PODCAST: Alastair Gornall on building brand reputation

Thought Leadership Insights

Thought Leadership Insights, Episode 4

In FT Longitude’s fourth episode of Thought Leadership Insights, we speak with former FT Longitude Chairman and PR maven Alastair Gornall about the importance of building brand reputation. Alastair shares his views on the current key trends in B2B marketing and communications, together with how companies should be using thought leadership and creative content as a way to increase brand awareness – and the vital role the c-suite has to play in this increasingly important area of focus.

Topics covered

  • 00:00 Introduction
  • 01:00 Alastair’s background and the changing world of communications
  • 03:45 Key trends in brand marketing
  • 04:45 Using thought leadership to rise above the noise
  • 07:00 The potential of thought leadership
  • 08:30 How important is thought leadership to brand marketing?
  • 09:50 How to create balance with your thought leadership
  • 12:20 The future of FT Longitude

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Listen to our other podcasts:

Episode 5: Parker Ward on content and thought leadership

Episode 3 | Episode 2 | Episode 1

Podcast Transcript

Fergal: Thank you very much Alastair, for taking the time today to speak to us and welcome to the podcast.

Alastair: My pleasure to be here.

Fergal: It’s interesting to get a little bit about the background, you’re joining the FT Longitude team, Alastair.

Alastair: I’ve spent most of my career building two award winning communications agencies that were public relations led, multidisciplinary, in terms of what we offered different clients, and then I was very lucky to spend six years running Reed exhibitions which gave me a very different perspective from a client point of view. And now, for the last six years, I have a non-executive portfolio career, which is a wonderful thing to have, which means that I’m now working with a very broad selection of media companies and I was approached by a head-hunter to talk to FT Longitude, who were looking for a chairman, and I’m very excited about this because I think FT Longitude is a fascinating business in a really intriguing sector of the media market.

Fergal: Right. That’s very interesting. Clearly, the importance of communications in the work that you’ve been doing over the years in your entrepreneurial and leadership role. And I guess that world is changing a lot.

Alastair: I think enormously. Certainly, I’ve been around a while, but if I go back to the 80’s and the 90’s and the 00’s, I think that the change in the style of communication was extraordinary. Certainly in the 90’s most of the campaigns that we were running through broad selection of clients from Disney and Virgin and Budweiser, et cetera, were about products and features. And of course nowadays the whole world is about influencing influencers. And it’s radically different than, obviously, with the social media, digital content, et cetera.

Today, I think we as consumers, be it B2B or B2C environment, we cut through and see through false claims and hype very, very quickly – we’re not tolerant of that. We want credible, believable communications. We want companies who deliver what they say they’re going to do. We want companies who behave properly from the top to the bottom in everything they do, with all of the people they relate to. And the combination of all that is about the reputation of the business. So, as I said earlier on, reputations are destroyed so quickly now, and so it’s got to be embedded in every part of the organisation and the it’s got to be driven by the chief executive, who is ultimately the chief reputation officer for an organisation. And he’s got to understand that everything that goes on there is going to build up on how a company is perceived which will have a direct knock-on effect on that commercial success.

It’s hugely important now, and what I find interesting, is that years and years ago reputation would be bedded somewhere in the corporate comms or the marketing department. But now chief executives realise it’s vital to the C-suite, everyone’s got a role to play, and if they don’t get it right they lose their job. So it’s a key KPI, I think, the link between reputation of organisation and the value of it. And it’s driven by the CEO who’s got the levers of power there to influence it.

Fergal: You’ve had extensive experience in the world of brand marketing, can you talk a little about some of the key trends you see today?

Alastair: Clearly brand marketing has always been vital to business. And it’s as vital today as it ever has been. I think the reputation of a brand or organisation is vital that it’s taken very, very seriously from the C-suite downwards. Because as we all know reputations are being destroyed so rapidly, and you have to take a very broad view of your brand. So even if you’re a supermarket, where you’re still selling products through it, how you treat your local communities you work in, to how you treat your staff, it all plays to the reputation of your brand. It’s become a much more complex world that we live in. People have to take it very seriously and it needs to be embedded in the DNA of the whole organisation, from the CEO down to the most junior employee. So it’s vitally important – it’s never been more important – but it’s much more complex now.

Fergal: Absolutely. There’s been a proliferation of content marketing in various media and various formats, I think consumers of thought leadership are overwhelmed and this highlights the crucial importance that an organisation’s thought leadership is authoritative, stands out and rises above the noise.

Alastair: I totally agree. And I think any major brand nowadays, especially in a B2B environment nowadays, is looking to be a thought leader in its own marketplace. And I think it underpins the whole reputation of that organisation in terms of its innovation, its product development, its ability to help solve issues and problems for clients. So it is a fast moving fast part of the marketing mix. I think it’s something where many organisations are doing an adequate job at how they develop thought leadership and apply it. Some are doing a great job. But there are huge gains to be got by getting it right and getting really robust thought leadership.

One of the things I do is that I go to the most incredible conference. The largest gathering of CIO’s in the world is held every year in Florida and I’ve been to it for the last six years. And it’s fascinating to me how most of the exhibitors at that conference, the major technology companies in the world, thought leadership is probably the key thing they are all trying to promote, versus the features and benefits of their products.

Fergal: That’s very interesting. The Harvard Business Review put it succinctly I think in a recent article; “The only sustainable form of business leadership today is thought leadership”.

Alastair: Yeah, I totally agree. And as we all know it’s got to be very robust and I think one of the things that I’ve loved about what I’ve seen at FT Longitude is that they have a phenomenal pedigree in terms, where the founding partners, the team have come from, and it’s a very bright organisation with very intelligent, experienced people. I think the robustness that goes into the design, the development, the implementation of the thought leadership is something that is very impressive because you do see some thought leadership programmes brands put out, which, to be honest with you, are quite flaky and done by some student or somebody in a university. It may not be too robust, and clearly that will damage your reputation as a client if you do that.

Fergal: Yes, I think some of the research that FT Longitude has done on thought leadership shows the consequences of exactly that. And if you’re insights aren’t robust, if they’re not drawn from proper statistical or foundations and analysis, that it actually can damage your brand.

Alastair: I totally agree.

Fergal: How well developed do you think thought leadership is in brand marketing? And what is the potential here?

Alastair: There’s a huge amount of opportunity. I think also that for many professional marketeers or corporate communications people – and their suppliers, by the way, the agencies – I think many people go through a distinct learning curve about what is thought leadership? how do you apply it? And what impact does it have on the business? Everything has to have a commercial impact, that’s what clients are looking for. I think we’re looking at this and saying that the impact of what we’ve got to do in good thought is about enhancing the reputation that your company has. It’s about expanding and enhancing the relationships you have with key stakeholders, and, ultimately, it should play a role in enhancing the revenue generation. So I think many people have got to think about how you use thought leadership to drive those three major things that will benefit your brand, and you get an ROI on it.

I think it’s like everything in the changing world we’re in. There are a lot of clients and agencies who are having to relearn the world we live in. I think there’s quite a big educational thing to do that. Again it’s interesting to me when you look at, say, this CIO conference that I go to. The participants there are predominately looking for content, i.e. to learn new things; networking, to talk to people who are ahead of the game on them; and then to meet suppliers. So in many, many B2B worlds, the content and the networking to make sure you’re ahead of the game and not being caught out, is a key driver. And I think the thought leadership market is going through a similar process.

Fergal: How important is thought leadership to brand marketing, do you think?

Alastair: I think it’s hugely important and it is a complex and fast-changing area. But if you take a look at many, many brands now, you’ll find that they don’t do conventional brand marketing. I’m aware of a fast moving cosmetics business in Australia where the whole marketing is driven by purely brokers. And therefore, they’re looking for people who have millions of followers in the cosmetics industry, and focusing everything they do on that. So they have learned about the value of content and giving the bloggers content they can take and use, and exploit, without it being seen to be propaganda. So it is a very exciting, exciting area. I think many companies have got a huge amount to learn there, and they’re not doing a very good job on the content. They think content is just put a bit of video on the website, well, clearly, it’s much more sophisticated than that.

I think a lot of communications intermediaries need to up their game in terms of their ability to identify the influencers up to the target customers and the role of content in that, and then advice on how to deliver on it. So there’s a huge opportunity growing there and there’s quite a bit of catching up to do from both many clients and the intermediaries that support them.

Fergal: It seems that thought leadership needs to strike a balance. On the one hand it needs to be relevant, rigorous and well thought out. And at the same time it needs to hit commercial and business targets. Can you talk about how you strike this balance?

Alastair: Every investment you make as a client, in marketing communications activity has to have a clear ROI – it has to be commercial. You really need to understand the commercial environment you’re operating in, but also so do the people who work with you. I think one of the things that’s impressed me greatly about FT Longitude is that the team here is very commercial. They understand client’s needs and opportunities, they understand the clients’ competitive environment they’re operating and try to create thought leadership that is going to have a clear ROI when it comes to their reputation, their relationship they have and the revenue opportunity.

So I think you can get thought leadership – particularly in launching new products or moving into new markets – that can drive a big revenue return quite quickly. But you’ve got to work with the team who have the commercial understanding that the client is in. It’s interesting to me that there was a line I learned at the beginning of my career which was: “People don’t buy products and services, they buy benefits and solutions to problems”. I think focusing on the benefits and the solutions to problems is really important now, but you have to deeply understand the markets you’re in and the competitive forces clients are facing to be able to do a good job that does produce a commercial ROI.

I think part of increasingly looking for people with deep specialised knowledge about things like thought leadership or, could be other part of the comms mix. And they want people who have great experience of taking complex problems and looking at how you design the thought leadership programme. I think clients are not too fussed about where their expertise comes from, but they want it to be robust, and they want it to be the best in the market. And one of the things I feel is really exciting, and really attracted me to this organisation, is the background of the pedigree of the three founders because they’re very serious journalists and all come from the Economist Intelligence Unit originally and said “We can do this differently and better”. And I think the performance of that company, its client list, and the growth of the business, and the impact of its work is demonstrating that. And I think that this is a snowball that’s going to get bigger and bigger as the market realises the importance of thought leadership in the marketing mix.

Fergal: Thank you Alastair. And maybe then just looking forward to the future…?

Alastair: Clearly we want to be the best at what we do. We want to hire the best people, we want the best clients, we want to do the best work, we want a fantastic culture here and we want to be a financial success. And so my role is really to use my thirty-odd years of experience from lots of different elements of the media industry, to help the management team to get the best out of what we’re doing and the market opportunities that exist, and to help us grow fantastic business to do great work and we’re hiring great people. It’s a very exciting opportunity, the company has got a long, long way to go, I think, and as far as I’m concerned it’s an exciting opportunity that I’m delighted to have been offered.

Fergal: That’s a great vision, Alastair. Thank you very much for taking the time today to share this – your experience, your insights – and I wish you the very of success and FT Longitude also.

Alastair: Great! Thank you.

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About the author: Thought Leadership Insights

Our Thought Leadership Insights podcast series, presented by Fergal Byrne, digs deep into some of the key conversations surrounding thought leadership, and its use.

From building brand reputation, boosting client relationships, and having a real impact on a firm’s bottom line, Fergal interviews FT Longitude’s three founders, as well as a number of industry experts in thought leadership.

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