'Thought Leadership' Is Bullshit

Posted on 4th November, 2013

‘Thought leadership’. I’m sick of it. Along with ‘storytelling’ and ‘Big Data’, it has to rank as one of the most ubiquitous and annoying clichés of 2013. Every event, every written piece, every fatuous conference presentation – ‘thought leadership this, thought leadership that’.


It’s not that I don’t believe in thought leadership. Far from it. I’m a passionate advocate for it. It’s just that, as with most things in life (true agency integration being one of them, by the way), if you’re talking about it, you’re probably not doing it.


And there’s the rub.  For as long as ‘thought leadership’ is spoken about, and treated, as something distinct - something that exists in its own right - then we have a problem. This is magnified significantly when agencies regard it as some sort of optional extra, a happy addendum to the ‘day job’. And – whatever they say – many do.


It can be neither. Unless and until intellectual and commercial accountability, which I think is the better descriptor, sits at the centre of everything that agencies do, our sector will continue its journey downstream.  In an increasingly commoditised and disintermediated world (see fiverr.com and peopleperhour.com for a little glimpse into at least part of the future), this will not be a comfortable place to be. Nor will it be sustainable; financially, let alone in any other respect.  There will always be someone willing to do things cheaper, faster. Trying to fight that battle is futile: a race to the bottom, although many agencies, wittingly or otherwise, seem bent on this course.


We have to do things better.  We have to do things differently. And that doesn’t mean tarting up what we’ve always done to take on the appearance of ‘thought leadership’.  Sadly, our industry is brimming with shallow, narcissistic loudmouths ready to reel off axiomatic platitudes that they believe pass for some sort of ground-breaking ‘insight’.  Some of them even write books about it, and receive gushing reviews from the blind to whom they are the one-eyed man or woman.


The clients don’t buy it. Literally.  If we are to take on the consultancies, the people who snaffled the territory that was historically ours, if we are move from being grubby suppliers to junior channel managers and become instead value-adding consultants to the board, we need to demonstrate rigorous thinking at every point of our engagement with clients. Not just a bit of ‘planning’ time that we chuck in at the outset, in order to get ‘the work’, or a hastily prepared piece of ex post facto ROI analysis, in order to justify ‘the work’.  The thinking itself is, or should be, the work, regardless of how it manifests.


Agencies have to fundamentally change how they see the world, how they charge, whom they recruit and how they develop.


This is not, as the ‘thought leadership’ brigade seem to think, about aspiration.


It’s about survival.


- this piece first kindly published by Campaign Magazine at



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