Los pensadores no están liderando – Thought Leadership

(agosto de 2008)

Alguien puso en palabras formales lo que yo digo siempre caseramente, qué bueno. El artículo es un poco aburrido y además podría ser mejor. Pero ojalá los motive a la acción.

Thought Leadership – The New CRM?

By: Roger White, Roger White · Professional Marketing · April 01, 2003

The thinkers aren’t leading…

A few weeks ago the Marketing Director of a major professional services firm said to us that, “thought leadership is the new CRM for professional services firms, everyone is talking about it and hardly anyone is doing it…”

Thought Leadership is currently one of the most overworked phrases in professional services marketing, and in reality might be translated as “we need some press coverage on this topic”. We have reviewed many marketing plans in which a stated objective is to achieve a thought leadership position in a particular market niche. This overview article looks at four key issues:

*                     What does this actually mean in practice?

*                     What are the benefits of thought leadership?

*                     What are the key success factors in achieving thought leadership?

*                     How can one go about becoming a thought leader?

There is clearly a paradox here since in many professional firms there is a latent potential to achieve the position of a thought leader Professionals of all varieties often have great insight, way beyond their narrow technical specialisation, and are good at thinking. So why is more not happening? In a board meeting we only came up with a handful of examples from the professions where we could recall more than one action in building a position in a market niche.


What happens in practice… and why?

Everyone wants to be a thought leader but few really are. In reality thought leadership in professional services firms is usually nothing more than a book to be published, a survey to be publicised, maybe an event to speak at and probably a press release to be issued. This is not thought leadership, its pure day-to-day PR, something to hang a story on for a brief flurry of media attention and to boost a partner’s ego. And in our view this still has its place.

So why do professional services firms feel the need to be thought leaders and what should they be doing to achieve that status? Well let’s start by defining the problem.

The fundamental problem is not that professional services firms call one-off marketing initiatives “thought leadership’, but because well targeted issues are often treated as a PR exercise they have no plan in place to properly exploit the thinking that has taken place. Some internal marketing people or traditional PR Companies who are neither expert in the issue or in developing successful sustainable thought leadership campaigns often find it difficult to create campaigns that achieve thought leadership status. In our view most traditional PR companies are not particularly well placed to develop campaigns, though their traditional press contacts may be valuable.

Thirdly, thought leadership requires serious effort, including thinking…that in turn is going to require partner or senior associate time. We have observed, no names or pack drill, that partners who, often single-handedly, achieve serious profile for their firm often do so at the peril of their billing targets, partnership or their domestic life or all three. It is unlikely that you will achieve thought leader status in your spare time or with a 1600 hour target… So if “thought leadership” is a term in your marketing plan, quantify it and get the management on side.

Lastly, there is often good work going on by firms under the umbrella of a trade association or professional bodies. However, marketing thinking may not be bought to bear on this type of activity, as partners may not see it as a marketing issue, rather something that reflects a personal interest or a straight “pro bono” for the profession or the industry. In fact, many trade associations, short of funds, are willing to jointly badge important work in recognition of the effort expended.

Too often the thinking is often shallow and amounts to little more than yet another survey or series of articles. That’s OK, but lets just be honest about it and stop pretending it is more than it is. You might surprise yourself and get better value from it and avoid disappointment internally!


Key sources and elements of thought leadership…

But if we want to be real thought leaders and gather the benefits in brand building this can produce, what should you be doing?

For the purposes of this article we have defined genuine Thought Leaders as those who influence board or management decisions. They tend to be the leading management thinkers, like Tom Peters, Michael Porter, Harvey Jones, or leading figures in an industry, like Bill Gates. Most firms are more likely to target a specific issue or an industry that aligns with their business development programmes. Firms of the scale and calibre of McKinsey may try and cover a broad spectrum of activities through its eponymous “Quarterly” but for most firms the scope will be more focused.

For specific industries trade associations also carry weight particularly where government policy and regulations are in play. Business schools may add research capability and credibility to research-based projects. The growing array of think tanks tend not be taken seriously by business, as they are not always seen as practical, though there are exceptions.

The things that tend to make real thought leaders successful are also the things that count against professional services firms. What are those things?

Real industry or issue specific knowledge counts for everything. Good ideas, supported with research need to be matched to an understanding of the issues at board level. The topics and issues chosen should be ones of importance to clients and potential clients, or to be issues that are of significance. (Who would have thought corporate governance would have been such a hot boardroom topic during the long bull-market?)

Thought Leaders are expected to bring an independent view on an issue, and not be leading into a sales pitch for their own benefit. That means giving balanced commentary. Professional services firms are frequently blatant in how they present their `thought leadership’ and their sceptical audiences can be turned off. Even worse they usually fail to have the sales plan in place to exploit the potential that still does exist…

Certainly thought leaders should be creative, innovative and provocative but they must do it from a foundation of reasoned argument and preferably empirical research. Audiences expect thought leaders to bring clarity and succinctness to their position, not waffle or legalistic technical jargon, the very things professional services firms’ spokesmen by their nature and training are happiest with. Also they should be capable of covering the angles of all the stakeholders affected by the topic.

And thought leaders are expected to be around for a while, maintaining long-term relationships with their audiences. They are not one hit wonders. Would-be professional services firms thought leaders usually publish, perform and then disappear.

So if those are the factors that thought leaders are expected to deliver how can a professional services firms become one and reap the real and tangible benefits that ensue?


Planning to become a thought leader?

Thought Leaders do three things well. They raise the profile and deepen the understanding of an issue. They provide good coverage and opinion of industry events to their industry peers. They introduce new topics to the board on their chosen fields and they do those things over a prolonged timeframe. Because of that, they deliver sustained awareness, publicity, differentiation and added credibility to their organisation. That brings added power in the market place and enhances the environment for new business generation. The acid test used by advertising agencies for advertising campaigns is relevant. Does the idea have legs? Is it “buildable”? (If not it still may be a good one-off initiative.)

General rules of thumb are that organisations are more influential than individuals; commentators who tackle current issues are most valued; and those who maintain regular contact with their audiences are most highly regarded. That means that you have to exploit the full potential of the original and creative thinking that has taken place:

*                     Think and plan beyond the initial PR burst;

*                     Think about the long-term targeting of the message to key audiences;

*                     Plan to take the message to your audiences singly (particularly journalists who are key opinion formers) in groups and to the mass market;

*                     Plan to do it over a sustained period;

*                     Plan to build it into your overall marketing and communications plans and activities;

*                     Keep your thinking up to date.

The truly successful thought leadership organisations are the ones who can sustain a programme over a long period. If you build a position you need to reinforce and defend it, not just open the door for the competitors. To quote an old adage: Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you have told them. Then do it all over again, and again. As marketing people you may be bored but most of your audience still won’t have heard your views even after a year!


Roger White and Robert Pay are with Jaffe Associates, a business development consultancy focused on the professions. Roger was latterly Corporate Affairs Director of PwC.

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