Putting the thought leader into thought leadership

Rob Mitchell

What does the term thought leadership mean to you? We know that people have differing views about its key characteristics. One of the most common areas of divergence is whether thought leadership is all about the individual – think big personalities such as Richard Branson or Elon Musk – or the brand. And, perhaps more importantly, can these two models of individual and brand co-exist in harmony and to their mutual benefit?

Let’s start with the individual thought leaders. We’ve all seen them. They are often regulars on the speaker circuit and are highly visible at events such as the World Economic Forum, Collision and Rise. They have thousands (if not, millions) of social followers and have points of view that shape debates around the world, on issues ranging from technology to philanthropy. The objective of the individual thought leader is simple: to build their personal brand. This may coincide with the company they represent … or it may not.

But what about brand-led thought leadership? There are similarities, of course, with the individual model – companies who engage in this marketing strategy want to associate their brand with fresh thinking and stand out from the herd. But brand-led thought leadership goes deeper, typically encompassing a much wider range of marketing and commercial objectives. For a global company, this is often about triggering client conversations, based on good ideas, and ultimately generating sales for the business.

These two models of thought leadership clearly overlap at times, but they often function on separate, parallel tracks within an organisation. Individuals plough their own furrows, perhaps with some input from a PR team or agency, while the brand gets on with its distinct approach. Our view, however, is that thought leadership is much more powerful if the two models – individual and brand – are combined.

There are obvious advantages to harnessing individual thought leadership to your brand campaign. The most successful individuals have immense reach across social and traditional media, as well as pulling power at high-profile events. Combining this reach with the brand and marketing machine underpinning it can help to create real traction for your business.

Balancing on a tightrope

So, how is this combination best achieved? First, you need to identify the thought leaders in your chosen area, whether they are internal or external to your company. Map out the key stakeholders and areas where they overlap with your chosen themes and topics.

Internal thought leaders

Next, secure buy-in with these internal and external thought leaders. Getting internal thought leaders on board should be easier, as there should be a natural overlap between the brand’s objectives and theirs. There are some challenges to overcome, however. One is that responsibility for content from individual thought leaders often sits with communications and PR (or the individual themselves), whereas responsibility for brand thought leadership typically sits with marketing. Although these teams should work hand in hand, they can often have slightly different agendas and structures. Aligning these and ensuring that communications and marketing teams are working closely together from the outset is critical.

To create closer alignment between the individual and the brand, it’s important to look for hooks – key topics of interest for the individual that overlap neatly with the brand marketing agenda. This helps to secure buy-in from the individual thought leader and alignment across marketing and communications.

Marketers should also explain clearly the benefits to the individual of teaming up with brand-led thought leadership. The premise behind individual thought leadership is to boost that individual’s personal brand – so make the most of that and play to the individual’s ego. Highlight the advantages of getting involved in your firm’s programme, and the benefit through association that this brings to both parties.


External thought leaders, or influencers, should not – indeed, cannot – be ignored. The benefit of having these external thought leaders is clear, especially if their network and your target audience overlap. Engaging third-party thought leaders through influencer marketing techniques relies on giving these individuals something of value that will help them serve their own networks. The relationship has to be one that is mutually beneficial, and it is typically one that has to be nurtured over the long term.

The difficulties arise when you consider that these thought leaders – whether internal or external – have minds of their own. They can go off-message and say surprising things. But it is a mistake to try to control your individual thought leaders, as this will push them away and discourage innovative thinking. Instead, nurture good relationships with them, reinforce the mutual benefits of working together and support them in their goals, as well as asking them to support yours. Messages may not always align 100%, but so long as they do most of the time it shouldn’t cause a problem, and that friction could even be productive in sparking new ideas and conversations.

Overall, our message is to be open to bringing thought leaders into your corporate, brand-led strategies. These individuals can be excellent ambassadors for your campaigns and, perhaps more importantly, your wider brand. Harness the power of one to the power of many and your thought leadership campaign is likely to be very successful.

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About the author: Rob Mitchell

Rob leads FT Longitude’s strategic planning and sets the overall vision and priorities for the business. He manages the board-level relationship with FT Longitude’s parent company, the Financial Times group, and also oversees FT Longitude’s finances, people management and administration.

Prior to co-founding FT Longitude in 2011, Rob was an independent writer and editor. Between 2007 and 2010, he was a managing editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit and prior to that he was an editor at the Financial Times, where he was responsible for the newspaper’s sponsored reports, including the Mastering Management series.

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