Over the last few years, there has been a noticeable increase in electronic communications from asset management and investment advisory firms. As clients have gotten more and more comfortable online, organizations have tried to reach them through blog postings and tweets and electronic white papers and Facebook status updates and LinkedIn Pulse dispatches and emails (lots of emails).
The activity is largely an exercise in brand awareness, filling nearly every channel with something. But what?
Some firms openly aspire to a position of “thought leadership,” although, in the minds of many, that’s an empty term these days. It’s certainly overused. A lot of companies talk about their thought leadership, there are openings posted for jobs that carry the title of “thought leader,” and there are webcasts, seminars, and conferences that use the term to describe the presenters that are being promoted.
Joel Kurtzman, who is given credit for coining the phrase, agrees that it has become “diluted, and largely meaningless.” His intent was to identify genuinely original work – the kind that leads to real breakthroughs. Instead, “thought leadership” has become a sales tool. Kurtzman says that “it can’t be real thought leadership if the only answer is ‘buy my product.’ That’s marketing.” Consequently, he doesn’t use the term any more.
Proclaiming yourself or your organization as a thought leader can run the risk of being viewed as too promotional, short on both innovative thought and actual leadership. (A recent tweet from @PlanMaestro summarized what he found when doing a search on the term: “Funny stuff since 2010.”)
Therefore, investment organizations need to think carefully about how they use the phrase in positioning themselves and their professionals. But, throwing the label aside, what should they be trying to do across all of the communication channels at their disposal these days?
They could start by considering the advice provided by Gordon Andrew in a recent newsletter on “Marketing Alternatives” from BarclayHedge: “True thought leaders seek to manage rather than to control the conversation. They determine the issues and voices worthy of attention, but do not exclusively push their own perspective. They also shine a light on the ideas of clients, prospects, referral sources and recognized authorities. By displaying the self-confidence to share the microphone, they are viewed as legitimate opinion leaders, not simply carnival barkers.”
By that standard, most investment firms fail miserably. They promote their products, they talk their portfolios, and they seem disconnected from ongoing debates about important investment issues. Their communications instead revolve around the headlines of the day and the squiggles of market activity. Plus, they provide constant predictions of this and that, most of which end up being wrong anyway. (Need we bring up the interest rate and crude oil forecasts?)
A big part of the problem is that most firms can’t ever get out of asset-gathering mode. So, blog postings leave out important issues that a balanced analysis would include, and anything that would be viewed as hurting the firm’s case never sees the light of day. A [fill in the blank] asset manager is always ready to defend [fill in the blank], despite the analytical gymnastics that might be required to make the case.
For example, as valuations have increased on stocks, there has been some “shopping” for more attractive valuation comparisons and a muddying of the terminology used; sometimes it amounts to a perversion of the historical record and outright fudging of the truth. And, earlier this year, many high yield bond managers were particularly outspoken (and one-sided) in their defense of the sector, even as other observers noted the risks of those vehicles in comparison to the apparent prospective returns.
Investment advisors face similar temptations too: Giving the whole story sometimes increases the chances that you will lose assets. In an industry that runs on assets-under-management fees, that’s a line in the sand at most firms.
So, long-term credibility is sacrificed to protect today’s business model. Is there a cost associated with that?
Look at sell-side analysts. They are very well versed in the companies and industries that they follow and can serve as great sources of information if you know how to use them. But they have long since been viewed as marketers first and foremost, extensions of the interests of their firms instead of true objective observers of a situation on behalf of their clients. (Something we were reminded of again recently.) As a group, they provide a case study of the principal-agent problem in finance, defined by information asymmetry and misaligned incentives between the parties.
Real thought leaders minimize those problems by focusing on the merits of ideas, not on the potential impact of them on their own book of business. That’s a tough standard indeed, one rarely met in the investment world.
Therefore, investment organizations usually come across as mere pushers of product, not true partners with their clients, and certainly not thought leaders. Does that matter? Time will tell, but perhaps authentic voices increasingly will be recognized and trusted in a way that conflicted ones will not be. Oddly enough, going beyond the party line today might end up being a powerful way of building a lasting brand and, yes, being seen as a thought leader rather than just another voice in the marketing din.