News & Views

Thought Leadership’s Nemesis Has a Name: It’s ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’

Let me start with a short anecdote.

The scene? A Japanese restaurant. Location? The Dubai International Financial Centre.

This was the tail end of 2014. Pre-Trump; in the early years of Xi Jinping’s reign. n/n was just over a year old. There I sat across from a senior marketer representing a global asset manager. His employer was investing in a Middle East expansion, he said, and they wanted to publish insightful commentary to strengthen their brand across the region.

While we scanned the menu, he explained the myriad ways capital markets across the Gulf were changing as they attempted to become more attractive to international investors.

I nodded and launched into consultant mode. There was the issue of regulation, not to mention the nuances that distinguish each Gulf market, from the UAE to Qatar to Kuwait. There was the tussle between Islamic finance and global finance. His firm could get ahead of each development with a distinct voice and potentially ‘own’ the story. White papers, infographics, videos, conferences, op-eds – the works.

He put up his hand. “Let’s first see how the market perceives these reforms,” he said.

On the face of it, this approach made sense. Best to let events evolve and then find one’s unique niche inside of the story. But it soon became apparent that what he really meant was something very different: his employer wanted to follow – rather than lead – the conversation.

In other words: We will let others stick their necks out and comment first. Then we’ll decide what to publish so we don’t offend anyone.

A Common Refrain

This story isn’t unique. At n/n, we frequently hear companies say in the same breath, (1) they want to publish cutting edge thought leadership, and (2) they also want to ensure that anything offensive or controversial is deleted before publication.

These contradictory motivations are especially strong in markets such as China and in the Gulf States, where falling afoul of regulators and policymakers – or uttering views deemed politically distasteful – can carry consequences.

To be sure, in the real-world companies have to weigh interests, just like individuals. They must balance their interest in publishing insightful commentary with a whole host of other considerations – compliance and legal constraints chief among them.

Think of it this way: when your friend asks if you prefer his new hairstyle to his old one (and you really don’t), common decency kicks in and to spare his feelings you are likely to pretend that you do, or at least find some other creative way to dance around the issue. Most of us readily accept that this particular truth simply isn’t worth the cost of delivering it.

Companies employ a similar calculus to self-censor all of the time, but on much more important matters. And therein lies the problem: All truths aren’t equal.

For an example, the Hong Kong office of a global bank may conclude that pointing out the flaws in China’s domestic credit rating system isn’t worth the risk of being seen as ‘anti-China.’

But the reality is the cost of ignoring – or at least failing to address – such an important matter is higher over the long term: investors and other stakeholders will wake up to the fact that such a bank is in the business of publishing hot air and bumf, not insightful commentary. In other words, the market may eventually turn on such companies for keeping their mouths shut.

An Excess of Caution

All of which means when it comes to thought leadership campaigns, companies – especially large, bureaucratic ones – are frequently their own worst enemies. Many not only preemptively self-censor – they also overdo it. What usually happens is this:

The marketing team has a bold idea – say, a compelling series on the real risks of investing in a cross-border infrastructure project linked to China’s Belt & Road Initiative. Work starts off with a bang: they compile lists of failed deals; they identify and attempt to interview frustrated investors.

But then, a rotating carousel of internal stakeholders gets its hands on the campaign.

First, the business heads cut out any material that could be ‘perceived as negative’ to protect the firm’s positive image with clients.

Second, the compliance team cuts out anything that could be ‘perceived as legally problematic’ to mitigate legal risks.

And then, finally, the marketing team looks at the content again – and, in an attempt to prove that they aren’t taking any chances – make another round of ‘just-to-play-it-safe’ cuts.

The result?

What was once a compelling, nuanced and insightful research paper is now a bland commentary that serves no specific audience or particular purpose. It’s as if the Hollywood machine picked up an edgy and utterly original screenplay only to dumb it down into a mediocre we’ve-seen-this-movie-a-dozen-times sequel.

What Can We Do?

With this in mind, how can you avoid ‘death by a thousand cuts’ with your 2019 content campaigns?

Here are a few tips:

  1. Before embarking on a campaign, devise a coherent content strategy and put it all down on paper. The key is to be as specific as possible: This is exactly what we want to say, and importantly, why we want to say it.
  2. Once the strategy is devised, obtain full buy-in from internal stakeholders, from business heads to compliance, before work begins: Make it clear that watered down content results are nothing but wasted effort and expenditure.
  3. Accept that some external audiences will almost certainly disagree with your views: Take that as a compliment and cough it up to the price of being a genuine thought leader. Strong opinions should elicit strong responses.
  4. And finally, if you are too constrained to say anything compelling and insightful, don’t say anything at all: It’s simply a waste of money to fake thought leadership.

At the end of the day, if you refuse to take a risk and say something meaningful, one of your competitors will. And they will walk away with not only the thought leadership crown, but eventually, the other things that go with it: More trust from clients, a stronger voice in the market, and inevitably, more market share.

The good news is there’s plenty to comment on. Trade tensions are escalating. US treasury yields are rising. China continues its ascent while navigating painful contradictions. A populist has emerged victorious in Brazil

Let’s get to work.

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