On thought leadership

As regular readers know, I'm a podcast fanatic. The only thing better than being able to conveniently manufacture spend is being able to listen to great audio content while you do.

One podcast I've given a few chances to, but haven't yet been blown away by, is the Ezra Klein Show. Klein is a great interviewer but has the absolute worst taste in guests to have on the show, which makes most of the interviews ultimately boring unless you're personally interested in the area the guest specializes in.

Back on April 19, 2016, Klein interviewed Ben Thompson on "how to make it in media in 2016." Well heck, I'm trying to make it in media in 2016! So I thought I'd give it a listen.

If you don't know who he is (I didn't), Ben Thompson is the motive force behind Stratechery.

Ben Thompson is a Thought Leader in Technology

About halfway through the Ezra Klein interview, Thompson begins talking about what makes people willing to make a site a "destination," and how to build an audience willing to sign up for subscriptions to get even more content (Thompson seems to have the same model I do, providing lots of free content as well as subscribers-only access to his inner-most musings).

Thompson's theory is that when you have a single, internally consistent vision of the topic you write about, it makes it easy to fit new information into your worldview, allowing you to generate "fresh" content based on the news without taking the time or effort to actually examine the facts on their own terms.

Listening to this interview, I immediately recognized the genre he was talking about, because travel hacking has its own Thought Leader, right in our very midst.

Gary Leff knows one big, stupid thing

When you visit View from the Wing, you are immediately informed that you're in the presence of a Thought Leader In Travel. And after listening to Ben Thompson cooly describe the anatomy of the Thought Leader, it's obvious what Gary Leff's single, internally consistent vision of the loyalty industry is: loyalty programs are the single greatest invention in the history of marketing, and travel companies tinker with them at their peril.

There are many reasons this is stupid, and I encourage you to come up with your own.

But the lowest common denominator explanation for why this is an incorrect world view to drive thousands of words per week is this: if loyalty programs can, through public signaling to one another, devalue more or less simultaneously, then all the programs can individually and jointly spend less on marketing expenses without ceding a marketing advantage to any other program.

And, amazingly, this is precisely the pattern we see in the real world, where the rest of us live.

I know a bunch of small, true things

Clearly, I'm not a Thought Leader in the terms Ben Thompson described. I don't have a single overarching philosophy, and I don't try to cram every new piece of information into my preconceptions. Instead, I know a handful of small, true things. For example:

What are Thought Leaders good for?

This post isn't meant to be an attack exclusively on Gary Leff (although, of course, also on him), but more generally to call into question the species of Thought Leader as a whole.

What is the point of using an overarching philosophy to interpret facts when you have the actual facts in front of you?

On the one hand, Gary Leff really is invited to attend, and even host(!), awards galas and loyalty conferences.

On the other hand, his insistence that the loyalty programs are sabotaging their own success through devaluations and a focus on revenue seems to fall on completely deaf ears, possibly because a graphomaniac internet enthusiast has no influence over the business practices of massive global enterprises.


Looking around today, it's clear that the future of the internet belongs to the Thought Leaders. Mr. Money Moustache is a Thought Leader in Financial Independence. Meb Faber is a Thought Leader in Value and Momentum Investing. Tyler Cowen is a Thought Leader in Condescension.

I imagine there are lots of reasons why people find these Thought Leaders comforting. They repeat the same nostrums over and over again, building a cushion of the familiar, the wise, the sensible. And who doesn't want to live in a familiar, wise, and sensible world?

But there is an alternative to Thought Leadership: taking the world on its own terms. Understanding that loyalty programs will continue to devalue, with or without notice. Understanding that passive, low-cost investing is the only method yet devised that will secure as much of the market's return as possible. Understanding that Tyler Cowen is a twit.

A big, false theory may be comforting, but a small, true fact is even better.