It’s right that truly original ideas are celebrated. That’s because they are exceptionally rare: it was said of Einstein that he only had two new ideas; they just happened to be the Special Theory of Relativity and the General Theory of Relativity. One of the most famous original thinkers before him, Isaac Newton, acknowledged that he got his ideas through “standing on the shoulders of giants” (though this might have been a mean dig at a short rival).
In business it’s often a struggle to identify more than a handful of ideas without precedent. Steve Jobs was a genius for launching the first phone with a touchscreen and apps? Nope: IBM got there fully 13 years earlier. Today’s dominant ETF providers, BlackRock and Vanguard, popularised an idea conceived first by the Toronto Stock Exchange. Even Henry Ford, according to his contemporary at Ford Motor Co, Charles E Sorenson, wasn’t the father of assembly line production, he was just the sponsor of it.
The same is true in just about any field of human endeavour (particularly creative ones). For most of us, there’s not much point wringing our hands about not being geniuses. When it comes to publishing and content marketing, we can all be sponsors and developers of others’ good ideas and, in the process, create arresting and useful content that burnishes our brands. After all, what most people mean when they talk about original thinking (or thought leadership, if you like) relates instead to original modes of expression or exposition.
These are obviously crucial. You can’t go plagiarising other people or repeating exactly what you said yesterday. You can, though, pay homage to other people’s thinking – if it is worth repeating, and assuming you give them due credit – and reiterate points you made yesterday that remain valid today. Both can lead to good quality content if they are expressed with clarity, brevity and perhaps a modicum of wit.
It’s important to recognise this point when planning a content campaign. At the broadest level your competitors are likely to be talking about the same topics, and you are likely to encounter the same issues time and again. That doesn’t mean you should stay silent, even if you don’t think everything you publish is staggeringly original. After all, the internet has a (very) short memory.
And when you do have something to say that no one else can (because it is truly original) or will (because it is brave or contrarian), then make it work doubly hard. So you invested in a lot in a truly ground-breaking study last year? You can come back to it again and again, focusing on slightly different angles each time. So you called the crash when everyone else was piling in? Keep referring back to it to remind your audience of your perspicacity.
Of course, judicious editorial judgement is required. But if you are used to reading the op-ed pages of respected newspapers (which had to fill pages for many decades before the internet came along), you’ll see that repeating yourself is hardly a cardinal sin – unlike not publishing anything.