Die, Thought Leaders, Die, Die, Die…

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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?


  1. If I wrote more online I’d be considered a ‘thought leader’ by some – and ego-driven by others. If I became a thought leader I’d make some of the crazy lists of top thought leaders – that some people covet. If I made the top lists I’d be invited more to speak at prestigious events – and call myself an expert. If I was called an expert by others – people would assume I was a great leader.
    But then again, if I did all these things I’d have no time to actually make a difference – and a ton of money. I don’t have time to write that much or that often because I am busy in the trenches DOING THE WORK.

  2. I feel like ‘thought leadership’ is a result of actually leading stimulating thought and conversation which should come from a place of actually giving a damn in the first place. I have always considered you a thought leader because of the high level conversations that you lead. You get me thinking.
    It’s a byproduct – not the goal.
    As soon as we self-appoint a title like that, you lose some credibility don’t you? After all, it’s your audience that gets that vote.

  3. No one should ever proclaim themselves as a thought leader, the preeminent or leading voice for _____ in an industry, or any of the other self-important titles people use to establish their superiority and credibility.
    If others confer it upon you in their introductions or commentary, bask in the moment, and then return to being your everyday humility.
    To me, part of being an actual thought leader is not leading with the thought that you are.

  4. I think anyone with the experience in a field deserves to be known. And if they can better leverage their knowledge and contribute to others that way, it’s a good thing. Just because people get tired of hearing things doesn’t make them invalid or less important, or lacking of value. Thought leaders will exist whether or not the term lasts.

  5. All current labels were at one time in history considered self important titles. Decades later they have been integrated into our thread of society. How many do you know who identify themselves as a CEO but have no staff let alone other C level executives?

  6. All current labels were at one time in history considered self important titles. Decades later they have been integrated into our thread of society. How many do you know who identify themselves as a CEO but have no staff let alone other C level executives?

  7. Don’t call yourself a rock star. Call yourself a musician and work very, very hard. Then maybe someday others will call you a rock star. Same with the term thought leader. Earn it, don’t assume it.

  8. We bump into this issue on client programs, where clearly the goal is to have their brand valued for advancing the professional/technical converation and state-of-the-art within their particular industry or subject area. But do we really want to tout them as an “industry thought leader,” or label their program publicly a “thought leadership program.” Probably not. We’d like their audiences to feel and believe that, but it would be preferrable not to claim the label unilaterally.
    The trick for anyone — a brand or an individual — as your post suggests, Mitch, is to exert thought leadership without arbitrarily claiming the mantle. To be a catalytic force for hypotheses, exploration, discovery and smart practice-sharing (rinse and repeat), without ever being so arrogant as to believe or claim you’ve arrived at all the answers.
    Maybe so long as we treat the two words as a never-ending process, and not a perfected state of being, properly humble perspective can be maintained around “thought leadership”.

  9. It’s strange that this term all of a sudden appears to be everywhere. “Thought leader” sounds fascistic at its worst, and vague but self-important at its best.

  10. Mitch, I love your take on the self labelling thought leaders. Thought leadership can only be bestowed on you by an audience because it revolves not around you but rather on delivering deep insights about that audience or their issues and challenges. This is what makes you an expert in their eyes.
    The benefits if you get it right are huge. But it needs to be long-term, part of the culture of the organisation and requires a disciplined, strategic approach if you truly want to differentiate your brand.

  11. Thanks for this post Mitch! And for keeping the discussion on thought leadership going on. I love the title of your post and your following comment is on the mark: “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.”
    Indeed, thought leadership is not something that you claim. From my experience, I believe that increasingly more people start to agree with that. That’s positive, because it helps ‘us’ to separate the wheat from the chaff and to recognize the “real” thought leaders. To me, thought leaders are people or organizations who encourage positive change through their thought-provoking viewpoints that are relevant to them and their stakeholders. And (importantly!) they are committed to act in line with their viewpoints.

  12. This post rants about how bad it is to anoint oneself a thought leader. And it presumably is, since everyone who’s commented agrees.
    But you give no examples — not one — of anyone who has done what you suggest; that is, proclaim themselves to be a thought leader. I’m in the TL Marketing business and I don’t know of anyone that has. And I am not surprised — I can’t think of anyone since John Lennon to anoint themselves a great songwriter, for instance. Giving oneself superlative titles is not something normal people generally do — even ambitious business people with an ounce of self-awareness.
    All to say, this post tilts at windmills. One essential feature of thought leadership (material) btw is that it addresses a real issue, and takes the trouble to establish it up front if it isn’t already obvious to the reader — lots of guidance on our site if you’re interested. No mater how eloquent the prose, if the problem isn’t real, the solution isn’t useful.

  13. Tim no need to name and shame. All you need do is set up a Google Alert for the term thought leadership and see how many bits of content, let alone conferences that are self-anointed thought leadership pieces/conferences. Happy hunting.

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