Agencies shouldn't underestimate value of establishing themselves as thought leaders

Differentiation and specialization, particularly among large agencies, was a key theme in this year's Agency Business Report.

Differentiation and specialization, particularly among large agencies, was a key theme in this year's Agency Business Report.

Thought leadership is one way that some firms seek to demonstrate niche expertise, though not all agencies agree about the level to which it is necessary.

Most firms do something. Burson-Marsteller's CEO research is well-established, including its Insider/Outsider CEO tracking, as well as its annual CEO survey with PRWeek. Cone's nonprofit research is an industry benchmark. Many firms, including Porter Novelli, Ketchum, Weber Shandwick, and GCI Group, produce monthly or quarterly publications, covering a range of topics, either nationally or specific to practice areas. Some of those firms, as well as others, do occasional surveys for public consumption, not just for clients' benefit. And there are more initiatives than I have the space to comment on here, but that I hope to cover in greater depth at another time.

The agency that currently stands out in the thought leadership ranks is Edelman. CEO Richard Edelman's regular speaking gig at the World Economic Forum is bolstered by his firm's annual Trust Barometer research. Much of the thought leadership is geared toward tackling burgeoning trends. Edelman himself writes his own blog and the agency's recent white paper analyzed word-of-mouth marketing. Go to the agency's website and you can see its leaders talking about a number of topics on streaming video, including one with Edelman talking about current developments in communications strategy.

The cumulative effort is no doubt expensive and time-consuming, but the firm clearly deems it a worthwhile investment. But not all firms seek to tout their expertise as publicly. One leading agency CEO told me, "We save it for our clients." Interestingly, that same agency helped another professional services firm establish its profile in an important area facing US corporations, primarily through thought-leadership positioning. No doubt it is a well-used tool for helping clients reach new audiences.

Some leaders say firms risk pigeonholing themselves as experts in certain subjects, limiting their appeal to a small range of clients. But clients also want to know how agencies think, not just what they know.

Several firms told me they are ramping up efforts in the area of thought leadership this year. That is likely because they have more resources to do so now that the market has improved somewhat. No one should underestimate the potential that a strategic program might have. Who wouldn't want to read about an interesting piece of research in The Wall Street Journal and be able to tell his or her CEO, "That's my agency."

Industry must keep eye on Ketchum outcome

Ketchum is coming out of hiding, having completed its internal review of the Department of Education account and the Armstrong Williams relationship. A written Q&A by CEO Ray Kotcher appeared in PRWeek. He is also speaking out at small events, including a recent panel discussion at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, which I also participated in.

I've heard many opinions on Ketchum's efforts to communicate what happened and what it will do moving forward. It is important for the industry to assess this home-grown case study. Clients and prospective employees alike are watching how this story plays out, and not just the broader industry implications.

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