In our increasingly saturated digital media environment the demand for thought leaders is growing exponentially, but what is it and how do you 'do it'?

McKinsey does a lot of it, ex-Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill is one, and spend more than five minutes on YouTube and you’ll bump into one of Simon Sinek’s Ted Talks.

Thought leadership is a bit like charisma – hard to describe but much easier to spot. In our increasingly saturated digital media environment the demand for thought leaders is growing exponentially, but what is it and how do you ‘do it’?

Tough call
Joel Kurtzman of Booz & Co originally coined the term thought leadership twenty years ago in their publication “Strategy+Business,” and it caught on. More recently Forbes proposed reserving that the moniker for people or companies who are “capitalizing on the dramatically enhanced brand equity attained by being a thought leader.”

So that’s a pretty high bar then. But of course, most professional services firms do lots of things, and markets break down into segments and sub-segments so while it’s a tough call to become the thought leader firm in your market it is possible to aspire to be a thought leader in one or more areas of specialism.

Thought leadership is a bit like charisma – hard to describe but much easier to spot.

Lead, and we will follow
By definition though, thought isn’t leading unless it’s original, provocative and even inspirational. And to be a leader, you’d better have some followers or else you’re talking to an empty chair.

Most of what’s talked about in professional services firms as thought leadership is, in reality, nothing of the sort. An update on changes in regulations might be a good thing to send to clients as part of relationship building, but it doesn’t count as thought leadership. Neither does rehashing already-published data and packaging it nicely. Again, it may serve other purposes, but it’s not thought leadership.

The genuine article
Genuine thought leadership, like the McKinsey Quarterly or PWC’s authoritative annual CEO survey, aren’t easy to produce. Like many things, it gets easier when you get the hang of it but it takes large handfuls of both inspiration and perspiration – and it takes an investment of time or money or both.

That’s why only a small number of professional services firms have traditionally taken thought leadership seriously – but they’ve been getting the results. Recently though, there have been signs of a tipping point as firms and individuals within them recognise that the digital media environment is now so rich and so much more on the radar of their clients that everyone is trying to work out how to get a piece of the action.

Digital first
Many firms that until now limited themselves to pushing out information rather than thought leadership are upping their game. Digital has made things easier – particularly in terms of pushing the thinking out there via social media, blogs, etc. Platforms like LinkedIn help individuals gain confidence in their ability to develop and project thinking without jumping right in at the deep end. Many find they quite like it and warm to it, creating a virtuous circle of content that marketing teams can help them channel to the right audiences.

Platforms like LinkedIn help individuals gain confidence in their ability to develop and project thinking without jumping right in at the deep end.

Often inspired (or cajoled) by their marketers, some leading firms are effectively harnessing the collective LinkedIn networks of their partners and associates as a ready-made communications channel for their thought leadership content. It’s not a simple task as it requires a delicate combination of influencing skills, education, and reassurance but the prize is tangible – imagine the scale and reach of the collective virtual client network of all your firm’s partners and associates added together. And what’s more, the beauty of LinkedIn is that the clients in this network will in the end only be seeing useful content from someone that they know personally.

Trade-rags reborn
The other platforms that are experiencing a mini-boom in digital saliency are the daily/weekly news alerts from what were once called trade magazines – The American Lawyer, Accountancy Today, Architectural Review – which have an almost endless appetite for good, topical or salient content. And then there are the aggregator platforms like Wired and Bloomberg News who curate and package up the best of this content for their audiences.

It can be a little overwhelming for the novice partner who’s more comfortable writing the odd white paper every other year for their alma mater’s Law Review. However, with support and determination, most can be persuaded to try it out, and many can be inspired to become regular content generators once they acknowledge the link between virtual content generation at one end of the pipe and real revenues at the other.


This article is part of a weekly series ‘How to think about…’; short summaries looking at the components of branding for professional services firms. Read them here as they’re published or look out for them on LinkedIn.


Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, the world's most experienced branding and innovation consultancy for professional service firms.