Can a good rant be good thought leadership?

I’ll admit it, I like a good rant. That is, if it’s funny, got some bite to it, and manages in all its ticked-off glory to actually make me think. All of which is why I’ve been following Scot McKee for some years (at a safe distance; his B2B creative agency, Birddog, is based in London).

It’s also why I finally asked him to chat about the business purpose and effect of all his caustic and/or comic musings, and whether or not they function in the same way that good thought leadership is supposed to (which is to build reputation, differentiation and, ultimately if not immediately, business). So sit back, have a pint or two (as Scot would) and see if you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

Chuck Kent: I was introduced to you by a client-side associate, Nick Allen, but his business-like recommendation of you notwithstanding, I know you mostly as a snarky, sarcastic, often profane B2B bubble buster on social media. Do I assume correctly that that’s how you would like to be known?

Scot McKee: Yeah. I’m pretty satisfied with that. It’s taken a lifetime to achieve those kind of compliments. So, I’ll take whatever I can get. It’s probably worth mentioning that we’re shaped by our environment. So, I’ve been working in B2B for 25 years, I guess, and Birddog is more than 20 years old. I started out as a bright, smiling young thing that my mother would have been proud of. Twenty years later I think the snarky, sarcastic stuff – maybe not the profanity, which is all my own work – but the rest of it is born out of a lifetime of dealing with B2B organizations. So, there you go. Be warned kids. You too could end up like me.

CK: So it’s informed by environment, by context – and your geographical context is London, the U.K. Do perceive that your approach or tone is more acceptable within, or perhaps even driven by, the tenor of London?

SM: That’s an interesting one. Over the years, the line I’ve used about Birddog is  “We’re based in London, but we have attitudes worldwide.”

Tone of voice I think is important to any brand. It’s essential to brands. It’s certainly important to ours, and it’s something that clearly defines ours in the marketplace. I think the important distinction is that our brand isn’t necessarily our clients brand. So, the way we communicate, the tone of voice that we have, isn’t profanity, if you like – that’s just how we talk. It doesn’t mean that all clients have to talk that way as well. Some people can see through that, some can’t.

So is this B2B bad boy stuff just posturing as positioning, or is it the true you?

CK: You were talking about your own branding. Your tagline describes your agency as providing “B2B Branding and Shit Like That.”  On your homepage, that’s followed with one of the odder calls to action: “Run. While you still can.” So is this B2B bad boy stuff just posturing as positioning, or is it the true you and Birddog crew. And do you see an actual benefit to your client in all this, you should pardon the expression, ball busting?

SM: It is definitely the true Birddog, though we’ve had quite a recent rebrand. I took some time out towards the end of last year to look at the next way. I was quite dissatisfied, not necessarily with the Birddog brand – I think we’ve been fairly consistent over the years, always been in your face, always been opinionated – but I took some time out to crystallize that message. I think there was some confusion in the market that all B2B communications, all B2B agencies, were pretty much the same. And the inquiries that we were generating assumed that we were prepared to accept the same brief that they were giving the other agencies, in the same way, and expecting similar responses.

So, it seemed that I needed to clarify the point, once and for all. And that kind of attitude and approach, and “Run. While you still can.” –  I want people to hear that. We are not one of those other agencies. And we will not do that work. So I spend most of my time these days telling people to fuck off.

I spend most of my time these days telling people to fuck off.

CK: I enjoyed the post where you actually shared the entire request for proposal, and your letter that told the prospective client to do exactly that.

SM: My tolerance level is low. There is no doubt about it. I have no time. Life is short. I’ve been doing this a long time. I have tugged my forelock, and bowed to pressure, and taken the money and smiled, and all of those things, and I’m not going to do it anymore.

I want to be the alternative, you know. I want to be for the brands and the businesses that recognize that as a strength and asset. The bit that they haven’t got. And we can provide it. And we’re not going to comply with anything else.

CK: Following you on social media these last few years, I sense a lack of fondness for buzzwords, shall we say. And, of course, what I wanted to talk about today is one of those buzzwords, the now ubiquitous “thought leadership.” What’s your impression and definition of the term “thought leadership” in a B2B context right now? Can’t wait to hear this one.

SM: Okay. I’m not a fan of buzzwords. On the one hand I kind of like ‘thought leadership’. I think of all of them, there’s a place for it. But if I had to define it, it would be far from complimentary, something along the lines of herding mindless idiots that have no opinions of their own, or perhaps are too scared to voice them. I dislike the idea that, in the B2B space, no one has ideas of their own that they are prepared to stand up and be counted on.

In the B2B space, no one has ideas of their own that they are prepared to stand up and be counted on.

CK: So is that just risk aversion?

SM: Oh yeah, it’s definitely risk aversion. I mean, B2B is awash with risk aversion. That’s something we’ve battled, and will continue to battle, for years. And I get it. I understand the need for shared corporate responsibility and so on. But the decisions we’re making aren’t that tough, they aren’t that big. I don’t think we need committees on committees on committees, to make changes to marketing strategy and campaign activity that are here today, gone tomorrow.

We increasingly require braver approaches in order to be heard above the noise – and risk aversion is not suited to modern day marketing communications.

CK: When you say that there’s something you ‘kind of like’ about thought leadership, what potential do you see in it, and how should it manifest itself and be pursued?

SM: The potential is that valuable opinion and insight can be shared, from the few to the many. And I guess that’s what ‘thought leadership’ is, you know, that some people have valuable opinions and insight that are worthy of sharing and adopting and so on. But I think they’re few and far between, and the term is grossly overused in the context of B2B marketing. Everyone’s a thought leader. It’s like a few years ago when social media kicked in, everyone was a social media guru. Now they’re all thought leaders and so on. And I’ve got little time for any of that.

The term is grossly overused in the context of B2B marketing. Everyone’s a thought leader.

CK: As you know, my working title for the article that will come out of this is, “Can a good rant be good thought leadership?” – arising from the fact that you have, after all, developed a good following by dint of a good deal of ranting.

One of my other interviewees, Nicole France of Cisco, said that thought leadership actually means to lead, to be forward looking, providing some ideas about what’s ahead, and how to get there. Do think that what I’m calling your rants are showing what’s ahead, maybe even by tearing down any nonsense that’s blocking the view?

SM: Some people interpret them that way and I’m pleased that they do. It’s not my intention. You know, I’ve actually stopped trying to be any kind of thought leader.

I’ve spent years trying to educate and inform and impress the market of the need for change and had to do it and so on. And was it returned to me? Well, fuck all, mainly. I can’t actually turn around to any of that thought leadership material or content I’ve produced and say, “Oh yeah. That really worked and it was really valuable and I’m glad I did it and everyone’s really happy.” I’m not happy about it. You know, I think the market needs to change significantly and is failing to do so and is grinding on in the same old path that it always has. And I find that quite depressing.

CK:  You’ve got the trappings of a thought leader. You’ve written a couple of books. You’re Top 10 LinkedIn B2B influencer. You got a blog that at least I enjoy. Yet you say you’re not tracking any business directly to that or from that?

I’m trying to hold the mirror up, rather than tearing anything down.

SM: Well, maybe.

I’m trying to hold the mirror up, rather than tearing anything down, as you put it. All I can really do is hold the mirror up and say, “Here’s something that happens. Make up your own mind.” I’m not going to pontificate over it anymore. I have an opinion obviously, and no doubt that’ll come through in the blogs and so on. But I’m not going to ram it down anyone’s throat, or pretend that it is the Sermon on the Mount, or anything meaningful. The RFP example that you gave is a good one. It’s like, “This thing landed in my inbox today.” For fucks sake, is that what we’re dealing with now?

So, in this latest iteration of Birddog I’m calling it a performative brand. I’m not even sure if that’s a thing yet. But I guess we’ll find out.

CK: You mean like performance art?

SM: Absolutely. So, if you look at the last five or six of my blog posts – they’re not actually blog posts. They’re scripts. And I’ll get around to that, somewhere along the road we’ll record them. They’re just he said, she said, he said, she said.  These are conversations that I have, not necessarily verbatim, but for the most part representing the conversations I have every day. Some of them are good. Most of them are shitty. And at this point, all I’m going to do is post them for the world to see, because no one else will do it.

CK: You seem to take an obvious joy in punishing, say, business pomposity, or what you see as just plain stupidity. But, do you ever worry about losing prospective or even current clients because of too much attitude?  Or is that your whole point – is it a self-selecting thing?

SM: I never worry about it. Not ever. I used to. But I just don’t give a damn anymore.

CK: So all those clients have left by now and you don’t have to worry anymore.

SM: A few years ago I kicked them all out. I can’t recall specifically being fired by any clients – but I think that’s due the nature of the work that we’re doing now as much as anything. Now we’re working at a higher, more strategic level, which isn’t necessarily something that is sustained over a long period. We’re more trouble shooters – go in, act as a catalyst, then leave, and the job’s done. So our attitude is perhaps more palatable in that context, because any client taking us on now knows we’re there for a purpose as agitators and experienced consultants. We help them fix a problem and then we leave.

CK: You talk about reaching a higher strategic level, but you’ve also managed to do it by what some would refer to as a lower linguistic path. Which is to say that you seem to have a policy of “Don’t use more letters if you can say it in four letters.” Swearing has become very popular as people try to break through. You certainly have a good history of it.  But, does swearing still have a positive shock value in business?

It’s about authenticity. And it’s about breaking taboos.

SM: I think if it’s done badly, no. It’s terrible. The difference is, for me anyway, all about accessibility. It’s about authenticity. And it’s about breaking taboos. So, I struggle to think about any client conversation, meeting, et cetera where, as part of general day-to-day business conversation, people don’t swear. We do. We all swear you know. There are the purists amongst us I’m sure. It’s not really my world. I hear people swear every day of the week. And it’s no big deal to me, but I don’t see why it can’t apply to communications, certainly for my brand, it suits us down to the ground. Like I said before, I wouldn’t necessarily advocate it, or insist other people do it. But it works for us.

There’s a great story, years ago now, about when we were invited to pitch for a technology company in fintech, quite a big company. It was an important pitch following a procurement and compliance process with various stepping stones along the way, and “you will have to do this,” and “you will have to do that,” and “you will have to jump through these hoops.”

The guy called me up and said, “We sent the RFP and we haven’t heard back from you.” And I say, “Yeah. There’s a reason for that. We’re not interested.” The guy goes, “Of all the agencies, of all the many agencies we’ve spoken to, we’d really like you to pitch the business.” And I told him to fuck off. You know, it’s like if you want us to do the work, you’re going the wrong way about it. “Oh. But I have to follow this process.” “Well, that’s absolutely fine. Go follow your process, but don’t include us in it. We’re not interested. That’s not how we’re going to work.”

And so off he went. He went through his process, and at the pitch presentation with the CEO at the head of the table, who had little time for marketing anyway. He was asked to present his findings, started going through the slide deck, and the CEO cuts him off, saying, “I don’t want to see any of this. Just give me your recommendation. Which agency are you recommending?” And he said, “Well, actually, the agency I want to recommend refused to take part.” And the CEO went, “What do you mean they refused to take part? Do they know who I am?” And the marketing director said, “I took them all the way through the process and they told me to fuck off.” And the CEO said, “That’s the agency I want. Get them in here.”

CK: Well, I think that gives us an affirmative answer to the question, ‘Can a good rant be good thought leadership?” Thanks Scot.

SM: Thank you.

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About the Author
Chuck Kent, the Chief Conversation Officer at Lead the Conversation, works with executives to help them more easily create authentic, compelling thought leadership content – and to lead industry conversations. He is a writer, brand strategist, content creator and expert interviewer. Chuck is also a Contributing Editor for Branding Magazine, for which he created the monthly Branding Roundtable.

Lead the Conversation is an executive content creation service that makes it easier for busy top management to develop authentic, compelling thought leadership content, such as videos, bylined articles and blog posts. We also create opportunities for conversation leadership, such as interview series and other forums.

Lead the Conversation provides a practical way to develop authentic thought leadership content for busy executives. We also help the C-Suite create and lead industry conversations, to which they can invite other leaders, turning prospects into relationships.

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