Thought Leadership

Have we reached peak thought leadership in marketing communications?

In the midst of a cultural reset that demands deeds not words in every aspect of business, is it time for the creative industries to reappraise their relationship with ‘thought-leadership’?

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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For creative businesses, industries for whom by their very nature people are their biggest assets, building the profile and sharing the points of view of those people has been core to marketing and brand building. Rightly so perhaps for if it is ideas that shape brands and businesses, then it is only right that those ideas are broadcast far and wide.

Yet what if those ideas become divorced from the reality of business or the lived experience of employees? There is perhaps no greater example of corporate gaslighting than the CEO, supported by a veritable army of PR experts, extolling the importance of diverse voices, whilst not creating the space for those voices to be heard within their own companies. An echo-chamber in which talking about change becomes a substitute for change itself.

Deeds and words

Transparency has been one of the defining forces impacting the creative industries and beyond. From individuals telling their own stories on platforms from Twitter to Medium and LinkedIn to the growing influence of grassroot industry groups such as Bloom, empty platitudes have long run out of steam. 

Yet while the growing influence of social media, events and influencers have placed a huge strain on traditional publishing models they also underline the power of shared ideas and collective action. So, have we reached peak ‘thought-leadership’ or instead, are we in the midst of a cultural reset where we need shared ideas more than ever?

With this in mind we asked a range of industry leaders, have we reached peak thought-leadership in marketing communications?

The best thought leadership is pure in its intent, not trying to prove a direct commercial point or sell a product or service.

Sarah Owen

Sarah Owen

Sarah Owen, Pumpkin.jpg

CEO & Founder

Pumpkin PR

A famous sceptic once remarked that every idea ultimately resolves itself into a matter of opinion and, as far as he was concerned, ‘opinion be damned’.

Many of us may sympathise with this position. If another name for thought leadership is opinion, it’s easy to feel as if we’re all drowning in it currently. But just because it’s prevalent, doesn’t mean it’s invalid, although I would argue it needs to be supported and substantiated. 

For there remains a value in decent, evidence-based opinion. Thought leadership done well is unbeatable; informative, expert, insightful and, ideally, entertaining. The problems arise where thought leadership morphs into a sales pitch, invariably via branded content, content marketing or that old favourite, native advertising. They are all stops along the continuum of how ideas are expressed, but the best thought leadership is pure in its intent, not trying to prove a direct commercial point or sell a product or service. 

Brave opinion is to be cherished, calling things out, telling the truth, offering evidenced arguments. And the best don’t shy away from mentioning opposing views, or counter considerations. More than ever we know we must avoid vacuum chambers. 

The best thought leadership or opinion columns illustrate a point of view, make a call to action or posit recommendations. Some can even do all three.

We need a more meritocratic environment to allow other voices to come forward and create a culture where ideas are celebrated not just status.

Rachel Barnes

Rachel Barnes

Rachel Barnes.jpg

Communications Director // Editor

ex-M&C Saatchi // ex-Campaign UK

I am a leader of thoughts! Eurgh, ‘thought leadership’ is a dreadful corporate phrase that is largely meaningless when determining if what you’re about to read is insightful, original or cleverly observational. Too often it is noisy PR, dictated by the boss to build their profile. An echo chamber would be too kind to some of the so-called thought leadership pieces I’ve read over the years, as many simply don’t get read by anyone.

However, a rebrand is what’s needed rather than throwing out the format entirely. Despite the dross often dressed up as ‘thought leadership’, I believe the sharing of opinions and insights from a diverse group is essential. Now more than ever. The uncertain future is not a problem to be solved by each agency in isolation, but as a collective: sharing experiences, building on each other’s ideas and moving beyond words to real actions. 

This does run the risk of a firehose of ‘opinions’, so let’s all heavily edit ourselves, please. We most definitely need fewer and better.

A few rules to help:

Only put pen to paper if you believe you have a real insight to share with the world. You must contribute by moving the conversation on in some way, not just commenting on what we all know.

The best pieces should lead to an action, ensuring you are not just part of the noise. And you must let the best ideas shine, regardless of the writer’s position in the company.

This last one is important. The chance to share a bloody great idea should never be the sole domain of the business chiefs. Instead, we need a more meritocratic environment to allow other voices to come forward and create a culture where ideas are celebrated not just status.

Thought leadership reveres the person; we need a shift to make the ideas and creative inspiration the real stars of the show.

'Thought-leadership' involves too many empty promises, and now is the time to hold companies to account.

Amy Kean

Amy Kean

Amy Kean.png

Brand & Innovation Partner

&us

The two things I admire most in human beings are consistency and honesty. Our industry is rapidly shedding both of these values like the skin of an adolescent snake. Why? Because it's easier to say the things you think people want to hear rather than behave progressively. Behaving progressively is difficult. In the brand world it can mean anything from making your board less male and white to modernising your audience segmentations, so they don't dwell unnecessarily on age. Why does it matter how old someone is when buying a lipstick, for example? 

There's a concept in psychology called symbolic self-completion. It occurs when people and businesses talk about something good so much it's almost the same as doing it; the kudos they receive merely via perception is enough. This is us. This is us currently with Black Lives Matter, with gender pay equality, with conversations around neurodiversity and many brands' commitments to social issues. I know this because I've worked behind the scenes for many years.

But pretending to care is dangerous, because you're creating an illusion that change is happening when it may not be. 'Thought-leadership' involves too many empty promises, and now is the time to hold companies to account. We should all intend to do this.

Nicola Kemp, Managing Editor of BITE and Izzy Ashton, Deputy Editor of BITE will discuss the future of thought-leadership and the need for deeds and words when it comes to PR in an upcoming webinar. The free session will run on the 23rd July, register on the Creativebrief event page

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Thought Leadership