Comprehensive thought leadership consulting for B2B & professional services firms

What Sparks People to Produce the Best Thought Leadership

Thought leadership marketing certainly can be more financially rewarding than journalism. But if money is the primary motivation, it won’t continue driving someone to higher performance.

So your firm has decided it needs thought leadership marketing, or better thought leadership marketing. You’ve started to look for the right expertise, both internally and externally. How do you pick the best content talent to help your firm’s ideas become famous?

You should examine a candidate’s skills, personal makeup, past successes and other observable criteria, of course. But I urge you to look at something more: what motivates someone to do this work in the first place. What drives the best people in thought leadership marketing to do it well? Why do some stay in the profession, and continue to get better at it? These are the people you want to find and keep.

Why is that important? Because people who get into and stay in this business for the right reasons will deliver far better work than others. Passion for thought leadership marketing, not just skills, will greatly affect the quality of the work.

So what exactly are the right reasons for being in thought leadership marketing? I’ll speak for myself. I’ve loved this work for 30 years, starting before the term thought leadership was popular. And I’ll also report on what I’ve seen of others who either grew to love or hate it.

But let me say a few words about the wrong reasons. Money is one. Thought leadership marketing certainly can be more financially rewarding than journalism. But if money is the primary motivation, it won’t continue driving someone to higher performance. Recognition is another wrong reason for being in this business. Thought leadership marketers who come from journalism won’t be recognized in the marketplace for their work; their job is to get clients recognized for their expertise. So the former journalist who lives for the byline may not like that. Nor will the ex-researchers who loved showing off their research reports. They must be satisfied being the silent partner. Another reason not to get into thought leadership marketing is the belief that the most important skill is the ability to write well. Much more important is the ability to create rigorous and compelling arguments. That’s very different than the skill of creating great prose.

Those are the wrong motivations for thought leadership marketers. Now let’s move on to the right ones.

The Right Reasons

Four aspects of this work have stoked my love of it during the last 30 years: opportunity for market impact, thirst for clarity, appreciation of continual learning opportunities, and vicarious satisfaction. These factors resonate the most for me; they may not for you. I would love to hear from others who love this work about what motivates them.


Big ideas can change the world in hugely beneficial ways. My greatest satisfaction in this business comes from helping people and firms with big, beneficial ideas – and huge aspirations for those ideas. These people are on a mission. They deploy their expertise toward solving major human, organizational, business, and societal problems. (Of course, these people are not uninterested in making money. Indeed, they may make a lot of money because their expertise is in high demand, whether by individuals, companies or governments.)

Working with people on a mission is a special pleasure – even if they can be difficult to work with, as I have found. These thought leaders are possessed by a cause. They can be arrogant, and you need to have a high tolerance for it. You just need to know how to use that arrogance to your advantage and theirs, stroking their egos even when you deliver a tough message.

That means giving the thought leader hope that their idea will make it to the big stage so they can effect change. It means telling someone his idea has great potential but is still too conceptual, not dumb.

Thirst for Clarity

To love this business, a thought leadership marketer must love the challenge of helping experts communicate complex solutions to complex problems. More specifically, they must love making those complex problems and solutions easy to understand.

This is about having a thirst for clarity, an insatiable hunger for making complex ideas simple – the more complex the starting idea, the better. The best thought leadership marketers I’ve known take great pride in helping experts not only to communicate their ideas, but also to develop them. They help experts see patterns in client work or research, and help them define and explain the value of the solution.

Mediocre thought leadership marketers come to resent experts who are incoherent when it comes time to get ideas down on paper. They expect the experts to have fully developed ideas before they are handed off to a writer. When the writer’s eyes roll after a discussion with these experts, the article is headed for trouble. It’s a good sign the writer is going to resent working with the expert.

The best thought leadership marketers are idea developers first, writers second. In fact, they typically love the idea development part of this business more than they do the writing end of it. (I wrote about this recently in this post.) They should get great satisfaction out of creating coherence out of chaos.

Learning from Experts

Thought leadership marketer get to enjoy a continual MBA program. Their clients are the professors, consultants, lawyers, accountants and other experts in their domains. The learning comes when the marketer turns that knowledge into expertise that can be consumed by business people anywhere.

Helping experts develop and communicate their ideas for the masses requires learning those ideas in depth. Thought leadership marketing makes the marketer a perpetual student. For someone who loves to learn new things, that’s a big attraction.

Of course, this kind of learning happens in journalism, research, and consulting jobs too. But online news deadlines typically don’t allow deep learning of this type.

Vicarious Satisfaction

Finally, I get the greatest satisfaction from seeing my clients become recognized for expertise, with interested firms beating a path to their door. That’s when you know that a big, beneficial idea may begin to have impact: when your client’s clients embrace and adopt the ideas that you helped them develop.

The best thought leadership marketers get the most joy from seeing their clients become famous, not themselves. They love, or learn to love, the vicarious satisfaction that comes from doing their job well: making their clients famous.

Impact, thirst for clarity, continual learning from experts and vicarious satisfaction are what’s kept me in this field, and loving it, for 30 years. When you hire people to do this work, take a close look at the content they’ve helped their clients create, and the market interest in that content. But also ask what they like about the work. If you hear such genuine motivations as having impact, driving clarity, continually learning and gaining vicarious satisfaction, you’ll know the person you’re talking to is in it for the right reasons.

Originally published 02/09/2016

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