A thought leader can refer to an individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded. The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first citation for the phrase an 1887 description of Henry Ward Beecher as "one of the great thought-leaders in America." But it was revived or reinvented by marketers in the 1980s; in a 1990 article in the Wall Street Journal Marketing section, Patrick Reilly used the term "thought leader publications" to refer to such magazines as Harper's.
The term is sometimes used to characterize leaders of service clubs, officers of veterans' organizations, of civic organizations, of women's clubs, lodges, regional officials and insurance executives.
Thought leadership is often used as a way of increasing or creating demand for a product or service. High tech firms often publish white papers with analyses of the economic benefits of their products as a form of marketing. These are distinct from technical white papers. Consulting firms frequently publish house reports, e.g. The McKinsey Quarterly, A.T. Kearney Executive Agenda, Booz & Co Strategy and Business (now being acquired by PriceWaterhouseCoopers), or Deloitte Review where they publish the results of research, new management models and examples of the use of consulting methodologies. New York Times columnist David Brooks mocked the lifecycle of the role in a satirical column entitled "The Thought Leader," published in December 2013.
A parody on the term was published in 2016 of Chris Kelly on Canadian television's This is That program. In the process of the discussion, imitating TED talks, Kelly elicits responses from the audience that exemplify the effect he describes as the result of applying well-known marketing techniques to achieve the impression of being an erudite speaker.
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- "What Is A Thought Leader?". Forbes. 2012-03-16. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
- Patrick Reilly, "'Thought' Magazines Weather Ad Storms." Wall Street Journal, Nov. 9, 1990.
- Carey McWilliams (1951) "Government by Whitaker and Baxter II", The Nation, page 367, April 21
- Scott Cutlip (1994) The Unseen Power, page 607
- "McKinsey Quarterly | McKinsey & Company". Mckinsey.com. 2013-10-06. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
- "Executive Agenda ® - A.T. Kearney". Atkearney.com. 2011-03-11. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
- Ludwig, Helmuth (2014-02-11). "strategy+business: international business strategy news articles and award-winning analysis". Strategy-business.com. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
- "Deloitte Review - A semiannual publication for business leaders". Deloitte.com. Retrieved 2014-02-15.
- David Brooks, "The Thought Leader", The New York Times, December 17, 2013.
- Cheryl Pass "‘Thought Leaders’: Orwell’s 1984 Moves To The 21st Century", Freedom Outpost, October 11, 2012