economist thought leadership

Q&A with The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Josselyn Simpson

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When you work in thought leadership, you’re always chasing down the next big idea. For editors, ideas are the fuel that keeps us going.

Where do you get ideas for your content? Imagine what your job would be like if you had access to some of the best thinkers in the world, about every topic from blockchain to global migration to the financial markets.

Meet Josselyn Simpson. She’s the editorial director of thought leadership for the Americas at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the Economist Magazine’s thought leadership sister company. The EIU is editorially independent, but almost all of its published content is sponsored by client organizations who want to explore the next big idea.

Here’s a peek at her team’s work — a beautifully designed, in-depth look at how connectivity is changing the way we work, sponsored by Cisco WebEx: People, Powered: Human Nature and Technology at Work.

I asked Josselyn more about her work — how she cuts through the content clutter, how she keeps coming up with interesting ideas and what she looks for when she hires writers.

Tell me about your role at the Economist.

The Economist Intelligence Unit team was started in 1946 as an economic forecasting group — industry tracking, company risk tracking, industry analyses. The EIU discovered that there was also an appetite for thought leadership work that's akin to the work that many of the consulting firms do. It's not the same type of hardcore economic analysis, but it draws on a broader range of inputs, including surveys and interviews. It’s written in a range of formats, from the 500-word blog post to the 4,000-word paper, and also a range of visual deliverables, like infographics, videos and data visualizations. It’s a broad range of content that grows out of our robust quantitative core. I oversee all of the thought leadership work in the Americas.

Tell me more about your relationship with the clients who sponsor your content.

Almost all the work that EIU Thought Leadership does is sponsored by a client, but it is editorially independent, so we retain editorial control over everything that is produced under the Economist Intelligence Unit brand. Very often our clients come to us when they're well-known in some area but went to break out into a different area, and they find that the kind of third-party credibility and respect that the EIU brand brings can help them. We help our clients start a different kind of conversation, or address a big industry issue.

What do you like the most about your role?

There are two things I really like. One is the breadth of it. Just this morning, I've been thinking about how insurers are thinking about ESG considerations in their investment portfolios, and an hour before that, I was thinking about a new survey we've done on how wealthy people in various regions of the world are redefining their legacies. And later this afternoon, I'm going to be thinking about the notion of open migration, and how big-picture migration affects the world economy. Every day, I get a range of work, from very specific ideas to the very big picture.

The other thing I like is the tradition of real intellectual rigor in the work here, both with The Economist magazine and with our Economist Intelligence Unit Team. Our work is often based on quantitative data, from surveys or from other data sources, or a rigorous set of interviews. We work hard to hone a story, and then to tell that story really thoroughly, and I enjoy that whole process.

When you’re hiring writers for your team, what do you look for?

I look for people who have some experience in the specific industry they’ll be working on. Sometimes it’s former journalists, former thought leadership people from consulting firms, or former analysts, either from an investment firm or occasionally from another part of the EIU. I look for a mix of different expertise, combined with curiosity and a decent writing style.

A lot of journalists make the transition into thought leadership work. What’s your advice on making that transition?

I think the crucial thing is really thinking about what you like doing every day. Think about what drew you to journalism in the first place. If you're the kind of journalist who really likes going out every day and reporting a new story, this kind of work is not going to be for you. But if you're the kind of journalist who likes digging into the research and shaping stories on complicated issues, this kind of work certainly can be a really good move, and gives people a chance to build new areas of expertise and do intellectually interesting work beyond journalism.

There’s so much content out there. How do you cut through all the clutter and make sure your content reaches your target audience and resonates with them?

It starts with coming up with the right idea. Here’s an example: Often, our clients will come to us and say something like "Everyone in our industry is talking about digital transformation. What can we say that’s new about digital transformation?” So we’ll spend time coming up with an angle that we think is fresh and new, based on our knowledge of the space, our reading and our ongoing conversations with executives around the world.

We’ll bring a group of experts together for a brainstorm. Ideally this is a live thing, but given the fact that people can be in all different regions, sometimes it's by email. We try to pull in related but different insights. We also find new ideas by reading widely. I encourage everyone on my team to read — or listen to podcasts. Find whatever you think will help you be more informed about your area of expertise and the people you’re trying to talk to.

Once we've settled on an idea that we all agree is a fresh angle, we make sure it’s the most engaging approach to reach the specific audience, whether that's tech executives in Europe or the global C-suite or U.S. policy makers.

We then think about what content formats match the idea and the audience. We've done a fair amount of research into what our audience actually likes to read, and one thing that's interesting is a lot of the C-suite really likes papers. They don't necessarily want 10,000-word papers, but they're really happy with 2,500- or 4,000-word papers.

It’s all about matching the idea with our own audience data and overall audience trends, to put together the right mix of deliverables for a given program.

Do you have any parting advice for people who want to work in thought leadership?

I would just say that at a lot of firms, this work can seem like it’s not a core part of the business. And for many companies, it isn’t. But I would encourage people who have long been journalists not to be put off by the idea of working on something that isn't their company's core business, because often it can be really valuable work and interesting work.

Lee Price is co-founder of Managing Editor. After 7 years as a content marketing consultant at Rep Cap, she started a thought leadership consultancy to help visionary leaders dig up and develop their big ideas. She's a proud University of Virginia fan, Twizzler enthusiast and feminist. She lives in Georgia with her husband and two young daughters. When she's not reading or writing, you can find her on Twitter @leevprice.

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