On pedants and dilettantes, gurus and gravitas

I had the opportunity last week to visit with a friend from college, Marshall Sonenshine, whom I had not seen in 25+ years. We had a nice visit in his Park Avenue office, learned that our companies employ roughly the same number of people, and that we market in very much the same way. Both service businesses, they depend on the learnings and experience of the people who run them. The big difference? He’s in investment banking, and I am in public relations. So he gets paid more… but that’s apart from the topic at hand.

When I asked him how he markets his firm, he said, “I run a boutique investment bank. Clients come here for two reasons. First, they have a connection, a preexisting relationship with someone at the firm or someone who has been a client, and they see us as a firm they want representing them. Second, they are open to using a boutique instead of a big bank, because of the ‘care’ factor, the quality of the work, and the absence of conflicts.” In other words, if they don’t already know him or his firm, and if they don’t already have a predisposition to working with a boutique, then they may well not bother, and that’s fine with him.

His comment reminded me that in many cases, services – professional services and financial services alike – are reasonably indistinguishable if seen from the outside. As my colleague and mentor John Bliss has said, “Companies that buy a service are looking for one thing – a predictable outcome.” An error-free audit from a CPA firm, a successful trial from a law firm, a brilliant candidate from an executive search firm. Or, from my friend’s firm, a strategic and profitable merger.

Because services are delivered by people, they don’t offer the predictability of products. That makes experience the key to the buying decision. And, in my opinion, thought leadership – writing, talking, speaking, blogging about the person’s area of expertise in stories, examples and observations – is the best way to communicate the individual’s expertise, as well as his or her care factor.

Monday, Gartner issued a press release titled: “Once the reserve of Large Consultancy Firms, Thought Leadership Is Rapidly Becoming an Established Field Within Marketing.” In the report,  Gartner stated that:

“An organized discipline of Thought Leadership Marketing (what they short-hand “TLM”) is only now emerging, allowing marketers to use this as a manageable tool to drive business. Gartner defines TLM as the giving — for free or at a nominal charge — of information or advice that a client will value so as to create awareness of the outcome that a company’s product or service can deliver, in order to position and differentiate that offering and stimulate demand for it.” (emphasis mine) 

“Its essence is to show, rather than tell what a company can do, and to do so in a way that positions and differentiates that company’s offering for the chosen target audience.”

In my opinion, thought leadership for professional and financial service firms – as opposed to IT companies —  is less about differentiating and educating, and more about showcasing wisdom and reassuring the target that the desired outcomes are likely.

In fact, very few service companies – only those who are investing a new category, or introducing a new methodology or tool – need to spend a ton of time educating. Most of us know what search firms and law firms and investment banks do. But in the trifecta of B2B service marketing – the brand, the service and the people – it’s the people, and their wisdom, who need to be front and center. They don’t need a “unique selling proposition” – they need to communicate what they know, demonstrate how much they care, and, by implication, how reliable their outcomes are.

Do you agree? What firms do this well in your opinion? Can your firm better showcase its wisdom without becoming pedantic?

To reach Abby:

Phone: 212.840.0088
Email: abby@blisspr.com
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