Three quarters (75 percent) of professional services marketers see thought leadership as the greatest source of differentiation for their firm, and 87 percent believe that thought leaders are also more likely to become market leaders, according to Follow The Leader a new  study from strategy and communications consultancy Man Bites Dog.

As a result, professional services firms are investing heavily in thought leadership: on average 23 percent of total marketing budgets in the current budget cycle. And his is set to grow, with 87 percent of firms increasing their budgets next year and 29 percent revising budgets up significantly.

Clients and new business development are driving this investment. Four-fifths (82 percent) of service economy marketing leaders say clients expect firms to produce insightful content as a matter of course, whilst three quarters (76 percent) believe thought-leading content is the key to profitable conversations and establishing deeper long-term relationships.

But despite the critical role of thought leadership in helping firms to stand out, the study reveals an epidemic of thought followership in the professional services sector.

Three-quarters (74 percent) of marketing leaders admit their firms tend to “jump on the bandwagon” rather than set the agenda, estimating that two thirds (65 percent) of their so-called “thought leadership” content is in fact “thought followership.”

The greatest challenge for law firms is idea-generation with four-fifths (80 percent) of legal marketers admitting their firms don’t provide a nurturing environment for new ideas. Meanwhile, accountancy marketers experience the greatest level of interference from fee earners compared with other professional services firms, with the vast majority (96 percent) complaining that partners push them to cover the same topics as everyone else.

And management consultancies meanwhile—often regarded as the founders of thought leadership— fail to generate genuinely unique insight, with almost nine in ten (88 percent) admitting their firm struggles to come up with a differentiated point of view.

According to Claire Mason, managing director at Man Bites Dog, “In an increasingly competitive environment, ideas are the only source of differentiation. Put simply, thought leadership is the most effective form of marketing for professional services firms. Yet we are seeing an epidemic of thought followership from the thinking professions.

“The thing that makes professional services firms stand out from their competitors is the quality of their people and their expertise. But if everyone is saying the same thing, how can clients tell the difference between them? It’s time for professional services firms to step off the content treadmill and consider what needs to change at leadership and cultural level to empower marketers to develop ideas that lead.”