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Many of the conversations we’ve been having with professional services firms over the course of the last few months have ended up focusing on the issue of propositions. In a changed market—in a changed world—offering clients the same thing you offered them before the COVID crisis struck seems increasingly unwise. Your underlying capabilities might be every bit as relevant as they ever were, as might your values and your purpose.

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The next time you stop for a coffee, go and look at the home pages of the world’s leading consulting firms. What do you see? Thought leadership. Right up there, above all else. The first thing the firm wants to show you. What is it about? COVID-19. Everywhere, virtually everything is about the crisis. What does it offer? Supply chain solutions. Ideas about workforce planning. Ideas about how you can reimagine your business in the post-COVID era. Descriptions of the new normal. Opinions from business leaders. Surveys. Data. More surveys. More data.

Hope. It offers hope.

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Spend any time analysing the marketing messages landing in your inbox right now and you might notice that they tend to fall into one of three categories:

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Analysis of our thought leadership ratings over the course of the last decade reveals a narrowing of the gap between the lowest- and highest-ranking firm. The good news is that the worst is getting better. The bad news is that the best hasn’t changed much at all.

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Every year we conduct a big survey of clients (senior end users of consulting services) in which we ask them a wide range of questions relating to their interaction with consulting firms and their use of consulting services. We use the results across many parts of our business; it informs our Market Trends programme and the Global Data Model that underpins it, it’s central to our Client & Brand Insight work, and it’s one of the strands of research on which our Emerging Trends programme is based.

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Our recent report, Missing the point, found surprising evidence about CxOs in relation to thought leadership. It found them to be harder-working, more patient, and easier to please than their subordinates, challenging the notion that they're all tearing around with their hair on fire, with about three nanoseconds to read whatever you'd like to put in front of them. 

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There seems to be an obsession with the length of thought leadership today, to the point where it’s tempting to conclude that publishers see it as a panacea for all thought leadership ills. As if to reinforce the point this seems to work both ways–longer and shorter–but overwhelmingly the trend is to pander to notions of a time-starved senior executive and create bite-sized material. It also sounds perfectly sensible.

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Along with terrible haircuts, padded shoulders, and beige, French post-structuralist critical theory was really big in the 1980s. Much of what was written about it (post-structuralism, not the 1980s or beige) was so impenetrable that you could win serious kudos for having managed to read a chapter of Jacques Derrida without having a nervous breakdown.

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