When it comes to thought leadership, there is nothing new under the sun…

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 1:9

Looking back across our last eight thought leadership quality ratings reports, which takes us back to the first half of 2015, something stands out: In that time the average score we’ve awarded to a piece of thought leadership under our “Prompting Action” criterion has risen by 7%. Meanwhile, for “Appeal” it’s risen by 9%, and for “Resilience” it’s risen by an impressive 20%. But for “Differentiation” the score has fallen by 14%. Thought leadership may generally be getting better, but it’s not getting more different. Why?

 We see a number of possibilities:

  •  Everything has been said. We’re all used to the idea that every tune has already been written and every story has already been told, so maybe every business idea has already been had. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suggest that in mature economies—from where most thought leadership emerges—the gains are becoming increasingly marginal and the white space increasingly scarce. But hang on a minute: Aren’t we also supposed to be living through an age of unprecedented disruption and turmoil? Haven’t there been a slew of reports predicting everything from the rise of the machines to the end of the planet? Surely that creates something new to say. Perhaps the more accurate, but less palatable, way of putting it is that nobody’s got any new ideas any more.  
  • There are too many people saying too much. With the amount of “thought leadership” being pumped out these days, it sometimes feels as though the business world could completely reinvent itself every week and there’d still be nothing to say that someone hadn’t already said by Wednesday afternoon. For the rest of the week all you can do is rearrange the words and change the colour of the pictures. 
  • Everyone’s playing it safe. Consulting firms may be labouring under the illusion than an office filled with “influencers” sporting early 20th-century beards and sitting on beanbags means that they’ve opened the floodgates to new thinking, but the reality might be very different. We suspect that the risk of reputational damage caused by saying something wrong or offensive crowds out the opportunities for reputational enhancement caused by saying something new. And possibly even that hipsters are a bit less interesting than they look.  

Whatever the cause is, our data suggests that unless the creators of thought leadership start to commit themselves to differentiation in a meaningful way, they might be better not bothering at all. After all, thought leadership that’s no different from anything that’s gone before isn’t really thought leadership, is it?