Thought Leaders: PLEASE tell me something I DON’T Know!


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This year CMG Partners, an East-coast based marketing strategy firm hosted a panel discussion entitled Why Good Products Fail & How to Improve the Go-to-Market Process. The face-to-face event was complimentary to the local business community in Northern Virginia, and included experts from four enterprises: startup beverage company Honest Tea, National Geographic Channel, WeatherBug, and Intelevision.

Five minutes into CMG’s introductory PowerPoint, a man in the audience named John interrupted the presenter and opined “You’re the experts in marketing strategy, and yet, I don’t hear anything new. You haven’t provided anything we don’t already know!” He continued by reciting the unremarkable bullet points projected on the large screen in the front of the room, and emphasizing that he wanted to hear thought-provoking insight worthy of his time. The slack-jawed audience at the McLean Hilton fell so totally silent you could hear a Blackberry hitting the plush carpeted floor.

Faced with this unexpected detractor, the presenter replied with such aplomb that his response belongs in the history books along with Lloyd Bentsen’s legendary debate response to Dan Quayle : “Well John, you get what you pay for!” The widespread laughter that followed was evidence that the tension of the moment had been broken. The exchange somehow ended amicably, although I don’t think CMG will invite John to their next event.

The panel tried hard to live up to John’s expectations, thanks largely to Mark McNeely, CEO of Intelevision (more about that in a moment). During the post-panel networking, I introduced myself to John and thanked him for voicing an opinion that was probably unspoken by many, including me. “I might not have said it the same way, but I appreciate that you spoke your mind. There have been many times that I’ve wanted to say what you said, but didn’t.”

John might have been similarly moved during the recorded one-hour webinar on social media and selling I listened to on Monday. The topic is of particular interest as I’m completing a series of interviews with salespeople for an article I’m releasing next week. Like CMG’s event, there was a panel of thought leaders with cross-functional expertise—a great blend that should have created pungent discourse. And there were some good ideas that I jotted on my notepad and marked with an asterisk. But a few opinions were so over-worn that I stopped the recording and pushed back the timer a few seconds to make sure I heard them correctly: “We have to be in touch with our customers and understand what’s OK for them and what they expect from us.” And “It’s becoming more critical to know your customer.” Really? I acknowledge these comments are removed from the context of the discussion, but they were as attention-grabbing in the webinar as they are here.

Which leads to a question: are thought leaders fostering a sort of institutional stupidity by being too timid to espouse bold ideas? Or are thought leaders simply reacting to a perception that businesspeople need to be spoon-fed unremarkable ideas (not too big, not too small, not too hot, not too cold) so they can be nudged into considering larger ideas? On the other hand, could executives and managers simply be too intimidated by the multitude forces that are upending their business plans and strategic objectives to consider big ideas?

Mark McNeely might have answered the question when he synthesized the reason for the problems American businesses face: “there’s no oxygen in the room. Companies are run by management that is stagnant, bureaucratic, and self-satisfied.” He predicted that will change—because, if you subscribe to the idea of a Darwinian process for business, it has to.

Resolving our global economic situation demands the creation of provocative ideas. Controversial ideas. Ideas that are unpopular or disagreeable. We don’t need any more Mom and Apple Pie. In marketing and sales, nothing great will happen when well-known truisms are dusted off and passed on as contemporary expertise.

To those who regularly offer contrarian views, keep doing what you’re doing. The world needs your fresh perspectives now more than ever.


  1. You asked the question 😉 Most people want to hear “it isn’t all that bad”, and “here are the top 10 tips to become successful” and to do that in a way that those people in the audience have a good takeaway you pull what they know “listen to your customer”. And if you read something about the 4Ps and the 3Cs or the 5th P – man I guess everybody knows that this is the old marketing BS. So Andrew, you really went there?

    Here is my take about thought leaders:
    A THOUGHT LEADER becomes a thought leader after the fact not while he/she is expressing a thought or predicting the future. A thought leader is probably rather complicated, most of the thoughts seem to be too big, boiling the ocean…. I can only speak for myself because I don’t know how exactly Apple or Nokia or others did it, but “I boiled the ocean” many times, but when I did, it wasn’t very believable, it was too far fetched…
    I created a distributor that did no direct sales. At the time that was “impossible”. But 10 years later it was the 3rd largest distributor in the world. I created an Internet Solution provider. At the time that was nonsense because everybody could download everything. Today it is the leading Internet Security provider in Europe. I create a PRM Software company in 2001 with only $1 Million funding. That was nuts because I needed to compete with two competitors already established in the market – $70Million in funding each. But we successfully competed and both of my competitors either ceased operation or got bought and evaporated. Even good friends were laughing at me 2 years ago when I started Twittering around. Today I’m a thought leader – again. I started the Social Media Academy. People said this is stupid, there are hundreds of free webinars and millions of tips in the Internet for free. But it was an instant success and now we get inquires for franchising it out.

    After the fact I was considered a thought leader but whenever I start something new, people are very suspicious. Simply because it just doesn’t fit in the momentary thinking.

    So I guess you are not even looking for a thought leader. If the person is considered a thought leader it is either just a small incremental advancement or a past accomplishment. If you want to hear something really new or different, some change in a foundation – you want to look for a rebel. I feel good when people call me rebel – then I know I’m on to something. 🙂

    For all who have trouble with my spelling

  2. Axel, great points.

    I spoke at a conference a few years ago and was introduced as a “thought leader” because I was evangelizing PRM at the time, and had done some of the first research on the topic in the industry.

    But that term didn’t sit well with me at the time and still doesn’t. I made a joke to the audience: “How do you become a thought leader?”

    Answer: “Figure out where all the thoughts are going and get in front.”

    That joke bombed but I still feel that true thought leaders are few and far between.

    Frankly, I think a lot of the industry trends are pretty obvious. But Gartner analysts make a mint out of “predicting” that 60% of projects will fail as soon as a trend gathers some momentum, and are hailed as thought leaders. Give me a break. Analysis is not leadership.

    But people want gurus to have the 4 magical steps to success, the diet books to explain how to lose weight while eating more, the “one question” that will explain customer loyalty, etc. So, the market creates a demand for pseudo thought leaders who are really capitalizing on a trend, not leading it.

    A quick way to spot pretenders: those that introduce themselves as “the Godfather of …”

    Bob Thompson, CustomerThink Corp.
    Blog: Unconventional Wisdom

  3. Great post Andrew

    I think part of the problem is that most businesses really have such appalling customer service strategies. In fact the truth is probably that they have no customer services strategy at all. The strategies they do implement are focused on cost reduction and market preservation and by their very nature end up as anti-customer.

    The battles in the boardrooms and “C” suites are fuelled by numbers and data. Customer centricity is intuitive, is iterative until you get it right, and therefore requires agility on behalf of the organisation.

    So, instinctively and personally we know we should be customer centric; but it’s virtually impossible to get a conventional or traditional business to embody it.

  4. The great thing about Thought Leadership is, you nor any committee can ordain you a thought leader. Every individual gets to make that distinction for themselves and in “their” world.

    Bob is right in that you have to be forward thinking all the time. Reacting to the “Whats Next”. There was a thought leader when 8 track tapes came out, but if they still think 8 track tapes are of the future, who is going to listen. They would be invisible.

    You do not have to have original thought to be a thought leader. You could be a historian and be such an expert on a subject that you can relay past information and show how it is relevant today. During the election they had several Political “thought leaders or experts” who talked about past presidential elections and how that could affect the race today.

    There are so many ways to create thought leadership. I could think of a half dozen more off the top of my head.

    You can make remarkable ideas for your segment and followers using a myriad of ways. While being off the cuff is exciting, just make sure your content is unique and valuable.

    Chad Rothschild
    Increasing Employee & Client Engagement

  5. Hi Andy

    A 5-star post if ever there was one.

    I think Bob hit the nail on the head. People want to be successful, but they don’t want to put in the long hours of hard toil required to be successful. They want tricks, tips and wonder tablets that bring success overnight. So an industry supplying just that has sprung up. Most of the tips and tricks are pretty average stuff, dumbed down so that it is easy to digest. Borden’s 4Ps actually started out as 12Ps but they were thought too difficult to teach to marketers, so we ended up with the 4Ps. And so it is with most business advice.

    Thought leadership is difficult and as Axel points out, only tends to be noticed after the fact. The winning thought leaders get to write history, those whose ideas were wrong quickly get forgotten. Thought leadership carries reputational risk if you are not absolutely right about what’s coming next. Fortunately, there are a few people who are simply good at spotting tomorrow’s big thing today. And who don’t mind being wrong some of the time. But they are few and far between. Some come from CRM like Paul Greenberg, but the most come from other disciplines, sometimes only tangentially related to CRM. And very very few come from the so-called CRM Analysts, who mostly just regurgitate others’ tried and tested ideas supported with a little new analysis.

    As Nicholas Taleb describes in his book of the same name, CRM’s thought leaders are like ‘Black Swans’.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-driven Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.

  6. Andy,

    Thinking about the subject of your blog post — “PLEASE tell me something I DON’T know!” — I noticed that you used the word “I” and not “We.”

    Here’s the problem that thought leaders must address: Who are you attempting to lead and do they need your leadership?

    For the past 10 years this web site has been geared to those at the forefront of the industry, those that want to explore new trends and new thinking. But CustomerThink is not so effective for those starting out, or those with a very narrow interest (e.g. just SFA). There are better sites to “lead” people with those interests.

    In any audience people are at different stages of understanding. One speaker/writer could be considered a thought leader by one audience if he/she is just “one chapter ahead” of the group and is helping them learn. But that same guru couldn’t lead another group that has already read the “book” and is seeking new insights.

    Perhaps that was the problem with the panel discussion. A mismatch of the speakers/content with the audience. If so, then it was the meeting organizer that should be blamed for the poor experience.

    Thought leaders come in many shapes and sizes for people at different stages of learning. Followers need leaders that are not too far ahead that they have lost touch. What high school student can truly appreciate the wisdom of a graduate school professor?

    So everyone listening to a would-be guru is entitled to say “tell me something I don’t already know.” But it’s not really fair to say, “tell me something that *nobody* knows.” Those types of leaders are radical thinkers that are as rare as the black swan.

    Bob Thompson, CustomerThink Corp.
    Blog: Unconventional Wisdom

  7. The concept of being a thought leader holds many problems. First, true thought leaders generally aren’t understood. They’re too far out there or they simply run counter to current thought. Look at the foundation of the financial crisis. A few thought leaders predicted the future, yet few listened. In my book Without Warning, I state that many thought leaders are minimalized. Their thoughts are often too disturbing and their ideas disruptive.
    So when John piped in and stated they’re was nothing new, he was likely right. I believe there are several questions on the table though.
    1. Was the presenter a true thought leader?
    2. What were the expectations of the group and did the presenter simply play to the expectations of the majority?
    3. Do we truly seek out thought leaders?

    These are the silent problems that must be addressed. You know, those problems that we’ve been avoiding or neglecting for a long time.

  8. Bob: your comment got me thinking again (sometimes dangerous). So I went to a book I recently read, and one that I quote from time to time, Leading Minds by Howard Gardner. He defines a leader as “persons who, by word and/or personal example markedly influence the behaviors, thoughts, and/or feelings of a significant number of their fellow human beings (here termed ‘followers’ or ‘audience members’).

    But what makes a leader effective? According to the author, “the ultimate impact of the leader depends most significantly on the particular story that he or she relates or embodies, and the receptions to that story on the part of audiences.”

    And the issue you bring up focuses on those receptions. He continues “if the new stories are to succeed, they must transplant, suppress, complement, or in some measure outweigh the earlier stories, as well as contemporary oppositional ‘counterstories.’ . . . only the most robust stand a chance of gaining ascendency.” (my emphasis)

    Not hearing anything robust was exactly what John was complaining about with CMG. Which brings me to the earlier issue, put another way: are people presenting themselves as thought leaders when they really don’t have creative, bold solutions?

    We’re offered more information than at any time in history, so is it radical to imagine an individual in an audience thinking “Please! . . . that idea is so last week!” Gardner wrote “One can come to accept–and event to expect–birthday parties that feature a dessert of fruit rather than cake or ice cream, or restaurant sequences where one pays upon ordering rather than after eating the meal. But by and large, early scripts, stereotypes, and scenarios prove surprisingly impervious to change.”

    True. But solving problems in a contemporary setting won’t benefit from worn out, non-controversial, and risk-phobic thinking.

  9. I was at this session and honestly, I thought the manners and approach taken by this “john” character were appalling. I hear he is a laid-off X-Sprint guy with nothing better to do, who is trying to get exposure for his so-called “great ideas.”

    It would have been one thing if he waited until the questions session to make his point. To hijack the session 3 minutes into it to draw attention to himself, and then to keep doing it 2 more times before anybody on the panel even spoke was a bit ridiculous in my opinion.

    I’m all for bold ideas, but using a free 1-hour event where food is provided to turn everyone’s attention to yourself is a bit much. I would not use this guy’s example of how to make a point…99% of the people there thought he was a jerk for sure.

  10. Sure John was shrill, but the irony is that CMG wanted to showcase their go-to-market expertise–which requires being remarkable–and their ideas were anything but! John caught the disconnect faster than anyone else in the room (including me) and raised the red flag. Not my style either, but if there’s any venue in which outspoken views should be embraced, it’s where companies are providing guidance about how to break new products into markets. Many long-gone, unremembered products failed precisely because they weren’t remarkable.

    The bumper sticker I see from time to time, “Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History” applies here as well. Just substitute “Marketers” for “Women.”


  11. There is a well honed saying: “Lead. Follow. Or Get Out of the Way.” Leading the launch of new products is not for the feint of heart and not for the ill-prepared; successful launches rely on relentlessly doing your homework and building on lessons learned. If Mr. Rudin had done his homework, he would have understood the fact that our panel was convened to discuss “Why Good Products Fail & How to Improve the Go-to-Market Process” and to share the lessons that four very successful marketers have learned through their own launch experiences. And that’s exactly what our panelists did and what 99% of our audience took away from the session. If their experiences sound familiar to you, then congratulations, you know something. But the reality is that way too often launches go wrong because the fundamentals weren’t covered. The thought leadership demonstrated throughout our discussion was that you must pay homage to the fundamentals and not be enthralled by shiny new things because if you don’t, you’ll fail and it will cost all involved. At CMGP we welcome and embrace the challenge to all marketing leaders to be innovative, transformative and thought leaders, but get the fundamentals right first.

  12. OK, in reference to Rob29’s characterization of our friend, John, I am not sure how being a “laid off Sprint guy with nothing better to do” negates his credentials to address what I believe has been an obvious deficiency in marketing strategy for so long. It sounded like these “thought leaders” were extremely well poised to provide a little stimulus to the early morning audience and failed to launch as it were. I have been to a number of marketing strategy and market research seminars and I think I can count on one had the number of times that I saw someone present an idea that was innovative or even controversial. I wonder if this is panel is merely a reflection of the dearth of new and creative ideas in corporate America or did the panel have insight that they just did not want to share with the audience because it was such a premium and one certainly would charge for that (That I would understand and if that is the case, bravo — but add some teasers — whet the appetite a little).

    Perhaps Andrew is correct that the “thought leaders are simply reacting to a perception that businesspeople need to be spoon-fed unremarkable ideas (not too big, not too small, not too hot, not too cold) so they can be nudged into considering larger ideas?” That has to stop. There needs to be a game changer. Not everyone thought leader is going to serve up Malcolm Gladwell or Nassim Taleb (Black Swan), but insipid marketing 101 ideas have run their course — we all get it now and we want something else.

    As for John’s performance, well I can only say this. We all admired people like Groucho Marx and George Carlin who dared offend our sensibilities with their behavior because they did and spoke as we would have wanted to do, but were afraid to do so. Well, it would appear that our guest was not afraid and so BRAVO! Let’s have more John’s at our picnic

  13. This is an excellent point. I recall a quote attributed to Woody Allen — something like “80% of life is showing up.”

    Too many thought “leaders” pitch something new to get noticed, egged on by a willing audience looking for quick fixes. They deserve each other.

    Unfortunately, people rarely want to hear why they should floss, exercise, eat right, get plenty of sleep… or their equivalents in the business world. It’s more fun to focus on the new, even though poor execution on fundamentals often undermines success of innovative ideas or technology.

    It still seems to me there was a mismatch of how the program was marketed and conducted. It’s not what you do, but how what you do matches what people expected. Some attendees apparently did expect more than just basics.

    Bob Thompson, CustomerThink Corp.
    Blog: Unconventional Wisdom

  14. Who would have thought that the mundane topic of marketing thought leadership would have triggered so much dicussion?

    I agree with Bob and those who suggest that companies need to get much better at their business basics. Far too many companies don’t really know what drives success in their companies, pull the wrong levers as a consequence and are then suprised when they are not successful. As Patrick Barwise points out in his book ‘Simply Better’, most companies can significantly improve their success simply by finding out what customers really need, by organising themselves to provide it profitably and then by telling customers what they have to offer. The biggest single biggest reason why new products fail on entry – and on average 80% do – is that companies don’t know what customers really need. Fix the business basics and success will surely follow.

    But fixing the business basics is not enough anymore. Not enough for business greatness.

    As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Never was this truer than in today’s hyper-competitive, easily disruptible business climate. Fixing the business basics is now an entry-level requirement. Fail at this and you go out of business. Just look at Chrysler and hundreds of other failed companies. But progress is only made by those unreasonable companies that know exactly what customers need, that provide innovative ways to deliver it and that co-opt customers to rave about their products to other customers. Companies as varied as Apple, Google and Toyota, all serial winners of innovation awards and industry leadership awards.

    So was Andy right to criticise the CMG Partners event?

    A quick look at CMG Partners’ summary of their own event shows that the speakers were all thoroughly reasonable men. They talked about business basics. No breakthrough ideas. Just marketing motherhood and new product pie. That is a great start, but it is not enough to achieve greatness in business today. And who doesn’t want to be great at what they do? Maybe Andy was right to ask, “Please tell me something I don’t know”.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-driven Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.

    Further Reading:

    Patrick Barwise, Simply Better

    BCG/Business Week Most Innovation Companies

    CMG Partners, Why Good Products Fail & How to Improve the Launch Process Event Summary

  15. Russ: good point about fundamentals being important, although ‘paying homage’ seems a bit obsequious. In marketing as in science, our body of knowledge only becomes stronger when theories and fundamentals are repeatedly tested and questioned. A book I read recently, Buying In by Rob Walker describes how new products became successful–but you won’t find Walker paying much homage, unless it’s to the idea that success comes when you’re not encumbered by slavish devotion to doing things that worked in the past.

    I certainly gained value from your panel. Mark’s points stood out for same reason that John’s did. In different ways, they emphasized the power of one fundamental: break patterns. No PowerPoint bullet will ever communicate that idea as well as they did.

  16. Andrew, Well, it’s quite a challenge to tell you something you don’t know because I don’t know what you do or don’t know. But, since I like challenges, I’ll try.

    There are two business theories I don’t believe in text books or books on marketing or business. Yet, these “hidden to many” theories make one of my uncles, how, btw, had only a 3rd grade education in Europe before being drafted in the Austrian army prior to WWI, and came to the US after the war. Or course, he did not know these were what might be called “theories.” To him, it was just what one does. His two theories were:

    Theory #1 – always be 70% ready with lots of ideas. To him “being ready” was starting to write what ideas related to merchhandise and merchandising that he saw that might come up at sometime . . . , never putting them to sleep by going back to them and updating his notes as they came to mind.. When the opportunity showed it was time to do more than making notes, the other 30% was easy to do and we became pioneers in a wide variety of merchandise.

    Theory #2 – no yearly models, only constant improvement.

    From applying his theories, our store became known as leaders in innovation in showing new merchandise and how the merchandising of jewelry, watches, giftwares and related items.

    So, I hope I found something about thought leadership that you didn’t know but now do. From here on, it’s up to others to fill you in with other thing you don’t know.

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador Of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected]
    Winner of the Murray Award for Marketing Excellence
    Member, PNW Sales & Marketing Group
    Member, Institute of Management Consultants
    Member, International Speakers Network

    You are invited to suggest to your associates, acquaintances, family, friends, customers/clients to learn why everyone has something to sell by visiting


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