Thought leadership

Recently, I facilitated a workshop on thought leadership, campaigns and project management with delegates from legal, accountancy and consultancy firms for the Professional Marketing Forum

The key insights from the delegates’ perspective were as follows:

1. Objectives enable measurement

In order to measure the effectiveness of a campaign it is necessary to set out clear SMART objectives at the outset. The objectives will also serve to persuade the firm’s decision makers and stakeholders to invest the necessary resources in the campaign or project so also act as a crucial part of the business case and return on investment (ROI) calculations.

Objectives also serve to manage the expectations of the stakeholders as they will show the short, medium and long term results that are expected – which are so important when the sales cycles of many professional services can be in excess of six months.

2. Great communications campaigns don’t have to be thought leadership

Too many people consider their communications campaign “thought leadership” when in reality it is simply communicating the services or messages of the firm.

A great communications campaign will follow the criteria for a good campaign (objectives, target audience, insight/idea, message/creativity, channel and content management and measurement). There are plenty of examples of great communications campaigns within the professions that are not necessarily thought leadership.

3. Focus on the target audience – client and market needs

Too many campaigns focus on the expertise and services of the firm – they are inward looking. Great thought leadership campaigns are client focused. They have a strong focus on the target audience and have deep insight into their issues and needs. We looked at research that demonstrates many clients will expect to see innovative thought leadership before selecting a professional service adviser.

4. Leapfrog the competition

Many thought leadership and communications campaigns simply “follow the herd”. They focus on the same issues and messages as many other professional service firms. Thought leadership – by definition – will take a longer term perspective.

Good thought leadership will look beyond the current needs of the markets and clients and “leapfrog” to look at what is coming up next on the horizon or to frame future issues. This allows the firm to address issues in “clear blue water” and establish a reputation for being forward-thinking and “first to market” – even if it isn’t in a position to contribute real thought leadership based on structured research.

5. Commit to a big idea

Some of the best campaigns we analysed had a simple “big idea” (which aligned neatly with their strategy) and stuck with that big idea for many years – sometimes decades. This was perhaps one of the biggest differentiators of thought leadership from other communications campaigns.

The spark of an idea – based on real insight into the target audience or a key issue – needs to be simple and must be kept front of mind as the campaign evolves and develops over time. Great thought leadership is enduring and sustained. There are many successful thought leadership campaigns that develop an index or barometer which they update on a quarterly or annual basis which enables a drip-feed approach for integrated marketing and sales campaigns.

6. Gain buy-in

Good thought leadership campaigns will require support from the most senior people in the firm and significant resources. They will also need support from sponsors and champions to maintain momentum amongst a broad range of internal stakeholders in order for the benefits to be realised during often long implementation and sales cycles.

We spent some time looking at both the strategies for gaining initial engagement and buy-in for a major campaign as well as techniques for maintaining interest, enthusiasm and momentum.

7. Project and campaign management

Some delegates found it helpful when we considered the difference between projects and campaigns. A campaign might comprise a number of projects. The definition that a project must have a clear aim and a defined start and end date was also helpful. We compared different processes for project management and campaign management.

8. Use the project triangle

The idea that if you change one of the three criteria of a project – quality of result, budget and time – then the two other must necessarily change was considered helpful in managing project changes and scope creep.

9. Link thought leadership, sector expertise and insight selling

Great thought leadership content not only helps a firm to position itself and raise its profile but also provides evidence of sector or other specialisms to support a strong and differentiated value proposition.

The content will also enable fee-earners to engage in commercial conversations with clients and provide value during the sales process which is a key element of the successful insight selling approach

Other points of interest

Some of the other ideas that delegates picked up on during the session included:

  • Moving from the solitary model of “rock star” to the multiple “constellation of stars” approach to raising the profile of a number of fee-earners by sharing specific themes from a major thought leadership campaign
  • One of the exercises at the workshop involved delegates acting as the client and other delegates acting as consultants to help them create and develop their thought leadership idea and to reality-test the idea against the criteria for good campaigns
  • The use of probing questions to really get to the heart of the strategic marketing challenge and to refine the focus on the target market was felt to be a useful tool for managing discussions about thought leadership within firms and practice groups
  • Thought leadership campaigns mentioned by the delegates included Deloitte football finance, Allen & Overy merger and acquisition deal analysis, EY’s tech and digital journey and Dechert’s DAMITT anti-trust.

Other blogs with relevant thought leadership content include: