What to watch for in 2021: A Q&A on thought leadership with Allan R. Gold

The coronavirus pandemic forced many professional-services firms to up their game in thought leadership in 2020. I asked Allan R. Gold, senior adviser at Leff, about the content created in the past year and what we should expect to be reading in thought leadership in 2021.

Scott: 2020 was an especially busy year in thought leadership for professional-services firms. What stood out?

Allan: There were two really big stories. The biggest, of course, was the pandemic and its impact on business, the economy, and society. Most firms seemed to get off to a slow start, but once it became clear that the coronavirus wasn’t going away, their publishing engines really got going.

The other big story was George Floyd’s death last May. This event shook corporate America, including professional-services firms. Some firms, like McKinsey, doubled down on pieces about diversity and inclusion. And some authors set out to show how the pandemic has disproportionately affected minority communities in the United States.

Of course, many firms kept banging the agile, data analytics, and digital drums throughout the year. And they found time, despite the understandable preoccupation with the pandemic, to publish extensively on climate change and sustainability.

Scott: What are the main themes you expect to see this year?

Allan: How businesses should respond to the pandemic will remain at the top of the publishing agenda. For example, as more people are vaccinated, we’ll see more pieces about how—and whether—to bring employees back to the office. There will be many articles about how the pandemic has changed shopper behavior. And the debate over what to do about far-flung supply chains is far from over, so we can expect authors to continue weighing in on the subject.

Apart from the pandemic, we can expect firms to continue to emphasize climate change, decarbonization, and electric vehicles. The umbrella for those topics is ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance), so I anticipate that firms will come in with articles about how companies should be fulfilling their commitments in those areas.

Digitization will remain a hot topic—although, at some point, every piece will have a digital hook. Cloud computing will also receive considerable attention. But we’re about at the point of the idea cycle where we’ll be seeing pieces about how companies are failing to take advantage of their cloud resources. Finally, I think we’ll see even more publishing on the future of artificial intelligence.

Scott: What about format innovation?

Allan: I see traditional text-based content remaining the dominant thought leadership format, at least for a few more years. It’s hard to convince potential clients to spend thousands—or even millions—of dollars on engagements through just audio or video presentation of proprietary knowledge. That said, professional-services firms will continue to invest more and more in data visualization and animation, podcasts, video, and webinars to complement their text-based assets. Who knows—maybe when the digital-native generations start running these firms and those of the clients, they’ll consign PDFs to the dustbin of history.

Scott: You’ve noted elsewhere that some professional-services firms have begun taking public positions on controversial issues, even apart from their thought leadership. Why is this happening, and will the trend continue?

Allan: As we know, businesses, including professional-services firms, have traditionally shied away from taking overt political stances. But it seems as if the cumulative excesses of the Trump administration pushed many over the edge. Perhaps professional-services firms, which had been pumping out a stream of articles about corporate purpose, had to start taking their own medicine.

Look—they ignored Trump on the pandemic and climate change and published extensively in both areas. They took stands on racial injustice while the administration remained mostly silent. Some demanded that the administration move ahead with the presidential transition despite Republican intransigence. And some condemned the administration and other elected officials for their role in the sacking of the Capitol.

You will hear some people argue that statements like these are nothing but virtue-signaling or attempts to muzzle free speech. I doubt it. Something substantive must be afoot for these firms to take such stances against the powers that be. I hypothesize they are responding to the outrage of their employees and customers or clients and to concern about the impact on recruitment if they remain silent. Things might quiet down a bit with the start of the Biden administration, but once you go down this path, it’s hard to return to the status quo ante.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of LEFF. He’s spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he’s had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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