Three quarters of senior executives say that thought leadership is the most effective way for a consulting firm to market its services, a recent survey we carried out reveals. Thought leadership, we know, can help ensure a consulting firm is invited to pitch for a piece of work; it strengthens existing relationships by providing a reason to stay in touch and is a vital door-opener where new clients are concerned. Another survey we’ve just completed shows that it even plays a role in the decision about which firm goes on an organisation’s Tier 1 preferred supplier list.
Why, when consulting firms have other marketing tools at their disposal, has thought leadership become so important? Perhaps because it can do things the consulting ‘firm’ can’t. As such, it plays a vital role in mitigating some of the inherent weaknesses in today’s consulting model. Thought leadership is scalable, for example: you can send a report out to thousands of people, whom it would take years for a single expert to visit. It can also demonstrate a firm’s investment in, and commitment to, a specific field, so even the biggest firm can appear to be a specialist – that, while the ‘library’ may be large and difficult to navigate, it contains just the book the client needs. Thought leadership, in other words, is focused while the firm is broad, and expert where the firm is generalist. It can even take risks when a firm can’t – indeed, one of the most important trends we see in thought leadership at the moment is the emergence of material which is more obviously opinionated, championing a cause in an obviously partisan way, rather than being measured and even-handed.
But if thought leadership does what a firm can’t do, how well can a firm do thought leadership? All over the world we see firms struggling to produce outstanding thought leadership. Good, competent pieces are within their grasp, but these do little to attract and maintain the attention of busy, distracted clients. Some of the best material – think Booz & Company’s strategy + business magazine and bcgperspectives.com – put a bit of space between them and their firms.
As thought leadership becomes increasingly important and readers’ expectations rise, it’s going to be even harder for consulting firms to produce the quality of material they need. Rising to that challenge is going to require a radical re-think of how firms do thought leadership; in particular, it raises the question of whether consulting firms need to produce it or whether their role is to source it. Channelling the best ideas to its audience, not necessarily its own ideas, has long been one of the distinguishing features of strategy + business, and perhaps that inclusivity – the consulting firm as arbiter of good thinking – is the way forward.
But all this depends on the answer to an interesting question: to what extent does a firm have to be the author of its own material. Are the benefits which accrue to the firm from thought leadership only realisable if the firm itself produces it? Is the firm the artist (so authenticity matters) or the talent spotter (which comes down to speed, practical application and good judgement)?
I don’t know the answer, but I think the consulting industry needs to ask its clients the question, and quickly.