Thought leadership in the time of coronavirus: Can content outmanoeuvre uncertainty?

In a crisis, says Matthew McGuinness, Content Marketing Director for Accenture’s Growth & Strategy organisation, thought leadership must be relevant, play to the brand’s strengths and strike the right tone as challenges change and expectations shift. Here, he tells us how Accenture has managed the process.

Covid-19 has shaken the foundations of most industries. How has Accenture set out to help its clients?

Matthew: Organisations generally are facing a very uncertain future, and we have to help them navigate that. I don’t think calling it the new normal quite does it justice – partly because we had the new normal 10 years ago after the financial crisis, but also because there is not going to be much that is normal about this. I prefer the ‘never normal’, because I think the next phase will be very uncertain and potentially destabilising, and will change constantly.

We’ve had an important overarching message in the past few months, which is ‘Outmanoeuvring Uncertainty’. The idea is to take a positive stance in order to get ahead of uncertain times and triangulate the challenges. In the next economic cycle, competitive advantage will increasingly come from how well you outmanoeuvre uncertainty.

What does that mean for how you produce content when your audiences are all at different stages in the pandemic?

Matthew: There is a lot of variety. Sometimes we want to talk to organisations in Brazil, which are operating in a very challenging Covid environment; sometimes we want to talk to businesses in New Zealand, which until very recently have been in a very different place. Geographies and industries are at different stages and face different risks. To add to that, we want to talk about the short-term issues and fundamentals, but we also want to look to the future.

Outmanoeuvring Uncertainty has given us an umbrella – it provides a narrative and a mission that will remain relevant whatever happens. First we explain how clients can deal with the uncertainty and variability; then we make our content relevant to industries and to markets.

Relevance is something that comes up in our work a lot at the moment. What is the best way to produce relevant content?

Matthew: You might have expected us to accelerate decision-making by reducing the size of the team. Not quite. We expanded our content decision-making team to include very senior decision-makers who are involved in regular conversations with their clients about which content we should put out – they are listening to CEOs and then feeding that into the process. At the other end of the value chain we have our solutions people, who are closer to the client account leads, and they also give us feedback.

So we have two additional sets of ears, we have met very regularly and that makes us more sensitive to the way things are changing. We have made swifter decisions. Listening to the clients and also listening to our senior people allows us to be more agile and more focused – it really does bring informed clarity. Relevance is the absolute driver here.

There is a risk that content producers striving for relevance will just put out more and more material in the hope that something will stick. How can they become more selective, and how can they stand out?

Matthew: I did hear a story along the lines of an organisation having to hire someone to read all the content that was being published! Differentiation is always on our minds, but the company should not simply think, ‘What can we talk about that no one else is talking about?’ Because the truth is we are all talking about the same thing. It’s more important to go to the heart of your value proposition. At Accenture, for example, we feel that we have an end-to-end proposition and more depth when it comes to technology. So yes, everyone is talking about cloud, but our cloud story will be different.

We wondered at the start whether we should tell people how the pandemic’s progressing, but we decided not to, because that is not what we are here for. Instead, we decided to stay true to what we are good at.

Then, once you have focused on your value proposition, there is a second stage where you ask yourself, ‘Should we be focused on published content, or should we be focused on enabling client conversations? Should we be generic in our content, or should we be industry and function focused?’, which then helps you produce content that is differentiated.

It’s important to make sure that we’re working with those who are closer to sales and to the client to make sure that our content really does make sense, can come alive in conversations, and is connected to what we can help our clients with.

Staying relevant is not just about the right topics – marketers also have to capture the right tone. Has that become more difficult?

Matthew: The thing about tone is that permissions change. At the beginning of the crisis, we had to be empathetic – everyone had to be sensitive We continue to be in what remains a human crisis. But now, companies are asking, ‘What are the opportunities that are coming out of Covid to become more green, more responsible, more in tune with customers?’ No one was talking about opportunities in April.

So the debate changes as time goes on. Companies get through the existential challenge and start looking to the future, and that gives us permission to modify our tone. I think we have to recognise that all that has happened in a very short space of time.

Matthew McGuinness was speaking at our recent Thought Leadership Network webinar



Matthew McGuinness

Matthew McGuinness

Matthew has been at Accenture for more than a decade, in both London and New York. He currently leads content programs in the company’s Growth & Strategy group – which produces key company-wide thought leadership campaigns. He has led content for Accenture’s involvement in Davos and the G20 / B20, recently covering workforce, skills, leadership and technology issues. He has also been involved in Accenture’s Covid content program.


Sean Kearns

Sean Kearns

Sean is editorial lead for the Thought Leadership Network and editor-in-chief of Longitude. At the TLN, Sean oversees our editorial agenda, ensuring our programme aligns with the challenges and ambitions of global thought leadership practitioners. He works with Longitude specialists to create editorial and research that offers original, practical insight.

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