The persuasiveness of thought leadership material rests on both substance and style. Yet some asset managers let embedded hierarchies hinder content quality, damaging their credibility and brand, argues James Whiteman, Head of Client Communications & Content at Aviva Investors.

The stats are damning. Recent research from marketing consultancy Communications and Content found the readability of investment content resembles academic journal prose. A cursory look around the 'insights' pages of asset management websites confirms the findings, revealing that content is unnecessarily complex or boring, and sometimes both. Given the mass of intellect within our industry, this is a strange state of affairs and implies content teams struggle to stamp their editorial authority.

The trouble with hierarchy

The root of the issue comes down to hierarchy, and ego. Every organisation has a hierarchy, and most are home to large egos as well. In asset management, the investment desks sit at the top, the profit makers at the centre of everything; without them, there would be no business.

But this pecking order can create problems, as not all subject-matter experts are natural-born communicators - despite what they themselves believe. Caught within the delicate balance between investment ego and ghost-writer agreeableness lies a direct path to mediocrity. Compromise and deference can be dangerous traits for communications professionals. To counter the corrosive effects, editorial functions must develop coping mechanisms, replete with good cop/ bad cop relationships and a reputation for being sticklers for quality.

Part of this involves senior communications professionals standing up for grammar, style, structure and overall message quality.

The first should be incontrovertible. The last three are where problems arise.

For starters, who actually owns the message in an asset management company? Is it the investment desks, product specialists, product development, marketing, or sales? The unhelpful answer is all of them and none of them. When done well, quality ideas and messages organically bubble up to the surface, judged by their merit as opposed to who uttered them. If only life was so easy. The natural order of our organisational hierarchies means not all voices are created equal; worse still, content-by-committee rarely produces anything of substance, reducing promising ideas to watered-down drivel.

Editorial strength and diplomacy

There are a few ways to counter these forces and ensure quality.

The first is to create some space for your team's voice. First-person by-line articles have a place but using third-person narratives allows you to create an editorial style one-step removed from the vested voices of fund managers. Done well, credibility should follow.

By doing this, you also open up the opportunity to bring in external voices as well, thereby further enhancing the (at least perceived) independence of thought. Using external experts has the added benefit of offering your internal audience a different, outside perspective. Inadvertent corporate echo chambers are never desirable.

The second coping mechanism is to impress investment and product personnel with the quality of thinking, writing and overall style flowing out of the content team. Few people ever argue when presented with erudite copy that neatly and creatively captures their arguments - no one is immune to this, regardless of seniority. A telling sign you are on the right track is when you start noticing phraseology and language you helped to craft being used in meetings and the media. Glowing 360 writer feedback helps reassure too.

Like anything, mutual respect has to be earned and can be quickly lost. But once achieved, the inevitable but appropriate heel-digging can at least be done from a position of strength.

All-conquering culture  

As with the investment processes that underpin the active asset management industry, having a culture that values challenge is essential to high performance. Indeed, diversity of thought is by definition not possible without diversity of opinion. Done artfully and diplomatically, challenge need not rupture relations. Healthy cultures usually form when behaviours and attitudes are clearly laid down from the top.

My sense is the asset management firms doing content well are the ones that instinctively recognise the value (both internally and externally) to putting thoughts down on paper. The process itself can help clarify thinking, and even lead to better investment decision making.

They are also most likely the ones who keep an eagle eye on, and take inspiration from, the outside world - competitors, mainstream media and beyond. This reflects a healthy level of curiosity and humility to recognise the limits to their own knowledge and the importance of absorbing diverse perspectives, yet still bold enough to offer an authoritative opinion.

Perhaps all this is just the natural course of professional maturity playing itself out, as the grey hairs accumulate and one comes to fully respect their craft. Or perhaps I am just exceptionally slow on the uptake. However, thanks to some strong mentorship I have finally come to realise the importance of fighting for a respected and equal editorial voice.

As for who owns asset management content, the semantics of such a question tend to dissolve away when you are surrounded by nice, talented people who help foster a culture of mutual respect and challenge. It is no coincidence that quality content tends to follow as a result.