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April 18, 2013 9:19 AM

Die, Thought Leaders, Die, Die, Die...

So, what do you think of my thought leadership?

Ugh. Really? When you speak or write in a forum that has audience and attention, the people who are giving you the platform have to sell you. In that, you have to be able to sell yourself to those people as well (so that they feel like you are worthy of their platform). It's a strange balancing act between being humble about what you - as an individual - can bring to the table and your ability to self promote. Have you ever given a presentation? Have you ever sat in the audience (or to the side of the stage) and had everybody look at you while the host reads out an extended and self-promotional bio on you to hype up the audience? It has to be - without question - one of the hardest things I have to do. I just find the whole experience... embarrassing (or awkward). In those instances, I have been called everything from a guru, innovator, futurist, genius and yes, even a thought leader.

What is the point and value of thought leadership?

Candidly, if you ask me what I do, I say that I am President of Twist Image - a digital marketing agency. If pushed for more, I will say that I am a writer and a public speaker. No, that's not my elevator pitch, it is the professional titles that I am most comfortable with. I can't imagine ever calling myself a thought leader. On April 15th, 2013, DigiDay ran an interesting news item titled, Do Agencies Really Need 'Thought Leaders'?. The article states: "'Thought leadership' means different things to different people, of course, and the expectations of those in such positions vary from agency to agency. But ultimately, their responsibilities tend to boil down to a mix of research, education, and PR and marketing for the agency itself. Many see their roles as formulating and filtering information and ideas, and packaging them in a way that's of value to the organization and its clients, or at least makes it appear like it's up to speed... While agency staffers might not see specific value in it, the fact of the matter is that it's always been there in one form or another. And based on that fact it looks like its here to stay.."

Well, I guess we're thought leaders after all.

This DigiDay piece came at an interesting time. I had just finished reading Steve Woodruff's blog post titled, We Do Everything...Just Like Everybody Else!, where Woodruff chastises digital marketing agencies for rattling off a similar list of services in an attempt to be everything to everyone. His concern is valid because if everyone offers similar services, then it all becomes highly commoditized. The truth is this: unless you are a specialty shop - focused on one thin slice of the marketing pie - digital marketing does become (somewhat) commoditized. It's hard not to look at a list of services or agency websites and not feel like you could toss these lists and all of the agency logos into the air and wherever they fell on the ground, it would still sound about right. We work in a highly technical space, but that technology is driven by three things: strategy, creativity and innovation. In fairness, without the thought leadership component, every agency is a commodity. What clients are buying when they engage a digital marketing agency is piece of mind. They are buying a new way of thinking and doing their digital marketing and, if the thinkers at the agency aren't doing this from a position of industry leadership, then all is lost. In essence, there is no strategy, creativity and innovation without a deep layer of thought leadership.

Are you a thought leader?

The biggest reason why thought leadership has now become so serious (in terms of it being desperately needed by clients) and such a joke (in terms of people self-identifying themselves as thought leaders) is because of social media. Sure, we always had thought leaders in the marketing industry, but these people were, typically, the secret sauce/secret weapons. They were only trotted out to interface with clients and give them the confidence that the work that the agency was doing was their best work and that no other competitor had access to this type of brainpower. Occasionally, these individuals would appear in the industry trades or at events, but - for the most part - they were client-facing only. Now, with social media, these thinkers are blogging, podcasting, tweeting, on Facebook and more. They are public. They are sharing how they think (look no further than the work of Avinash Kaushik, Bryan Eisenberg, Nilofer Merchant, Charlene Li and many more). They are now "giving away the goods", as it were. And, by doing so, are building not only their practices but their personas and platforms. They are becoming celebrities within their industry. They are commanding significant speaking fees and still attracting impressive advances to write books, while helping their clients get results. In a sense, the uncoupling of these people may come off as bravado or chest thumping when, in reality, all of this publicness has led to a much steeper growth curve for their respective agencies and businesses. 

There's nothing wrong with thought leadership. 

Finding comfort in these strange and awkward titles is never easy. If, as an individual, you are truly helping your business, your clients and the industry think, learn, grow and become more, then the title may just be applicable. My experience has been this: I could never call myself a thought leader, but if someone else feels like that's what I am, I am flattered by it because it means that part of the work that I do (the work that is published and broadcasted) is finding an audience and connecting to it. The challenge comes when self-anointed thought leaders arrive, because it's hard to be a leader if you are truly not leading anybody except a small group into believing that your resume is more impressive than it truly is.

What do you make of thought leadership as a professional designation in marketing?

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