Unable to see the wood for the trees: a tale of thought leadership in the professional services industry

Guest post by Simon Griffiths, thought leadership editor

I’m not sure anyone could ever realistically put a figure on the amount that the professional services industry spends on thought leadership. Surveys, research, writers, designers, academics; these things rarely come cheap. And that’s before you even factor in the cost of the time spent by the authors themselves.

Whatever the number is, it’s typically seen as acceptable because thought leadership (TL) is apparently something that all such organisations should produce as a matter of course. It’s an expected part of being a professional strategist or advisor.

But what if much of that cost was wasted? What if much of the content produced does little to enhance brand values, to kick-start interesting client conversations or to move an organisation a step closer to being seen as genuine thought leaders?

Sadly, I think that’s exactly what is happening. In fact, I would suggest that the majority of the content currently generated within professional services which purports to be TL isn’t actually TL at all.

I believe that most of it should more accurately be described as commercial marketing content.

So much content that I see has no clear hypothesis, it favours straightforward reportage over more editorially engaging insight and opinion and often makes little or no attempt to hide the self-serving commerciality which gave rise to the content in the first place.

That’s not to say it’s bad content. Some of it can be quite interesting as reference material. Some of it is beautifully presented and marketed. Some of it, I’m sure, will make its authors thousands of pounds in fees.

But it’s not thought leadership.

If it’s commercial marketing collateral, designed to tell the reader what the author knows and/or what the author does, then let’s just call it commercial marketing collateral.

Let’s reserve TL as a classification for content which genuinely articulates what the author thinks. Let’s reclaim that tag for the content for which it was intended.

What’s in a name? Well, the longer that we – as an industry – continue to pump out content which does little to turn the dial towards something more cerebral or intellectual, the more disenchanted our buyers become. Pretty soon, that TL tag is going to be seen as the most sure-fire way of having content sent immediately to Deleted Items.

An assessment of content

Reviewing content is always going to be a hugely subjective exercise. Nevertheless, to investigate this issue further, we selected 47 pieces of content (on the subjects of cyber, social media and mobility) at random from the Whitespace database (covering 24 different content-producing organisations). Our team then reviewed each piece of content against seven key indicators which I believe characterise a decent piece of TL.

The seven questions the reviewers considered were as follows:

  • Does this content feature (a) a clear hypothesis; or (b) no hypothesis?
  • Does this content contain (a) opinion and insight; or (b) reportage and factual commentary?
  • Is the subject matter (a) topical; or (b) out-of date and/or self-serving?
  • Is the content (a) not explicitly commercial; or (b) explicitly commercial?
  • Is this content (a) cerebral / conceptual / inspirational; or (b) granular / detailed?
  • Does this content contain or highlight (a) intellectual tension; or (b) no intellectual tension?
  • Does this content’s credibility (if it has any!) come from (a) primary research and/or who the author is; or (b) from other sources, such as case studies?

Reviewers awarded one point for each of the categories above in which a piece of content exhibited characteristics which made it closer to the (a) end of the scale than the (b) end.

I set an unashamedly high editorial bar on this review process. If TL is a barometer of an organisation’s intellectual prowess – which I think it should be – then it needs to be robustly challenged from an editorial point of view.

My feeling was that anything which scored six or seven on this scale fell into the category of content which focused on “what we think” and therefore deserved to be called TL.

Of those 47 pieces, just seven scored this highly. Even if the bar is dropped to bring in those pieces which scored five, that only adds two more to the overall score.

So, at best, that means that we score nine of 47 pieces as being genuine TL; less than 20 percent. Not a great return for all that time and investment.

Twenty-one pieces scored two or less, with 17 scoring either three or four. Personally, my biggest issue here is not with the really low scoring pieces. I don’t think they were ever intended to be seen as TL. They’re straightforward, commercial pieces which have been incorrectly positioned (but more of that later).

The real issue that I think professional services firms have is with that slug of content in the middle. I speculate that much of the content here did set out with the intention of being TL but that a lack of genuine insight and intellectual property left it holed beneath the waterline – along with a lack of bravery.

Same old, same old

A typical example would be the large survey – so beloved of professional services – which scores points on the scale above for having a hypothesis (just about), for being topical, for not being explicitly commercial and for deriving credibility from primary research.

That’s four points in the bag but three more go begging because the end product is typically a list of one reported statistic after another which quickly defaults to providing ‘top ten tips’ for honing in on a particular (granular) problem and thus highlights no intellectual tension.

Where’s the insight; where’s the follow-on debate; where’s the appetite for saying something to genuinely make the reader raise an eyebrow in surprise or contemplation?

All of these things are absent; sacrificed in favour of simply telling the reader what the author knows (or, more correctly, what the author has learnt from this latest survey).

The value of hypotheses

When looking at what our panel of reviewers thought to the 47 pieces of content, there’s an interesting observation about the hypotheses behind each of those pieces. Eighteen of those pieces had no discernible hypothesis; rather raising the question of whether something can ever be called TL if it has no genuine hypothesis to be proved or disproved.

Personally, I feel that a decent hypothesis is a bare minimum for something to be called TL. In all honesty, 18 failures out of 47 was probably a rather kind reflection on this particular selection of content. Several pieces exhibited hypotheses which verge on the self-serving – statements of fact rather than mysteries to be investigated or debated – yet we gave the authors the benefit of the doubt.

As examples, compare and contrast the following hypotheses (as summarised by our reviewers):

  • Businesses today need bespoke forensic devices which will help them perform the analyses required in order to actively navigate and respond to cyber threats.
  • Cyber attacks are more prevalent than ever before. Combating them requires more investment, better leadership and improved accountability.
  • After a strong initial uptake of social tools and technologies, organisations now find themselves at a crossroads. If they want to capture a new wave of benefits, they’ll need to change the ways they manage and organise themselves.
  • Cyber criminals are exploiting the boundaries which exist between public and private sector. Far greater information sharing between the two is going to be required in the fight against cyber crime.

Unsurprisingly, item #1 was not awarded a point under our scoring system for having a “proper” hypothesis. Rightly so, as that is a sales pitch, masquerading as a hypothesis.

Hypothesis #2 didn’t make the grade either. While it sounded promising, what followed was a survey, accompanied by a ten step guide to combating cyber threats, summarised by our reviewer as “a perfectly good marketing document”. The “hypothesis” was decidedly self-serving.

Hypothesis #3 was awarded a point by our review. The content which followed however was a prime example of ‘what might have been’ with the reviewer stating it was, “heavy on the reportage; one statistic follows another with very little thought given to what this actually means”. A promising hypothesis was thus let down by a lack of insight, leaving the content to score just four out of seven.

Hypothesis #4 also picks up a point in the review. This piece then goes on to pick up all six other points as well with an interesting blend of first person opinionated style, well reasoned arguments, author credibility and intellectual tension.

The most interesting point about this final item however is that it is “just” an article; not a report, survey or third party white paper. To many viewers, this piece cannot be TL because it does not look like traditional TL.

However, if you ascribe to the same set of defining characteristics for TL that I do, then this is TL – because you can feel that there is genuine intellect, insight and experience all being brought to bear.

At the heart of all that is good

For me, this is a critical distinction. I believe that true TL starts with opinion, insight and speculation, followed by data and evidence, not the other way around. Yet the manner in which TL content is typically generated across the industry often runs counter to this, focusing initially and primarily on data, putting the author(s) in the role of little more than reporter or salesman.

Done properly, I think that TL authors should more accurately be seen as pundits, analysts or even gurus.

So why does so much content get produced in this fashion? Most probably because TL is now simply seen as a sub-set of marketing, designed to produce content whose aim is to generate revenue today. As such, why wouldn’t you focus on current issues, methodologies, solutions, ‘top ten tips’, case studies and advice?

The problem therefore is the way in which the very expression “thought leadership” has been perverted to mean something different to what was originally intended.

My view is that proper TL is about sales tomorrow, not sales today. It’s about building up brand value, establishing your people as the cleverest in the market and allowing the reader to take a brief step back from the hurly-burly of modern business life to take a more considered view of some of the bigger issues swirling around at the fringe.

Those organisations prepared to indulge some of their brightest minds by allowing them to think in this manner will be the winners in the long run. While this should never extend to complete vanity projects which have little or no hope of ever being commercialised, it does nevertheless require an organisation to be rather less draconian about how a degree of commerciality must be shoe-horned into every piece of content.

It’s that desire to commercialise all outputs which has served to shift the perception of what TL is. To many people, TL is now something which says ‘here’s a problem; and here’s our solution’. Personally, I think that’s just an advert.

I believe that TL is actually something which says ‘here’s a problem you’ve not even considered yet’ or ‘here’s a very new take on an existing issue’. While commerciality cannot be ignored, bringing it into the equation too early risks ruining nascent TL.

I think I need a “we”

Another threat to good quality TL is, in my view, the apparent insistence on by-lining content to multiple authors or appearing to speak with one single corporate voice. In both instances, you can virtually guarantee that the quest for consensus during the writing process has resulted in all the intellectually juicy stuff being stripped out.

In commercial content, that’s absolutely understandable. If I want someone to fix my Finance function’s risk management model for example, I want to know that my advisors all speak with one voice when telling me the best way forward.

In more aspirational TL content however, I want to hear the most interesting views from the most experienced individuals.

If my question is not “can you fix my risk model?” but is actually “what should the model look like in three years’ time?”, I’m likely not looking for a single answer – because I’m smart enough myself to know that the answer is only now evolving or emerging.

Our industry seems unwilling to admit that multiple, different views can be held within a single organisation and that there is a debate to be had. I take the opposite view; that our clients might just enjoy being part of that debate.

Plus, this is a great way of showcasing individual intellectual capability. In an industry in which organisations claim to differentiate between themselves on the strength of their people, passing up on this opportunity – in favour of profiling more tools, top tips and methodologies – has always seemed perverse to me.

That’s especially poignant right now as content marketing becomes de rigeur across the industry. Such marketing needs content which is likable and sharable (in social media terms). Such content needs to imbued with a sense of personality and charisma; something which is really tricky to achieve within content which is based on consensus.

Trusting the used car salesman

There’s a point to be made here as well about audience expectations. To use an analogy, if your car is broken or you know you need a new car, you seek out a mechanic or a salesman. But if you’re actually intrigued to know more about the future for car design, or maybe how that could impact on your car buying choices in future, you seek out the guru, the pundit or the opinion columnist, not the mechanic or the salesman.

Too often within professional services, the pieces of content which could have been more forward-looking, speculative or cerebral are left in the hands of the mechanic or the salesman – who quickly revert to type by trying to fix something or to sell you something.

As an industry therefore, we only have ourselves to blame if many of our clients are dismissive of our TL efforts – because they know a sales pitch when they read one. We are our own worst enemies in this regard.

As mentioned before, I have no problem with the ‘what we know’ or ‘what we do’ content. It is absolutely worthwhile content which serves its purposes. It just doesn’t deserve to be called TL.

If I think of a virtual briefcase of ten pieces of content being taken into a meeting by a client-facing employee, I can imagine that eight or nine of those slots should be stocked with contemporary, commercial content. However, one or two should be reserved for something just a little bit different; something to inspire a different type of conversation.

That – I believe – is the content which will really get you noticed. This is what will differentiate you from the competition; not yet another survey, co-authored with yet another third party research house or academic.

It is this content for which the tag of “thought leadership” should be reserved.

‘I never asked to be thought leadership, you know…’

There is an interesting point though about the content which never asked to be seen as TL but has been positioned as such anyway – mainly because, as an industry, we have become so slack in terms of defining what is and isn’t TL.

Talk to Whitespace founder Fiona Czerniawska and she will tell you how firms become frustrated at how their overall Whitespace ranking is often based on content which they never said was TL. What Whitespace represent though is the ‘everyman’ client; the visitor to the corporate website who has neither the appetite nor the inclination to try to establish what is TL and what isn’t. In their eyes, they just see content.

Every organisation that has ever given the impression that pretty much anything it produces is TL (and there are many) has contributed to this muddying of the waters.

Arguably, the best way forward now for any organisation is to undertake a severe content cull across their online platforms, to properly articulate what constitutes TL in their mind and to explicitly signpost their clients in the direction of where that content ‘lives’.

In addition, while acknowledging that really strong, commercial content should always represent the majority of any organisation’s total output, a second (smaller) stream of more intellectually minded content should be carefully nurtured and protected.

One stream should not be mistaken for the other: a small corner of any firm’s content landscape should remain forever cerebral!

Only once the sign goes up that says “only TL lives here” AND the editorial bar is raised far higher than it is now will our clients have a more favourable perception of professional services TL.

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7 Responses to Unable to see the wood for the trees: a tale of thought leadership in the professional services industry

  1. Laura F Spira (Emeritus Professor of Corporate Governance, Oxford Brookes University) says:

    As an academic, I have spent a great deal of time reading the sort of publication discussed here, hoping to mine it for insights relevant to the research questions I have been pursuing. Disappointingly, it seldom passes the basic test of including references or links to material cited and information about data collection and analysis is rarely included.

    The occasional publication that stands out bears comparison to sound scholarship, in that it clearly demonstrates the gap in knowledge that it attempts to fill, explains how evidence was collected and analysed and reflects on possible limitations to the conclusions drawn. Here’s a really good piece of TL from Credit Suisse on gender diversity:
    https://www.credit-suisse.com/newsletter/doc/gender_diversity.pdf
    The Grant Thornton annual report on corporate governance is also a reliable and rigorously produced publication. Both should pass the seven point test (and may I commend your well-executed exercise in content analysis: set it in the context of, say, the impression management literature, and you have a good conference paper or even the basis of a Masters’ dissertation).

    The outputs from ICAEW thought leadership programme would also pass the test: http://www.icaew.com/en/about-icaew/what-we-do/thought-leadership

    I should declare an interest here: I work with the staff developing these TL projects to help them make contact with academics working in relevant areas. The intention is that the outputs should be well grounded in academic research (or address gaps therein) thus providing authoritative guidance and contributions to policy debates.

    But the term “thought leadership” is not well-defined. Who is being led and why do they need to be? Here’s the Wikipedia definition:

    “A thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded”.

    Sounds remarkably like an academic. Apart from the reward bit. I don’t think many professional services firms actually pay academics for help: TL publications would be a lot more useful if they did have proper academic input.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Simon Griffiths says:

    Thanks for your comment Laura – and I’m glad you liked the essay. As ever, the crux of the issue is defining what is – and isn’t – thought leadership. At a very simplistic level, I think there are two schools of thought around generating TL. You can go data first, opinion second (the mode favoured by most traditional TL) or opinion first, data second (in an effort to make the outputs more conversational and hopefully rather more appealing in a content marketing space).

    Within professional services, more often than not, the preference is for the first route yet – as you point out – analysis is rarely done with the sort of academic rigour that you would advocate (and which is indeed demonstrated in that Credit Suisse piece). That’s mainly because data points are almost exclusively drawn from yet another survey and any analysis is, typically, undertaken by gifted amateurs, rather than career professionals.

    The second route – the one which I am trying to encourage my organisation to follow – is utterly counter-cultural and runs into issues around risk and non-consensus thinking. For professional services firms, data – even if poorly compiled or analysed – is used as a safety blanket and that’s a hard addiction to break!

    I think that both routes can produce decent TL but what undermines them both is something else that you touch upon – the commerciality point, the “reward”. Although you or I might happily indulge in a topic in the interests of academic advancement, profile raising or brand building, seeing that as reward enough, many others would not. I’m a realist in accepting that and have to work hard to ensure that TL content remains a step or two removed from a direct commercial proposition but not so distant as to be appear to be an indulgence.

    So, I guess it does all come down to that definition of TL or even just the definition of the rewards it should lead to. I’ve been saying for a while that we should redefine TL – or even give it an entirely new name. As it stands, in many people’s minds, TL is little more than an extension of an advertising programme – and that can’t be right…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Laura F Spira (Emeritus Professor of Corporate Governance, Oxford Brookes University) says:

      Simon, I do hope you can come up with a new name!

      I understand the fine balance needed to accommodate commercial concerns but it would be a great step forward if professional firms and academics could find a different way of interacting beyond sponsorship of chairs, centres etc. Academics are usually reluctant to express opinions but they do have a great respect for data: opinions which build upon analysis of that data have to be more realistic and in the end a better service for clients.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Simon Griffiths says:

        Absolutely agree with that Laura. In my view, the reason why many professional services firms go down the route of sponsoring chairs and centres is so that they can outsource their thinking, thereby ticking their thought leadership box. All of which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for a typical reluctance on behalf of the sponsor to then overlay any sort of added opinion or insight on top of the analysis. A missed opportunity, more often than not….

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Simon

    This is a really good piece, and I’m delighted that one of the major professional services firms has the capacity to produce it (and my alma mater to boot).

    I have a few reflections.

    1. “Think first, data later” is risky. In a traditional academic model, as Laura sets out in the comments above, it’s mostly fine because academic research has structures and safeguards to defend against charlatans. However, stripped from the academic context, it’s possible that less scrupulous pundits could produce “thought leadership” which says “Here’s what we think. And here’s a load of evidence that supports us [while overlooking the larger body of evidence that contradicts their case]”. So what safeguards, other than the professional firm’s own reputation might be necessary to prevent this?

    2. “Think first, data later” also risks underplaying the role of proper data analysis. Johannes Kepler pored over reams of data on celestial body movements before producing his proof of Copernicus’s view of the solar system. In mathematics, we have the concept of “NP-complete” problems, ie problems that are hard to solve but which have solutions that are easy to verify. Similarly in accountancy, there must be a role for the elegant description of data to tease out relationships which hadn’t previously been apparent. This might seem like we’re disagreeing, but I don’t think we are. My biggest problem with the way many professional firms do “thought leadership” is the way they fail to analyse the data rigorously, preferring simplistic (and wrong) first-order conclusions. These days, many commentators don’t even bother with data at all, preferring assertion and innuendo.

    3. My personal model of “what constitutes thought leadership?” goes like this:

    3a “Learning the lessons of history”. People are quick to forget history and tend to presume that the problems we face today are novel. All too often they aren’t. Digging through history can often tell us how our problems were solved by those who came before. Or at least we can learn why their solutions weren’t enduring.

    3b “Making complicated things easy”. As professionals, there’s a tendency to make things complicated. That’s why people want to pay us, right? But I think there’s still a role for being seen as the sort of people who can solve “NP-complete” type problems.

    3c “Comparing across disciplines”. Are there analogies with other disciplines – law, medicine, economics, philosophy… you name it – which can help us understand our own discipline? Accountancy can sometimes be hard for people to grasp. So can we describe it in terms of another discipline that’s easier to understand?

    3d “Ask difficult questions and assess the reasons for their being difficult”. There’s a tendency for “thought leadership” to jump to simplistic solutions for long-standing problems. A better approach is to try to work out why no-one has managed to solve these problems up till now. For example, rather than say “I propose X to stop tax avoidance once and for all!”, ask “What are the factors that increase or decrease tax avoidance?” That analysis might indicate what features of any solution would work and what would not.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Laura F Spira (Emeritus Professor of Corporate Governance, Oxford Brookes University) says:

    Andrew, there is no lack of charlatans in the academic world and cherry picking of evidence does happen!

    It would be interesting to know exactly how the readers of the TL material produced by firms actually use it. If they view it as advertising and pay it little attention, does the rigour of the content matter?

    I like your identification of features of thought leadership – a very academic analysis! The lack of understanding of history is a great problem with accountancy, in my view: no attention is paid to it in training and, while some trainees with accountancy degrees may have learned a bit about it, those who come from other disciplines won’t have done. The profession is indeed condemned to repeat all those mistakes… This links to your third point: I wonder how far practitioners in other disciplines reflect on their history.

    I think your final point is the essence of what TL should be. Choosing the right questions to ask is not easy, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Simon Griffiths says:

    I hear what you’re saying Andrew about the “think first, data later” approach but this is the point at which I must confess my ulterior motive; namely to try to get an organisation like mine to actually have a view at all and to go out on a limb without its usual data safety blanket. Without challenging it in this way, I fear we’d still be producing 40 page surveys which tell 2000 CEO readers what 10% of their peers think.

    I do accept however that producing content this way runs the risk that our opinions and insight can be seen as flighty and unsubstantiated. I think it’s a gamble worth taking though if it has the brand-enhancing effect of making our experts look more personable and accessible for once. Also, in my content, we never run the risk (I hope!) of it being a thinly veiled advert because any talk of products and solutions is strictly barred. Of course, this then opens me up to accusations of content not being commercial enough – but no-one ever said this was supposed to be easy….!

    We’re definitely of one mind on the challenging and awkward questions though. In fact, that’s our standard modus operandi now; insisting that we have challenging exam questions in place before we write content for any of our experts. So, in your example, we’d likely go with “what is the single biggest factor which can increase or decrease tax avoidance?” or “what may be the single most efficient tactic for combating tax avoidance?”

    The “single biggest” approach is a rather artificial mechanism for uncovering intellectual tension between our experts but it seems to work. Plus, as we don’t need to speak in one voice in such content programmes, I’ll happily publish all those different views, spark a debate and invite the reader to place their bets. Sure, our clients may – eventually – want us to have one firm-wide view but if you see this whole process as an ideas incubator, then that’s what we’re slowly working towards by letting the market back the views it finds most interesting, stimulating or palatable.

    Like a good exam student, we’re simply showing our workings. Maybe we’re all academics after all!

    Liked by 1 person

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