What’s it like to work at the intersection of big business challenges and big ideas? I’d say it’s a thought-leadership dream job.
Luke Collins is managing director and editor-in-chief of Deloitte Insights, the consulting firm’s global thought-leadership platform. His team helps the firm’s thinkers answer customers’ questions. They translate weighty research into approachable, helpful thought-leadership content. I asked Luke how he got into the world of thought leadership, what he looks for in a hire and where he thinks thought leadership will go next.
How did you get into writing about business?
I had a really wise editor. I’d always dreamed of being a sports reporter, and he told me, “Listen, at some point in time, everything that gets reported on is going to be commoditized. There's not going to be any need for us to do what we do. But there's always going to be a need for someone to explain what the heck businesses are doing. So you should become a business journalist." So, I began working the business section at the third-biggest paper in Australia. And I kind of got in that business trap, and that was it. It was a desire to inform and help explain topics that can often be a little dry and opaque. And that's useful in the world of thought leadership.
Let’s think about that: How do you apply your experience as a journalist to corporate thought leadership?
A lot of very smart people are not great communicators. So, while editors may not have specific subject-matter expertise, I like to believe we absolutely have expertise in terms of how to make something work editorially and how to present content most effectively to audiences.
I push content to be accessible, to be compelling, to have a narrative flow. Generally, I think readers come to sites like ours with a desire to solve a particular problem they're grappling with. I feel like it's our responsibility to provide answers as quickly as we can — not to grandstand, or to try and prove how smart we are. I don't want them to have to wade through 3,000 words to finally get to the point of an article. I really believe we need to get people's attention in that first 20 seconds or so, particularly in an industry that's becoming increasingly commoditized.
Publishers sometimes have a problem convincing people that’s an appropriate strategy for thought leadership. There’s often a concern among authors that shorter content somehow means we’re dumbing down the content. I don't believe that's the case at all — making content intelligible and interesting isn’t incompatible. I suppose there’s a perception thought leadership, by definition, must be long and complex. Sometimes I feel like people think it needs to be a little unintelligible. But we're fighting the fight to get rid of jargon masquerading as insight and change that perception.
When you're hiring people for your team, what do you look for?
Someone once said to me, "There are only 50 people in the world who do what we do." I laughed, but it’s true that finding that balance of deep editorial expertise coupled with the ability to craft thought leadership is actually quite rare.
It’s about finding people who have both that deep editorial skill and experience at professional-services firms who understand how you navigate the bureaucracy and the culture, and the particular risk issues that are associated with publishing content in this environment. All that said, I prioritize writing and editing skills above everything else. But if that can be married with some experience of doing what we do? That's a huge bonus.
You moved from journalism into thought leadership. What’s your advice for journalists who want to get into branded content?
Making the transition from journalism to thought leadership is not always easy. You find yourself rubbing up against some of the limitations you never had as a journalist, in terms of what you can say and what you can't. And it’s deceptively difficult to escape the buzz of daily journalism — even today, after more than a decade in this world, I’m still addicted to daily news.
But on the bright side, compared with working in traditional media, we don't have to worry so much about subscribers, we don't have to worry about advertising, and we have tremendous freedom to really engage and inform people. And we know the insight we provide is genuinely helpful and worthwhile to our audience, because they tell us.
What do you think is coming next in thought leadership?
The commoditization of what we do is a real worry. Some days, I receive multiple emails from different professional services firms all trying to tell me they have the secret sauce for coping with a particular business issue. When everybody is writing about the same stuff and churning out the same ‘insights,’ it just becomes noise. And if it's becoming noise for me, it's absolutely got to be noise for external users and people who are actually working day to day and looking for answers and looking for solutions.
For me, the future is about quality over quantity. At the moment, we’re looking to continue providing on a daily basis thought leadership that we know is interesting and useful. But, on top of that, we want to ensure we are really elevating the very best of our thinking — making it very clear to readers that, ‘If you come to our site and you only read one thing today, you should read this.’
We're all trying to respond to the time stress. People want quick hits, they want information they can use very quickly so they can arm themselves going into a meeting. But we’re seeking a balance, for sure: there’s always going to be a place for longer content as short formats sometimes just aren’t compatible with the kind of complex ideas we’re trying to communicate. It's a challenge.
I also suspect we’ll see people devote a lot more resources to the way they present content, with more interactive videos, podcasts and so on. You have to figure out ways to break through. For instance, I think we can do more to effectively marry data visualization within text, so that it truly becomes an integral part of the narrative rather than something that just adds a little bit of color and visual interest to our content.
What’s unique about working in your industry?
Consulting is still very much a PDF culture. I used to work for a consulting leader who carried around a rolling suitcase filled with printed documents, as that was just his preferred way to consume content. There was no iPad; it was paper, paper, paper. And we still are living in that world to an extent. The vast majority of our users access our content on laptop and desktop computers — mobile usage remains quite small.
So, until we get to a point where people are comfortable with information in an electronic format, we need to keep thinking about how we present printed content in the most compelling fashion. It's a big deal for people to get beautifully printed and presented copies of thought-leadership documents, and it makes a splash when our colleagues put those in front of clients.
I know most professional services firms every now and then consider eliminating print publications. But that’s not an option right now for our flagship print publication, the Deloitte Review. There is tremendous caché attached to being featured in that magazine, and our clients place tremendous weight on having it sitting on their coffee tables. So, we’re really straddling the print and digital world, arguably to a bigger extent than a lot of traditional publishers. We can't put all of our eggs in one basket, and have to really do both well.
What do you love about your job?
It's a fascinating area to be in and I think the beauty of it, too, is we're not exactly living in a world where anyone has cracked the code of how to do this in the most effective way. Despite the massive volume of thought leadership that appears daily, I think there’s still an opening for someone to do it in a really distinctive, effective way that no one else has achieved.
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