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Thought leadership

2013: the bells toll for the old thought leadership model

“If a consulting firm hasn’t written about it, we assume it doesn’t know anything about it.”

That off-the-cuff comment which we recently heard from a major buyer of consulting services is, in a nutshell, the thought leadership story of 2013.

From other research we already know that thought leadership has been playing an increasingly important role in short-listing decisions, but it’s always been expressed in positive terms, along the lines of “If a firm has written a good report or article on a subject, then we’ll be more inclined to get them to come in and talk to us.”  This comment sounds much more draconian: you’ve either got the expertise – in which case you’ll be writing about it – or you haven’t.

And it ups the ante for the consulting industry.  It confirms thought leadership as consulting firms’ most powerful marketing weapon, but it also means that thought leadership and strategy have to be far more closely aligned.  Thought leadership ceases to be something done in an ad hoc, fragmented fashion: success won’t come from serendipity (someone just happening to write about the right topic at the right time) but from intent.

At the same time, pressures are mounting from a different direction.  Some of the traditional ways of producing thought leadership aren’t working.  Research is a good example: liberally distributing the results of an expensive survey in your publications used to be a differentiator but even the smallest firms do this now; primary research has to be either very clever or very big to stand out.  The visual design of much thought leadership is light years ahead of the dry and dusty publications of the past but it’s no longer distinctive.  Bad material looks beautiful too.  Social and digital media complicate the picture further: we’ve yet to find a firm which uses Twitter or Facebook as a really effective thought leadership channel (although we are looking and will be reporting back on this in the spring).

Incremental change won’t be enough.  Building on the marketing-as-a-weapon metaphor, then the current situation is perhaps analogous to the First World War. First there was paralysis: railways delivered men and materiel so efficiently to the front lines that armies rarely became overstretched and vulnerable.  The existing technology didn’t give any side an advantage: everyone could use heavy guns to pound their enemy from a distance.  It took a new strategy (the recognition that the war wasn’t going to be won by traditional means), overwhelming resources (the arrival of US troops on Europe’s killing fields) and completely different technology (the tank) to break the deadlock once and for all.

And that’s needed here.  Consulting firms need to re-think their approach to thought leadership from scratch.  Less money should be frittered away by people writing whatever they want and more invested in centrally-coordinated thought leadership.  Some seriously innovative thinking needs to go into developing a game-changing approach to content or publication.

In thought leadership terms, 2012 was the equivalent of 1916: stuck in the mud.  2013 will, we predict, be the year in which some firms break out of the trenches, leaving others struggling, increasingly far behind.  Complacency is the enemy now.  “Never,” advised the poet John Donne half a millennium ago, “send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”