Senior marketers around the world responded quickly and effectively to Covid-19 with crisis-related comms that helped their clients with short-term responses to the crisis. Marketing priorities were redrawn, and new challenges revealed themselves, which meant that most thought leadership projects that were not directly Covid-related were parked, even if they were close to completion or ready for launch. The timing was simply not right.
But the appetite for Covid-related content has dropped, the focus has returned to the client-facing issues that were on the table before the pandemic hit. Clearly these issues have not gone away. So how can you best re-ignite your thought leadership portfolio while ensuring that communications are still relevant?
Tom Bovingdon, thought leadership manager at innovation and transformation consultancy PA Consulting reveals that they began reviewing their thought leadership from the outset of the pandemic. Clearly clients are living through uncertain times, with rapidly changing context and priorities. “This means there is no single fixed answer to any of the major problems we are helping our global clients with. Our thought leadership has to continuously evolve and grow to remain relevant, ingeneous, empathetic and timely,” he explains.
A good example of the firm’s approach is the campaign ‘Changing track: the future of rail’. The initial research report, based on a series of interviews with external and internal transport experts, was published in December 2019, just before Covid-19 transformed the way we travel. But the themes covered in the report, which explored potential scenarios for the transport industry in 2050, remained valid and made their key recommendations even more relevant. “We did not want to rewrite history, so we reworked the introduction and were open and honest around the fact the world had changed,” says Bovingdon.
Another might be their ‘A renewed public sector imperative: purpose-led, adaptive & collaborative’ report, which was delivered against accelerated timescales in order to meet the pressing demand for new ideas and approaches in the public sector.
Other projects proved more complex. PA has run a survey of vice chancellors in UK higher education for the last decade. The survey examines policy and market changes and asks what these academic leaders expect to change in the next ten years. It is well-received in the market and typically runs annually. But trying to run the same survey when the educational environment was changing almost daily was never going to work. The campaign itself needed a different approach.
“There was a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes to support vice chancellors,” says Bovingdon, “and we shared a series of short, sharp guides on the changing future, such as ‘The impact of the pandemic on higher education’. We will revisit the survey, but only when we feel the timing is right for our clients.”
The view is shared by Carol Briggs, associate director at Grant Thornton International, who leads global content and insights for the network of independent assurance, tax and advisory firms. At the start of 2020 they had been creating a range of content for their firms’ clients in the mid-market exploring private equity as a source of finance for growth. But in the wake of unprecedented economic and societal challenges, businesses were forced to rethink their focus.
“Accessing finance for growth has clearly not been a top priority for many businesses over the last six months, as they rightly focused on cashflow and survival,” Briggs says. “The market changed and against this backdrop, the role private equity can play in mid-market growth is being reconsidered. The issue is still relevant but needs to be reset. Our thought leadership needs to mirror those times.”
As markets re-opened and deal flows began to return, the private equity hub for mid-market businesses was released. New insight includes ‘Private equity in the mid-market: reshaping strategies for 2021’, in which four private equity specialists shed light on current deal flow, where opportunities for private equity firms will lie in the future and how they can adapt to realise them.
The pandemic is not just making marketing leaders revisit what thought leadership is produced, but how it is produced. The mantra of doing more for less, always high on the boardroom agenda of professional services firms, has never been more apt across B2B. Michael Reeves, leader, digital content, global brand and marketing at EY, the multinational professional services firm, talks about a recent audit of their research to ensure that they are getting best value for money.
“EY produces a number of key campaigns, such as our ‘Global Capital Confidence Barometer’, which are recognised bellwethers,” he says. “They provide real value for our clients and work hard to convey our expertise. But each of these campaigns involves surveying and then targeting the same audience on crossover issues. By potentially amalgamating the research inputs we can make them work harder for both the target audience and ourselves.”
Return on investment is clearly top of mind for senior marketers, and many are taking the opportunity to review their thought leadership portfolios to see what they could potentially do without. Now is a good time to cut projects that are not providing the engagement that you seek. Reeves talks half-jokingly about ‘zombie trackers’: surveys that have been repeated, often for years, with limited or no engagement. The budget saved by scrapping these campaigns can be put to better use elsewhere.
If you are reviewing your thought leadership portfolio, it is clearly a great opportunity to ensure that all projects are still fit for purpose. Perhaps the best lesson here is a reminder that thought leadership is a value exchange: and needs to provide a return on your clients’ needs as well as your own internal business development desires. In a world of change, that much is constant.