If everyone’s a ‘thought leader’ who’s doing all the work?

It used to be simple. Certain people were regarded as experts, because well, they were.

They’d tasted blood. Their years of hands-on experience included documented successes (and failures) – proof of their expertise. Their writings, speeches or interviews helped educate others via real life case studies, anecdotes, examples and advice. Their business achievements and industry wisdom were regarded as testimony to their expertise.

David Ogilvy – advertising expert

In the advertising world, my old boss David Ogilvy was one, along with Claude Hopkins, Leo Burnett and the like.

Most experts gained their wisdom through setbacks and failure – not just success. Hence the adage: always sail with mariners who have been shipwrecked, for they know where the reefs are.

But the digital marketing world has devalued expertise – now you just have to publish something online and you automatically call yourself a thought leader. Others don’t call you a thought leader – you anoint yourself. Expertise or experience are not criteria for being a thought leader.

After all, the term “thought leader” is much softer than “expert” – so it is easier to claim thought leadership without as much proof as one who claims to be an expert.


Curiously there is no definition in any dictionary that I can find for “thought leader”. Wikopinion suggests the following – though it’s inaccurate as it claims thought leaders are recognised in their field, yet so many self-anointed thought leaders aren’t even known, let alone recognised:

A thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded. The term was coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz & Co magazine Strategy & Business, and used to designate interview subjects for that magazine who had business ideas which merited attention.”

The McKinsey Quarterly, founded in 1964 is regarded as one of the earliest thought leadership publications. Shell started using thought leadership in consumer markets in 1973. And many regarded the founders of companies such as Ogilvy & Mather, Lever Brothers or Apple for example, as experts – or thought leaders.

So who do we blame for the rise in the thought leadership industry – because it is an industry? The answer is simple – it’s the content marketers – those recently self-anointed experts (I mean thought leaders) who are creating the infobesity epidemic.


There’s even a term “thought leadership marketing“. It refers to the process of trying to attract customers in the B2B markets, by publishing content that positions you as having expertise in a specific area – regardless of whether you do or not. Then when prospects are searching online, they may see your content and even read/view it and consequently get in touch.


The real issue is that so much of the thought leadership content is “manufactured expertise” published purely for the purpose of lead generation. It’s designed for the seller not for the buyer. Anyone can publish “thought leadership” content – and sadly anyone does.

I call it the the Faux Knowledge Conundrum – content is published specifically for the purpose of lead generation – it’s designed to suit the seller not the buyer. The whole notion of expertise has been turned upside down.

Traditional experts provide their expertise for the benefit of the business segment in which they worked. Their expertise helped the buyer (and the market) – via seminars, books, articles and other education channels – some paid and some free.

Now people/companies use Faux Knowledge delivered under the guise of Content Marketing and positioned as Thought Leadership for the sole purpose of making money for themselves, rather than contributing to the body of expertise in the community in which they work.

So if everyone’s publishing content in the quest to be a thought leader, who’s doing all the work? Do you really believe the mantra that you don’t have to sell anything anymore – just churn out Faux Knowledge and the punters will kick down your door?


Yes the sales cycle has evolved – buyers can learn more about what they want to buy before contacting sellers. Hence the growth in content marketing – to try to be found online as buyers search.

But you only have to look at the quality of the content being published to realise how shallow the pool of expertise really is among alleged thought leaders. It’s hardly ankle-deep.


Yet if you can optimise your content to be found by those seeking information about it, you can get away with your thought leader positioning. That is until you have to prove yourself.

And that’s the emerging flip-side to the growth in thought leadership. Supplier churn rates are rising in B2B markets. Ironically companies are firing the alleged thought leaders because of their lack of expertise. Then those companies go back to the market to find real experts to fix the problems created by the thought leaders.

The digital marketing industry is a typical example. I’ve even considered starting a brand called Cyber-Vacuumers – specialising in cleaning up the digital mess left by the thought leaders. According to my experienced colleagues, these days they are being hired to “fix and repair” more often than they are to start new projects. I even had a call for help last Saturday.


One way I always assess digital service suppliers to ensure I won’t need a cyber-vacuumer, is to ask them to share their failures with me. Those who claim they have none are never contracted. They obviously haven’t tried hard enough or are telling digi-porkies.

I better get back to work. I love writing my blog, but I also want to make money. Hmm there’s an idea. Position myself as a thought leader on “how to be a thought leader” by writing thought leadership blogs on how to be a thought leader and promote them via thought leadership marketing – there has to be money in that. Who knows, I might even become an expert!


I better tag this post under “thought leadership”…



  1. Thank you Malcolm for calling it like it is once again. May this article mark the beginning of the end for yet another “wealth creation” fad courtesy of the marketing spin doctors. Let’s promote the rare delights of having a genuinely valuable product or service with some substance and getting out there and connecting with people about it!!

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