Surviving the Abyss

These are terrifying times. All of us, especially people like me in their mid-60s, are realizing that we may fall victim to a disease without a cure. That’s enough to make anyone fearful. But the second issue for adults of all ages and professions is economic: Will my business or my job survive the downturn ahead?

The thought leadership profession – a booming trade over the last decade that helped individuals and organizations flourish by capturing and marketing their expertise – is not exempt from this worry. Top management at professional services, software, financial and other B2B companies, which have invested heavily in thought leadership, will soon decide whether they’re spending too much.

I will leave the health risk issue to the thought leaders in the health field. But I can speak to the livelihood issue because I’ve survived four very troubled economic times, kept earning a comfortable income and emerged stronger from them.

So here’s my advice to the CMOs, CFOs and CEOs who decide whether to invest in thought leadership; to the up-and-coming thought leaders who want to be recognized for their expertise; and to the marketing, research and other professionals who help their companies compete on the basis of thought leadership.

Budget Deciders: Focus on Exceptional Content and Cut the Rest

We all know that marketing is one of the first areas companies cut in economic downturns. As part of that, thought leadership investments are also likely to face the budget scalpel.

Is that the right thing to do? It can be extremely short-sighted at any time – but especially during an economic downturn. The reason is that the best way for a B2B firm to convince customers it can help them is by demonstrating it has proven expertise to solve their problems. This is especially important during economic crises, which exacerbate customers’ longstanding problems and also create new ones. Supply chain inefficiencies, ineffective marketing and sales, non-productive R&D, dismal customer service, bloated costs, toxic cultures – all get magnified during recessions.

Executives in such companies become far more open to thought leadership content with superior solutions that have been proven to work in other firms with similar challenges. When they read such content, many are hungry to learn more.

So the more acute the customer’s problem and the more novel and proven a company’s solution to it, the bigger advantage that company has to develop new business despite the economic downturn. Your firm’s thought leadership investments will become even more important in this downturn than they were during the last decade’s boom years. The flight to quality in market contractions applies to thought leadership as well: Clients will tilt toward the experts they perceive as the best when their chips are down, because their own business and career survival may be at stake.

Monetizing Innovation Book CoverThis is not wishful thinking. Over the last three decades, excellent thought leadership programs have kept many companies’ clients in place and attracted new ones despite a severe contraction in overall market demand. Classic thought leadership programs have helped rescue downtrodden companies from oblivion (e.g., Bain & Co.’s customer loyalty concept helped resurrect the firm after its brush with near-bankruptcy in the early 1990s). Thought leadership has vaulted little-known companies to market prominence during deep recessions (e.g., business reengineering at consultancy CSC Index in the early 1990s, which I was a part of). Thought leadership has helped other companies thrive despite a big increase in formidable competition. A good example of that is pricing strategy consulting firm Simon-Kucher & Partners’ “Monetizing Innovation” thought leadership campaign. It has helped propel revenue nearly 60% in four years from $253 million in 2016 to $401 million last year. (I was a part of a team at my previous firm that helped develop their book).

In this light, a knee-jerk, across-the-board thought leadership budget slash would be foolish. It would be like BMW management ordering equal production cuts in all its vehicle lines, including the hottest sellers.

But this doesn’t at all mean that thought leadership programs should be off limits to budget cutting. Since they can be sizable in some B2B companies – 5.4% of revenue in the average B2B company surveyed by my previous firm in a 2018 study — CEOs and CFOs should not give thought leadership marketing a blank check.

In fact, companies can waste lots of money in thought leadership marketing. But to cut the fat and not the muscle, company leaders need to understand the difference between the two. The fat in thought leadership is subpar content, and marketing programs that try in vain to overcome its shortcomings. The muscle is great content, and the programs that create awareness of it.

The fat in thought leadership is subpar content, and marketing programs that try in vain to overcome its shortcomings.

The most essential element in generating revenue with thought leadership is the quality of the content. It’s that simple. Spending money to promote unoriginal ideas with little proof of value is money wasted. Your target clients will ignore that content, no matter how frequently you promote it, how attractive you make it look, and how many different formats you put it in (white papers, videos, podcasts, webinars, seminars, and so on). This should be expected. When your customers’ careers and their companies’ success depend on getting proven expertise to solve their problems – especially in during economic crises — they embrace advisers with superior approaches and demonstrated results. And they rightly ignore the rest.

Now’s a good time to assess your content. You should center on the quality of the ideas your firm has been bringing to market. Two criteria are most important: the novelty of your solutions and the proof they’ve generated major positive impacts for clients.

Thought Leadership Professionals: Don’t Fret, and Don’t Jump Ship

Now to those in the thought leadership profession – aspiring thought leaders and their supporting cast: Don’t panic. You may be hearing rumblings of cutbacks in your firm. You may wonder whether you’ll still have a job – at your company or another. My advice: You’re in a great profession. If you are hardworking, talented, eager to get better, and likeable, you’ll do just fine.

Your profession has come into its own since the turn of the millennium. Before then, it had largely been a niche for small number of people at major consultancies: McKinsey, Bain, Boston Consulting Group, AT Kearney, CSC Index (the firm where I worked), Accenture, Deloitte and others. But now it’s a valued capability in many B2B sectors – especially software, financial services, law and accounting. The survey I mentioned earlier shows that.

Yet despite its ascendancy, thought leadership still is in its infancy. That means many more jobs in the profession will be created this decade. To me, it’s easy to see why: In an increasingly complex and competitive world, companies’ ability to effectively convey their unique expertise will grow more important. While blockchain, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and the digital customer experience are some of today’s big concepts, smart firms will value people who can help their experts create and communicate tomorrow’s big concepts.

Despite what I say, I know some of you will remain worried about your future in this profession. In short, the message I will give you about career survival in this new pandemic-induced downturn is extremely optimistic. I base it on 33 years of experience navigating through four severe economic downturns: the 1987 stock market crash, the 1991 recession, the 2000/dot-com-2001/Sept. 11 implosion and the Great Recession that began in 2008. Each time, the firms I was working at (including two of my own) got through the economic abyss in flying colors – weakened but still operating, and later rising to new levels, including building a 7-figure company.

So as we navigate through uncertain times, concentrate on these three things:

  • Gaining career confidence: More than 30 years after discovering this profession, I am still convinced that it’s wonderful, and worth the considerable time I spent getting better at it. Having tangible successes, of course, boosts confidence. Yet I realize it’s not easy staying positive about your employability when corporate cutbacks threaten your job. But when you believe in your skills, work hard to make them better, and realize companies need them, you won’t be tempted to abandon this field.
  • Having a voracious appetite for building new capabilities: This is the part about improving your skills. Since 1987, I’ve wanted to be part of virtually every aspect of thought leadership: creating content (even my own), helping others develop their content, conducting primary research (case studies and surveys), seminar/conference planning, social media marketing, even public relations. I feel I’m still learning, and I greatly look forward to new research my new firm will do this year with our business partner Rattleback on the new wave of digital presentation of thought leadership content (details coming soon).
  • Interacting with thought leaders (and those who aspire to be) with realistic optimism and confident persuasion. Our job in thought leadership marketing is to help people with expertise codify and communicate that expertise in a compelling way. That means we must be idea developers before we become ghostwriters. Striking this kind of relationship with aspiring thought leaders requires us to be confident of our ability to help them, optimistic for them, and steadfast in doing what’s right – often in the face of opposition.

I look at the more-distressing-by-the-day news with fear like everyone else – for everyone’s health and economic viability. Yet I remain convinced thought leadership is a great profession for us, and that the future is even brighter.

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