Part I: A Successful CEO’s thoughts on the importance of Thought Leadership Marketing for longer term success

Why one of Agility PR’s favourite and longest standing clients maintained its investment in thought leadership campaigning over more than 20 years

Time often first casualty in recessions
There is an all too familiar trend in downturns which often derails thought leadership campaigns. Firstly, clients tend take a shorter term view. Their focus on the bottom-line becomes more intense. Pretty quickly, they have a nasty habit of completely unplugging PR campaigns and terminating relationships with PR agencies if they have them in place.

Others shorten the maximum time horizon on PR. So, six to nine month campaigns designed to aid penetration into a new market or shine a spotlight on a new capability, suddenly become impossible to get backing for.

A quarter by quarter engagement becomes de rigueur as agility becomes the watchword (yes Agility PR was born in a previous downturn when the same happened). Focus tends to become much more on the tactical and reactive. Often clients one volumes of deliverables i.e. let’s have three thought leadership pieces per month, two case studies per quarter etc.

Of course, I agree that in downturns marketing departments must cut their cloth. Pressure on budgets is inevitable. Marketing heads don’t need to be reminded that they represent a cost to the business – often an increasingly unwelcome cost in downturns.

Keep strategic goals in mind
However, surely downturns should not completely derail strategic goals!? Tech firms need to keep planning and executing for growth. After all, in recessions the markets they serve often turn to technology to find efficiencies and cut costs. If they get their positioning and promotion right they can make hay in downturns.

Efficiency push can be a boon for tech firms
I’ve seen evidence during this downturn of companies wanting to plug in technologies offering business process automation, improved customer experience and Digital Transformation, much faster than they would in normal market conditions.

For example, cloud migration projects are being accelerated right now, driven by a flight from capital expenditure (CAPEX) and towards ‘pay-as-you-use’ operational expenditure (OPEX). However, if too many businesses go into survival mode, focusing principally on conserving cash, inevitably this defensive approach ripples through the economy. Before you know it, everyone stops buying – thus deepening and prolonging downturns.

Taking the long view brings long-term success
Again, I decided to interview another inspirational leader of a technology firm who I know has bucked this self-defeating pattern. Indeed, he has consistently invested in marketing and PR for more than 30 years. And there is no denying he made the right call. The business he built up was recently acquired for a little over £27m.

Again, I’ve kept it anonymous so this CEO could talk more freely. Below is a faithful write up of the first three questions I put to him and the answers he gave.

Q1. What are the key reasons you’ve consistently invested in building your company’s thought leadership positioning over more than 20 years? It’s a big commitment in resources after all.

For much of our time we’ve been serving a relatively small number of high value customers – pension providers, wrap platforms, and more recently wealth managers. We aim to hold onto our clients for many years.

As we’ve widened and deepened our offerings, our consultative-selling approach has become increasingly important. We’ve always strived to share with our customers our unique and unbiased take on where their market is heading.

As our market knowledge increased, it made increasing sense to share our thinking with a larger audience as part of our marketing – to build our brand awareness and reputation simultaneously.

This is where you (Agility PR) came in to take the sweat out of the process of building brand authority by taking briefs from our key people, executing market research, submitting industry award entries and helping us produce vlogs to communicate our views and insights more widely.

Q2. Do you think this sort of work (building reputation and thought leadership) is done well by many companies in your market?

For a long time we relied on the big pension product providers to conduct market research and share their findings with the market. That was the main source of new insights. Then the IFA platforms began to share their insights and opinions on where the market was heading and what changes should be made.

But for years, as a tech provider to these companies, we were pretty much on our own in terms of sharing our views and expertise in applying system changes to remain compliant with new regulation which came thick and fast.

We also offered our customers early warning of changes that would have to be made to their systems because of imminent regulatory changes. Naturally, the IFA and pensions trade media were also interested in our views and summaries of changes.

However, there is no doubt that committing resources to doing this work is not for everyone. You must be committed to offering advice to customers – you must want to advise them as well as sell to them.

You also have to be willing to stick your neck out occasionally and spark a debate. Sometimes you will be challenged on your views. However, I’d rather that than remaining under the radar and relatively unknown.

I’m absolutely positive that focusing on maintaining our profile over the years got us on more RFPs (Requests for Proposal) than would have been the case if we had not done this thought leadership work consistently and to a high quality.

Q3. Do you have any tips for tech firms exploring how to raise their profile in a specific market?

Trust in your opinion is key. After all, you’ll need to deliver your views into the market consistently and regularly. It’s also worth thinking about the different levels of your prospects’ organisation from CEO, through operations heads, technology development teams and users of the systems you hope to deliver.

Try to produce content which is designed to engage every layer of the organisation. For example, I’m currently writing pieces on topics linked to running a sizeable company through the current pandemic. Agility PR has helped get these pieces regularly carried in key trade publications. We also publish these pieces on our website and in our eNewsletters going to clients.

They really talk to the C-suite, providing reassurance that we are navigating the difficult issues of trading through a pandemic – we are innovating and anticipating issues like mental health for our remote workers.

In addition, our work with a charity I set up in Uganda is also helpful in engaging C-suite executives. They may be less interested in some of the more technical content we produce for example, but we all connect with the human stories which come out of helping people less fortunate than ourselves.

Four years ago, we began a series of consumer market research exercises to deliver insight into the market about how savings behaviour and retirement income prospects were changing through the generations. These pieces of research have given us a platform to talk much more widely about how the market which our customers are serving is changing. This is knowledge and insight which has opened doors for us over recent years.

However, these sorts of exercises are not cheap. They require commitment. But I think they are vital in setting us apart from our rivals. They help position us as a potential partner rather than just another would be supplier. As such, we don’t have to be the cheapest to win those great contracts and we are more likely to win the more wide-ranging briefs and strategically important prospects.

I put a few more questions to this successful tech entrepreneur and CEO. If you are interested in reading Part II of a Successful CEO’s thoughts on the importance of Thought Leadership Marketing for longer term success, please stay tuned. I will be sharing this with you via my website, newsletter and LinkedIn profile within the next few days.