You’re thinking of doing what?

Why professional services firms shouldn’t outsource thought leadership.

This morning I saw an advert, targeted directly at consulting firms, offering a thought leadership creation service. The organisation behind the advert claims to be able to create the quality of content you need when you need it; you can even buy credits to redeem as required. We may have misunderstood. Possibly you can’t simply say, “Give me something on digital to appeal to CMOs in Australia,” and hand over ten credits in return for a PDF and some social media-friendly infographics. But it does highlight something that has been niggling away in the back of our minds: the risk of professional services firms forgetting that you’re not just any kind of B2B firm. You’re the kind of B2B firm that is selling the experience and expertise of its people. So, while it may be absolutely fine for a software firm (selling software) to outsource its thought leadership, it’s really not sensible for a consulting firm (selling the experience and expertise of its employees) to do the same.

Let’s think about this from the perspective of the reader, your target client. You outsource the entire thought leadership process. Your target client thinks: “This firm knows little about subject x—they had to get someone else to create the report for them.” Okay, so perhaps you wouldn’t make it that obvious that someone else had been involved. But what are the chances of an external organisation being able to create a piece of thought leadership that is more insightful than that driven by the consultant who speaks to clients about this issue day in and day out? Can Bob at really do better than Maxine, the TMT expert and partner at Very Insightful Consultants? So are we against any form of outsourcing in the creation of thought leadership? Absolutely not. But the right question must be asked in deciding what is and isn’t appropriate and we think that question is: Would it diminish our reader’s view of us if they knew we didn’t do this ourselves?

Let’s think about how this might apply to one element—primary research:

• Process: Finding research participants to complete a quantitative survey.

Should you outsource? Absolutely; you’re not a research agency.

• Process: Analysing the survey results.

Should you outsource? Probably not; most readers would expect this to be a core consulting skill.

• Process: Interviewing senior executives.

Should you outsource? Absolutely not; would you want to work with a consulting firm that had to ask another organisation to set up and carry out interviews with senior executives?

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the truth of the matter is that creating high quality thought leadership just isn’t easy. And however tempting it may seem to do so, outsourcing all of the pain means outsourcing many of the benefits.