Becoming a Thought Leadership agency
“If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.”
Whether or not Henry Ford really said this, it does encapsulate his belief in the value of being a thought leader. It also exemplifies what Brett Adamson, author of The Challenger Sale calls “Commercial Insight” – which he distinguishes from Thought Leadership as “getting customers to think differently about themselves” rather than about one’s own organisation.
Thought Leadership is nothing new in society or in business, but it has become much more central to the way design agencies market themselves. In my experience at various consultancies, it is rarely well-defined, nor approached with proper strategic rigour. What then is Thought Leadership, and why should you strive for it, as a design agency or brand expert?
The late Laurie Young, author of “Thought Leadership – Prompting Businesses to Think and Learn” highlighted several terms and models in common use today, that owe their beginnings to the Thought Leadership efforts of individuals and businesses: Privatisation, Total Quality Management, Business Process Re-engineering, and the Boston Consulting Group Matrix. In the consumer branding world, he highlights the early efforts of William and James Lever to educate the masses on the benefits of washing with soap (what ex-PepsiCo marketer Martin Glenn called “enlightened self-interest”). A modern equivalent, from the organisation that bears the brothers’ name, Unilever, is Dove’s Real Beauty campaign: the basis for a multimedia marketing and communications strategy that covers every brand touchpoint.
Elmwood Chairman Jonathan Sands feels that Thought Leadership is a fundamental part of positioning: “It’s pretty simple but it is nothing to do with marketing. That is just a by-product of developing thought leadership. If you don’t develop IP then you are just a me-too agency. It is that simple. If you want to add value and drive a USP, then you have to have genuine points of difference and compelling points of view.”
Jonathan’s mention of IP raises the question of whether Thought Leadership is a saleable asset. Daniel Rasmus, the author of Management by Design, did not think so, writing for Fast Company in 2012. “Always give it away” was one of his golden rules, but he also advocated for “marketing it like a product”. This is not necessarily a contradiction. His point was that establishing a Thought Leadership position takes time as well as insight: a consistent theme explored across a range of channels and media (again, Dove provides a great example). Two more rules – “Address a specific audience” and “Have a unique perspective” come straight from the marketing textbook, but here’s where it deviates significantly from how agencies might traditionally promote themselves. “Admit what you don’t know” is Rasmus’s next golden rule. This might seem counter-intuitive, but it’s essential to maintaining your credibility and authenticity. Clients don’t expect you to have all the answers: design is, after all, a collaborative process. Furthermore, posing some unanswered questions gives you a natural lead into a follow-up piece.
A Forbes Insight report published last year, emphasises that Thought Leadership must compliment the business plan: “Develop a Thought Leadership strategy that aligns with your growth strategy”. In other words, there’s no point in being a Thought Leader in automotive if your business is a packaging design agency! Sounds obvious? Of course it does, but there are plenty of agencies that try to apply insights from one industry to another, without making the crucial link that shows the business benefit, and produces real opportunity. The report names two further steps in building a Thought Leadership Strategy: publish assets that enable the go-to-market process (which is to say, adapt the thinking to different executions appropriate to your different channels), and then engage the right audiences across different media.
Taking a long-term approach to building a sustainable Thought Leadership position requires significant investment, both time and financial, at a senior level – much more so than updating case studies. That’s not to say that credentials aren’t important, but senior clients have observed that great creative work is ticket-to-the-game – it’s thinking, ideas, the ability to go beyond a brief, that truly differentiates a new agency. Use your credentials to reinforce your thinking. If your marketing strategy focuses on commercial effectiveness, for example, emphasise hard results, and link those directly to your unique methods and models. If your business is about intelligent strategy, then case studies need to feature this heavily. If the agency’s international network is seen as a selling point, then your content could feature design trends from around the world – and crucially, what they mean for clients in the UK. It may seem like a lot off effort, with no absolute guarantee of a return, but in the transition from “push” self-promotion to the “pull” marketing that drives inbound leads, establishing your agency as a Thought Leader is a critical step.