Joseph Chaney | September 01st, 2022

Let’s start with a short anecdote.

The scene? The Dubai International Financial Centre.

This was eight years ago at the tail-end of 2014. Pre-Trump presidency, pre-Covid, pre-Russian invasion of Ukraine. In short, it was different – certainly less stressful – time.

There I sat in a Japanese restaurant across from a leading marketer. He worked for a global asset manager that was busy devising plans to expand its operations across the Middle East. He said they wanted to publish a range of insightful content and promote their brand’s voice across the region, acting as a leading commentator on Gulf market reforms.

I nodded and launched into consultant mode. There was the issue of regulation, not to mention the nuances that distinguish each Gulf market, from the UAE to Qatar to Kuwait. There was the tussle between Islamic finance and global finance. His firm could get ahead of each development with a distinct voice and potentially ‘own’ the story. White papers, infographics, videos, conferences, op-eds – the works.

He threw up his hand. “Let’s first see how the market perceives these reforms,” he said.

An awkward silence followed. On the face of it, his caution made sense. Best to let events evolve and then find one’s unique niche inside of the story. But it soon became apparent that what he really meant was something quite different, an approach best summarised as follows: We will let others stick their necks out and comment first. Then we’ll decide what to publish to ensure our views are in the mainstream and we don’t offend anyone.

In other words, he wanted to follow – rather than lead – the conversation.

A common refrain

Even though eight years have passed since that day in Dubai, this minor anecdote still rings true today. In fact, given the geopolitical uncertainties around the Ukraine war and Covid-linked lockdowns in China, this type of corporate self-censorship is getting worse.

At N/N, we frequently hear companies say in the same breath: (1) that they want to publish agenda-setting thought leadership, while (2) they also want to ensure that they don't publish anything controversial.

These contradictory motivations are especially strong in markets such as China and in the Gulf, where falling afoul of regulators and policymakers – or uttering views deemed politically distasteful – can carry profound consequences.

To be sure, it’s an unpleasant fact that realpolitik pressures companies to weigh competing interests. Companies must balance their desire to publish insightful commentary with a whole host of other considerations – not only commercial interests, but also compliance and legal constraints.

For example, the Hong Kong office of a global bank may conclude that pointing out the negatives (in addition to the positives) of China’s domestic credit rating system just isn’t worth the risk of being seen as ‘anti-China.’

But the harsh truth is we can’t have it both ways: It’s impossible to be a timid self-censoring scaredy-cat, and a bold agenda-setting leader, at the same time.

An excess of caution

All of which means that companies – especially large, bureaucratic ones – are frequently their own worst enemies when it comes to thought leadership. Many not only pre-emptively self-censor, they also overdo it.

In our experience, what usually happens is some version of the following:

  • The marketing team at Big Global Bank has a bold idea – say, a campaign on the risks of investing in China’s retail sector because of China’s approach to Covid containment. Work starts off with a bang: analysts compile lists of the best and worst prospects; they identify and attempt to interview heads of China’s largest consumer conglomerates to get their views on the market outlook.

  • But then a rotating carousel of internal stakeholders catches wind of the campaign. First, the business heads cut out any material that readers could ‘perceive as negative’ to protect the firm’s positive image with clients. We can’t say China is witnessing a sharp decline in consumption growth. We have to say we are ‘cautiously optimistic!’

  • Then the legal team cuts out anything that readers could perceive as 'legally problematic.’ Better safe than sorry. We never know what the regulators might find wrong with this report.

  • And then, finally, the marketing team looks at the content again – and, to prove internally that they aren’t taking any chances – make another round of ‘just-play-it-safe’ cuts. In other words: To us this statement seems harmless, but we don’t want to risk potential misinterpretations.

The result? What was once a compelling, nuanced, and insightful campaign is now a bland soup of generic statements that serve no specific audience or particular purpose. It’s as if the Hollywood machine picked up an edgy and utterly original screenplay only to dumb it down into a mediocre, we’ve-seen-this-superhero-movie-a-dozen-times sequel.

What can companies do?

Given the above, how can you avoid ‘death by a thousand cuts’ with your 2022/2023 content campaigns?

Here are a few tips:

Before planning a campaign, devise a coherent content strategy and put it all down on paper. Be as specific as possible: You need to know what you want to say, and even more importantly, why you want to say it.

Once you devise the strategy, obtain full buy-in from internal stakeholders, from business heads to compliance, before work begins: Make it clear (in the politest terms) to your colleagues that bland, watered-down content results in nothing but wasted effort and low ROI.

At the same time, accept that some readers will certainly disagree with your views: Take that as a compliment and cough it up to the price of being a genuine thought leader. Strong opinions should elicit strong responses.

And finally, if you are too constrained to say anything insightful, don’t say anything at all: Generic thought leadership that skirts around harsh truths is often more damaging than silence.

At the end of the day, if you refuse to take the risk, one of your competitors will. And they will walk away with not only the thought leadership crown, but eventually, the other things that go with it: More trust from clients, a stronger voice in the market, and inevitably, more market share.

Let’s get to work.

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