Is thought leadership finally getting serious?

Is thought leadership finally getting serious?

I’m not talking about the content itself, which still regularly takes itself far too seriously, but the state of the broader world of conceiving, developing, publishing, and amplifying distinctive insights. If it feels like the tectonic plates are shifting, I suspect it’s because they are.

Let’s look at the past six weeks or so. We published our report, The Content (Re)volution, that took stock of where the world of thought leadership stands today and how it’s evolving (or not) to meet changing audience needs and expectations. A week later, dozens of peers attended our webinar to talk about the report’s findings and hear from McKinsey’s Global Editorial Director and Deputy Publisher, Lucia Rahilly.

In the month since, barely a day has passed without some kind of thought-leadership event. There have been live speakers and virtual panels. Columns published about best practices. Newsletters launched. It was all capped by APQC’s formation of a Global Thought Leadership Institute, which noted research conducted recently by Oxford Economics and the IBM Institute for Business Value claiming that $265 billion in annual purchases are made as a direct result of executives consuming thought leadership.

As a company filled with professionals with a collective century or so of experience in crafting thought leadership, it’s something of a revelation to see how companies large and small have embraced it in recent years. But this relative explosion of interest—and the millions of dollars companies are investing in content as a result—requires understanding a few ground rules.

First, the correct response to the commoditization of thought leadership in the past decade is increased rigor around what’s produced. That’s especially important as generative AI takes hold, and we’ve noted we firmly believe AI’s ultimate impact will be to prompt a flight to quality. You don’t need to overthink this: the marketplace ultimately imposes judgment on half-baked, poorly reasoned content.

Second, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula. Thought leadership as a content genre has evolved dramatically from just a couple of decades ago, when it was a cottage industry largely populated by former journalists relishing the opportunity to write about meaningful topics and work with smart colleagues (escaping the rapidly collapsing world of traditional media had nothing to do with it, of course). Back then—and often still today—thought leadership was viewed as special and not actually content marketing.

But the reality is thought leadership is fundamentally about selling people stuff. And that’s OK! It also means it doesn’t require separate rules from the broader world of content marketing—it needs to reflect evolving user needs and wants (especially regarding formats and channels) and has the bonus of being able to drive an organization’s broader reputational objectives as well as foster deeper, more meaningful relationships.

This recognition that content must work for its audience—not just its authors—is where thought leadership has benefited immensely from the influence and application of marketing approaches. Content has become more journalistic; the tendency toward dry academic writing has waned; how and where content is presented has grown more innovative; and the measurement of thought leadership’s effectiveness has turned more rigorous. It’s also helped thought leadership be seen not as some sort of add-on but as a critical element in any integrated content marketing effort, which has in turn increased overall impact.

Yet so many thought-leadership initiatives ignore this broader world in which the content operates. You often find yourself in a room filled with thought-leadership types earnestly discussing this single content type, with few marketing leaders to contextualize where thought leadership sits in the range of content marketing options at their disposal and how and why thought leadership needs to continue evolving in line with how people are consuming content.

I’m the first to admit an agenda here. Unlike marketing agencies that have only in recent years realized the power of truly distinctive thought leadership, LEFF is coming at it from the other direction. For more than a decade, we’ve worked with the world’s most prestigious companies to craft compelling thought leadership; now, we’re expanding more broadly into content marketing. That’s for two reasons: we recognize thought leadership is just one star within the universe of how companies demonstrate the power of their ideas, and clients are increasingly demanding more than pure thought leadership.

Clients want marketing assets that support and amplify thought leadership, from blog posts to social media to multimedia. They want events to help clients go under the hood, from in-person dinners and symposia to webinars and other opportunities for interaction. They want users to have access to content wherever and whenever they need it. And they increasingly see the importance and value of microsites and digital presentation that immerses audiences in the content and reveals its breadth and depth.

None of this is easy; all of it requires discipline, rigor, attention to detail, and deep expertise and professionalism. It truly takes a village: not just people who work on developing thought leadership but also colleagues who understand search engine optimization to maximize the odds of success, people who track performance and recommend tweaks on the fly, and marketers who understand how to activate everything internally and externally. It needs event planners, multimedia producers, and content strategists.

Having said that, one thing remains constant: the need for foundational thought leadership that is truly distinctive and insightful. That underpins everything, today and in the emerging generative AI era. It’s fantastic to see an increasing focus on thought leadership, its importance, and its potential impact. But it’s important to always consider the broader world in which we operate, which is vital to ensuring great work gets the attention it deserves.

Luke Collins

Luke is a dad and—in his spare time—the SVP of content innovation at LEFF. A journalist in a past life, he escaped the world of increasingly large companies to do what makes him happiest: helping clients tell stories that are engaging, compelling, useful, and (every now and then) a little inspiring. He plays tennis (well) and bass guitar (barely), and he is living proof that Australians are not genetically wired to surf.