When is it Time to Throw a Thought Leadership Hand Grenade? A Lesson from FX Networks’ CEO John Landgraf

"There is simply too much television." This statement, announced by FX Networks CEO John Landgraf, sent a ripple throughout the TV industry and became one of the most reported phrases to come out of last week’s Television Critics Association (TCA) summer press tour. The Wrap called it a “hand grenade.”

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Landgraf put a thought leadership stake in the ground in a forum where controversial statements about the industry are rarely made. It was risky. And it was right. Tech leaders can learn a lot from the example. I’ll explain more, but first, a little background:

The TCA press tour is a twice-yearly confab where all the major broadcast, cable and streaming networks tout their Fall shows. They bring out the talent, talk about how well their shows are doing and wine and dine reporters from all over the world in hopes of eliciting positive reviews of their shows. The tone tends to be upbeat and promotional. It’s a not a likely place to hear visionary industry-shaking statements.

Yet Landgraf took the plunge and took everyone by surprise. He used his platform to pronounce a coming content bubble in TV land. He believes the number of original scripted series will continue to rise in 2016 but after that, economically, only the fittest could survive. “It’s going to be messy, inelegant process,” he said.

It’s not that what Landgraf said was so novel. It’s that he said – out loud in a very public and unexpected forum – what many in the industry privately fear. That put the rest of the networks in the position of having to react to what he said. It was an audacious move and it could have easily backfired, but it worked. It was a masterful stroke of thought leadership.

Now, on to what you can learn from this. Nearly every company aspires to be a thought leader in their industry but many struggle to carve out a position that truly demonstrates thought leadership. The crux of an effective thought leadership campaign is a strong and meaningful manifesto – a public declaration of an informed position about an issue that impacts the industry-at-large.

There is always some fear about offending someone or prompting a backlash. However, true thought leadership always entails some risk.

Figuring out the right thought leadership strategy requires a deep alignment with the company’s positioning. It’s especially important to understand the company’s core (or DNA), the category in which you compete, the context of the market landscape, what your competitors are doing, and the community in which you operate.

Once you have that, here are five questions to help you determine if your company’s manifesto is worthy of a thought leadership campaign:

  1. Is it visionary? Are you predicting some seismic changes to come?
  2. Does it have broad implications for your industry or your customers?
  3. Is bold or controversial?
  4. Is it unique? Has anyone said it before? If so, do you have a unique take on it?
  5. Does it add new insight or advance the industry’s understanding of an issue?

I think Landgraf’s manifesto meets all of the requirements above. Of course, it goes without saying, that you must have robust proof points and data to back up your assertions. Landgraf came armed with research and a chart that has been picked up by numerous media outlets.

In addition, you must be clear about what action you want people to take. When you raise a critical issue, you do not necessarily have to have all the answers. Your campaign might entail rallying others to join you in finding a solution. Or, it might include curating other important voices in the discussion.

One last thing to note: authenticity is critical. Your company must be prepared to tangibly support this manifesto or it can seem like a toothless public relations stunt. This is another reason why it’s so important for your thought leadership program to be tied to positioning. When you develop your next thought leadership program, what will you change as a result?