In this 5th episode of “Everything Thought Leadership,” Bob Buday talks with special guest Jonathan Copulsky — former Chief Marketing Officer of Deloitte’s US consulting business, author of the book “Brand Resilience” and co-author of “The Transformation Myth,” and a marketing lecturer for Northwestern University.
Copulsky spent two decades at Deloitte, from 1997 through 2017, eventually heading up thought leadership and marketing. He helped the firm up its thought leadership game and greatly improve its content. In this interview, he discusses how he helped Deloitte’s senior managers become believers in thought leadership, his experiences strengthening thought leadership in a large and global professional services firm, and how he elevated the quality of the firm’s content by turning its best authors into reviewers and mentors for others.
On a personal note, he shared his journey since his wife Ellen passed away in 2021 — and how he is healing through help from friends and through setting up a fellowship in her honor at Loyola Marymount University: the Ellen Carol Barreto Fellowship in Health and Society. Its focus is on supporting women, first-generation college students and/or those who have historically had less access to independent research opportunities.
Bob interviewed Jonathan on February 18, 2022.
Listen to the Podcast
A Conversation with Jonathan Kopulsky
Bob Buday: You led marketing and thought leadership at Deloitte from roughly 2011 to 2017. What was the condition of thought leadership at Deloitte when you took the job? What were you asked to do, and what did you do?
Jonathan Kopulsky: I came to Deloitte in 1997, after being the chief marketing sales officer for a professional publishing company. I had a background in media and publishing — everything from running printing plants to getting high quality electronic publications out to our professional audience, which at that time was lawyers, accountants, healthcare professionals and so forth. I joined Deloitte, primarily to focus on providing strategic marketing services to our clients. But along the way, I was very involved in creating thought leadership.
Around 2010 our Chief Strategy Officer launched a project to think about thought leadership at the firm. We wanted to look across all four major lines of business and the role of thought leadership in driving growth for us. I served as the representative of consulting on the steering committee; you and your firm were involved in doing some research with some of our potential clients. We concluded that thought leadership was critical to the future of the firm, and we saw several significant opportunities for us to improve.
Bob: How important was market feedback in getting the right people at Deloitte to think about this differently?
Jonathan: I think fairly important, so thanks to you and your colleagues for helping us with that. We did some interviews and quantitative surveys to determine the importance of thought leadership in the various stages of the decision process, from the top of the funnel to the actual sale. It was a little bit hard for us to understand if this really mattered. We saw other firms doing thought leadership — from McKinsey to BCG and Bain, as well as accounting-based firms like KPMG and PwC. We saw some skepticism over whether this was something we really wanted to do. Was it simply kind of vanity publishing? But our market feedback told us it was important.
Bob: How did you go about looking at what was being done, what worked and what needed to be improved?
Jonathan: We had a number of very good pieces of thought leadership, along with a lot of stuff that was not so good. Our problem was that quantity overcame quality. We were publishing 3000 pieces a year – PDFs, videos, podcasts. And it hard enough to discern and pick out the best ones, much less providie the marketing push to make sure that people were aware of them. So job number one became, how do we focus on the high quality pieces? And how do we embed this quality in everything that we did from the thought leadership perspective?
Bob: With almost 3000 pieces a year being published, how did you focus on the best ones? Did that mean saying no to a bunch of people who in the past had a green light to publish?
Jonathan:I was appointed as managing partner for our thought leadership program around 2011. Remember that it was 2007 when the iPhone came out, and by 2011 everybody had web pages. So our default back then was, when in doubt, publish. And so our website became a dumping ground, a place to publish everything, as long as it was not offensive to potential clients and passed through our risk review process. This meant we neutered some of the more provocative forward-looking statements because God forbid, we should say something that somebody might disagree with. So we always erred on the side of being conservative. This weakened what we did, so even when we did have some quality insights, they became neutered by that process. We began an integrated program, and our first step was to define what quality was. You talked about that in your book.
Our first quality was novelty: Were we actually saying something new? The second quality standard was validity: Do we have actual data to support this, something other than, “This is what I think?” It could be data from client work, surveys or analytics from publicly available data.
Our third standard was utility: Could somebody actually do something based on what they read in our thought leadership, and preferably without help? Our fourth standard was voice: Did we have a distinctive voice, a Deloitte voice? If you’re at a brand like Anheuser Busch or Pepsi, you want what that company says to have some kind of internal consistency. So we tried to create a Deloitte voice as well.
Along with the standards, we also set up a process for how we would review things. We deferred to what we created at Deloitte Review, our internal magazine. It’s similar to what universities do. We identified some of the best authors in the firm, and asked if they would serve as quality reviewers. And then we had this blind process for articles or concepts. As part of that process, the authors would get feedback. And our goal was not to stop publishing, but to make sure we didn’t publish things that were not of high quality. It was meant to be helpful and intentional, not restrictive.
Gaining Support From the Right People
Bob: Was there any pushback at first, especially from higher places at Deloitte…people who were used to writing and publishing often and felt that now they were being discouraged from publishing?
Jonathan: We had a couple of advantages. One was our CEO at the time, Joe Echevarria, believed in what we were doing. Mumtaz Ahmed — my boss, the Chief Strategy Officer — clearly had Joe’s attention, energy and focus on this. We spent some time with our management committee and our board really trying to explain the strategy. We said, “This is important to the future of the firm; we need to do this right.” I was a senior partner too; I had published a book; and I think I had established some bona fides with individuals within the firm, as opposed to being a marketing guy who was just inserted into the process.
Bob: If you hadn’t had backing from the top, do you think you would have had had a lot more pushback from authors who were used to seeing their stuff sail through the publication process?
Jonathan: Oh, I’m sure we would have. But we put in a carrot as well as a stick: We reengineered the entire review process. First we spent some time with our general counsel and with the risk review team to understand what was risky or not risky. We trained our reviewers and editorial board in the risk review process, and engineered that from the get-go into our new process. The old process was equivalent to building a car and then doing an inspection at the end of the assembly line. Our new process put quality review into every step, and instead of delaying the process it actually sped it up.
We also decided that we’d only put marketing dollars and effort towards things that went through this process. And we created a destination — a separate website and brand, called Deloitte University Press, that subsequently changed its name to Deloitte Insight. There was a certain cachet associated with publishing an article on Deloitte University Press.
Bob: How did you measure the impact of your thought leadership?
Jonathan: An outside firm called the Source rated thought leadership among professional services firms. We started out at number 18 on their list of 25 or 30 firms – pretty far down. We spent some time talking with people at the Source to understand how they did the ratings, and it was very consistent with how we were thinking about quality. That became our external benchmark, and over a period of about three years, we went from 18 to one. That was a good thing for me to share with our management committee and the executive committee to show how we’re progressing. At the same time, we were starting to get feedback from clients about our articles that they had read. And so the combination of top management support of these quality standards, a revised quality process, the building of this publishing brand, and then this external validation of what we’re doing all kind of came together in a magical way.
Bob: When you talk about the impact with clients, did anybody measure or try to measure the impact on revenue or on leads, before and after you put the standards in place?
Jonathan: Initially we were looking very much at activity measures – what people read and how much time they spent reading it. Then we put in a whole new web platform that included an Adobe engagement experience manager, and this gave us a lot more data. But nobody picks up a piece of thought leadership and says, “Oh, I’ve got to hire Deloitte to do a project.” The way it works is, most big firms like Deloitte have a portfolio of clients. It’s more about helping those clients understand that Deloitte has a new perspective on an issue, or a set of services that they didn’t quite realize we had.
As we evolved, we also launched a project with Northwestern, where I currently teach, to understand the growth among these big clients and how many opportunities we had, and how many we won. Do they come to our workshops? Do they participate in a webinar? Do they read our thought leadership? We learned that the engagement with our thought leadership was, in fact, a significant variable in helping us to grow the relationships with clients.
Bob: When should a big firm stop trying to measure whether this is having any impact on the top and bottom line? Do you think at some point, it’s just not worth continuing to try to prove that?
Jonathan: I believe it’s good to measure activity, like how many people opened something or read something and where they spent their time. This helps us with the whole question of topic selection, and understand which pieces tend to generate a lot of interest and why. I also believe that it’s important to understand the role of thought leadership as contributing to the development of a client relationship. It’s more important than ever to understand the types of engagement that major clients have with your thought leadership, because that’s where your future revenues are.
Today’s Thought Leadership Priorities
Bob: If you were running thought leadership and marketing at a big professional services or B2B firm today, what would you do differently that you might not have done during the last decade?
Jonathan: Having a publishing mindset and quality standards are more important now than ever before. So is collaboration. We’ve partnered with a number of outside organizations, including both the MIT Media Lab, and the MIT Sloan Management Review. Thinking about who you partner with on thought leadership is now more important than ever before, because it’s not just one firm — it’s that whole ecosystem of value delivery partners.
I think the biggest issue, then and now, is topic selection. Deloitte has many discrete services, and each one of those has a partner and managing director responsible for it, who’s raising her or his hand to ask for some thought leadership. And the challenge is, you can’t do justice to 1000 different things. You need to find what we at Deloitte refer to as “big idea” campaigns, which can involve many of our services. For example, before I left Deloitte we experimented with an idea called future mobility. And this would include electric vehicles, shared vehicles and other types of programs, all of which could have an impact on real estate, health care, insurance and many other things. And a bunch of our services could see themselves in that big idea.
We also continue to have a variety of modalities, like podcasting and virtual reality. These help people to engage with thought leadership, and they are now more important than ever before. And we have better tools for personalization: how do we dynamically create content that’s relevant to individual targets? The CFO at a pharmaceutical firm may want something very different than the chief HR officer of a consumer packaged goods company.
In short, topic selection is more important than ever: Focus on ideas that you can own. Have the right kind of technologies for delivering this the content, bring out ways to personalize it, and then think about creative ways to engage through technology and other platforms.
Dealing With Personal Challenge
Bob: I wanted to switch topics here and talk about the death of your dear wife Ellen in 2021, and the fact that you’ve been so transparent about what’s happened since that time. I commend you for that. What would be your advice to others who experience the loss of a loved one — a wife, or a husband or a child? They might be in the midst of a very successful career, and all of a sudden, this comes out of the blue.
Jonathan: Ellen Baretto, who was my wife for 39-plus years, died April 7, 2021. She was sick for about 17 months before she died from congestive heart failure, as well as some other complications. And until she was initially diagnosed in November 2019, she was a very healthy 69-year-old who was finishing up her certification to be a Pilates instructor. I was recently retired from Deloitte and was teaching, and all of a sudden, this comes along. I don’t think you can ever prepare. Somebody shared with me a quote, which I’m paraphrasing slightly, that grief is a price we pay for love. And I thought that was a profound thing to hear.
One of the things that helped me a lot — and I would recommend this to anybody — is talking with people. I found a few good colleagues and friends who had lost a spouse, and they helped me kind of test my feelings and understand the practical and emotional issues. Sometimes you hear stuff that is irrelevant, but there’s much more relevant stuff.
I also thought about a legacy we could leave for Ellen. By happenstance, my 32-year-old daughter and I were talking about a new public health program at her undergraduate alma mater, Loyola Marymount, which is near Los Angeles. We got in touch with them, and they were absolutely terrific about coming up with some ideas. And ultimately we funded a research fellowship for undergraduates who were first-generation students from underserved populations. Ellen was Puerto Rican by background, and she was the first in her family go to college. I solicited contributions from people, and more than 220 friends, relatives and colleagues donated, along with our own substantial donation.
We established the Ellen Carol Baretto research fellowship in Public Health and Society. My daughter is managing it, and it’s a way for her to manage her grief from losing her mom.
Bob: Jonathan, this has been terrific. Thank you so much for for exploring your career and talking about the past few very difficult years. We’d love to have you back here, if there’s another path in the career of Jonathan Kopulsky.
Jonathan: Bob, it’s great to see you again. Thank you so much for inviting me, and thanks for your contribution to thought leadership and professional services.