Claire Mason

Putting The Thought Back Into The Thinking Professions: The Challenge of Effective Thought Leadership

Posted on 17th April 2014 by Claire Mason

Thought leadership, the creation and dissemination of ideas that lead, is the most effective form of marketing for the knowledge economy, but it’s also the trickiest to get right. Nowhere is this more fundamental than in the ‘thinking professions’, whose success depends on how they develop and promote their intellectual capital.

We set out to investigate the state of thought leadership amongst the organisations with the most to gain from thought leadership. Our new Follow The Leader report, based on the insights of 100 CMOs from the UK’s top 25 accountancy, management consultancy and legal firms, highlights just how critical thought leadership has become.

Putting the thought back into the thinking professions: the challenge of effective thought leadership

The Rise and Rise of Thought Leadership

There is no longer any debate about the critical importance of thought leadership to marketing the professions. Nine out of ten (91%) professional services marketers believe thought leadership is the key battleground for professional services firms, 97% see it as critically important to their firm and 96% say it will become even more so over the next 3 years.

Nine out of ten (92%) CMOs told us that thought leadership is the single most effective way to differentiate their firm and 87% ventured that the thought leaders of today will be the market leaders of tomorrow. More than half (54%) of professional services CMOs now believe their firm can no longer differentiate on service.

On average thought leadership-related marketing activity now represents almost a quarter (23%) of the marketing budget and a fifth of marketing time (21%), with nine in ten (87%) professional services marketers expecting to increase thought leadership investment in the next budget cycle.

Thought Followership Is Contagious

However, despite investing more importance, time and resource in thought leadership than ever before, our research reveals an epidemic of “thought followership” amongst the thinking professions.

CMOs in the largest and most respected firms admit that 62% of their own so-called thought leadership output is simply copied from competitors. Three-quarters of professional services marketers believe that ideas are the greatest source of differentiation for their firm, yet they remain locked in an echo chamber of copycat ideas, following their competitors rather than producing the industry-leading insight that their clients and prospects demand.

Ideas Worth Following

Thought leadership is about ideas that lead: generating original thought and having the courage to lead a market. But we are seeing the thinking professions lose ground in an area they should arguably be leading, with CMOs frustrated by aspects of the culture and structure of firms which perpetuate this groupthink.

While marketers can see the benefits of a big idea in theory, thinking big is challenging in practice. More than two-thirds (70%) of CMOs believe their current thought leadership output lacks a big idea and 58% consider their content to be too sales-driven.

Idea generation is a critical challenge for CMOs, with campaign ideas driven by the marketing and communications team in nine out of ten firms (87%), while almost half (46%) of CMOs struggle to gain any partner time and engagement for thought leadership campaigns. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of CMOs feel too close to the coalface to spot emerging issues and macro-economic trends, and two-thirds admit their thought leadership output is too internally focused, based on what the firm wants to talk about rather than what clients want or need to know. Without this critical insight from partners and subject matter experts, four in five (81%) marketing leaders confess that their firm struggles to generate any genuinely new insights or points of view.

CMOs themselves dedicate less than a fifth (17%) of campaign time to getting the strategy and the big idea right, despite the critical impact of this stage on downstream sales and marketing activity. But extraordinary thinking doesn’t happen by accident – firms need to develop a formal ideas incubation process to channel partner expertise into genuinely useful insight.

Developing Resilience

For those concepts which do germinate, professional services firms can be a cold and even hostile climate. Almost three-quarters (73%) of professional services marketers feel that their firm doesn’t providing a nurturing environment for new ideas. But without a climate of innovation good ideas will never survive internal processes. Competing voices gradually dilute their power and originality, with many initiatives cancelled altogether and good ideas left to die on the vine.

Nine out of ten (91%) CMOs say that partners push them to cover the same topics as everyone else and three-quarters (75%) admit that their firm is too concerned about being seen to be negative or critical to say anything meaningful. Just a third (35%) of CMOs feel able to shepherd good ideas through the firm without dilution. Nine in ten regularly see good ideas being corrupted by too many competing voices internally (90%) and complain that ideas are stretched too thin by trying to reach too many audiences (85%).

Effective thought leadership demands focus: to succeed marketing leaders need to have a clear mandate for what they will, and will not, do. Too much bottom up activity from sector and practice areas means fragmented, and ultimately wasted, time and resource. Instead this energy needs to be usefully guided into focused campaigns. The marketing function needs autonomy to focus on the right things and to be the final arbiter of thought leadership in order to develop, protect and articulate ideas with impact.

Integration, Integration, Integration

Our research highlights the difficulty firms face in commercialising their thought leadership and effectively integrating their intellectual capital with marketing, business development and client activity. Success varies widely across the professions, with four in five legal (82%) and accountancy marketers (78%) confident that thought leadership helps them win new business, but just half (50%) of consultancy marketers delivering commercial impact from their thought leadership activity.

Professional services marketers need to demonstrate the value of ideas-led marketing, emphasising the ties between an idea and how it plays out through sales, marketing and client activity. This ensures business leaders can see the commercial benefits of innovative ideas and in turn support the investment of time, resource and effort required to make thought leadership work.

Thought Leadership For Good

Professional services firms are recognising the importance of thought leadership in achieving future business growth, but as our Follow the Leader report shows, there is now a necessity to cut through the noise and begin creating ideas worth following.

It’s time to change the focus from ‘me-too’ content to thought leadership for good – genuinely game changing insight that is useful and actionable for your firm, clients, prospects and even wider society. Thought leadership for good requires firms to have the courage get off the fence and say something truly original. Professional services firms spend vast amounts of time and expense on thought leadership unworthy of the name. It’s now time for marketing to take centre stage and develop the ideas that win new business and lead the market. For the firms willing to make this leap, the return on ideas will be tremendous.

To read the full report and sign up for future insights into thought leadership please visit www.manbitesdog.com/followtheleader

‘Putting The Thought Back Into The Thinking Professions: The Challenge of Effective Thought Leadership’ was originally published in PSMG (15/4/2014)

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