  • Chris Williams
    Posted at 13:31h, 12 November Reply

    Hi Leslie,As an ex employee of The Economist Group and now EMEA Director of Forbes Insights, the thought leadership arm of Forbes Media LLC I read your blog with great interest.

    The point you make about ROTL is very pertinent: there is often such a long and convoluted connection between a company’s thought leadership initiatives and the ultimate purchasing decision of an executive reading a report that it can seem to all intents and purposes untraceable.

    However this need not necessarily be the case. Companies like Google, SAP, EMC and Deloitte can (and do) use a third party research and media company like Forbes Insights to both help them create and distribute their thought leadership.

    People who subsequently download these reports which are hosted on Forbes.com (as well as on the sponsor company’s website) are asked to fill in some basic information such as job title and company.

    These top-line details (subject to local data privacy rules) can then be passed on to the sponsor of the thought leadership.

    Given that a typical Forbes Insights report will be downloaded by more than a thousand executives this does provide the Marketing Director of the sponsor company with some pretty robust ROI metrics to take to the partners or stakeholders who may have funded the report’s publication.

    If the company sponsoring the report then refers back to this list of executives six months or a year later then there will be the possibility to cross reference companies and job titles with new or increased client business.

    This is by no means definitive but it does at least offer some degree of traceability.

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