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The notion of intellectual capital has been gaining traction as North American society moves toward a knowledge-based economy. Becoming a “thought leader” in your field is now considered one of the most effective ways to distinguish your brand in an overcrowded marketplace.

“Your [company’s] book value may be very very small, but by articulating your intellectual capital clearly, you can show that you are worth significantly more than your salary or the building you own,” said Nick Bontis, a professor at the DeGroote School of Management at McMaster University and associate editor of the Journal of Intellectual Capital.

“You want to establish yourself as an expert in your field and this is how people are developing brands for themselves,” said Prof. Bontis. “It allows you to make a phenomenon synonymous with your name so that your name comes up first in a Google search,” for instance, he said.

But how, exactly, does an entrepreneur or professional present his or her ideas in ways that will accentuate their value for others?

Increasingly, by turning to one of the new, “thought-leadership” marketing firms for help. These show small businesses how to identify their intellectual capital and how to use it to market their ideas and knowledge, rather than simply their products or services.

Toronto-based Highspot Inc., founded in 2007 by Ross Slater and Jennifer Tribe, is one such company. “We specialize in people who are really good at what they do and move them to being seen as leaders in their field. We help them become celebrities, or rock stars,” in their areas of expertise, said Mr. Slater.

Highspot takes its clients through every step of building a brand around intellectual capital. For instance, “There is huge cachet in being a published author” said Mr. Slater. A book project starts with determining the client’s actual intellectual capital, then providing ghostwriters and editors as necessary. The manuscript is self-published, and distributed through Amazon.com or other online distributors.

Highspot also does video and audio projects for clients and creates an online presence using social networking and websites.

One of Highspot’s clients is Toronto facial cosmetic surgeon Dr. Peter A. Adamson, who recently launched his book, Fabulous Faces: From Motivation to Transformation Through Facial Plastic Surgery. Dr. Adamson, who has been practising for almost 30 years and is a department head at the University of Toronto’s medical school, wanted to help people decide if cosmetic facial surgery was right for them. “I had been thinking about writing this book for seven or eight years but it seemed too daunting,” he said.

Dr. Adamson acknowledges there was also a marketing element, though he says his primary motive was to share the wisdom he had gained from his patients over the years. “Medicine is a profession but it’s also an entrepreneurial business, and cosmetic facial surgery more so than insured medical services, so we’re always looking to have new patients.”

The price tag for the book venture: $150,000.

Mr. Slater said Dr. Adamson’s project came in at the high end due, in part, to a swanky book launch in the Glass Room of the Royal Ontario Museum. The usual range for such a project is $40,000 to $100,000, he said.

“I tell our clients, you must think of it as a marketing expense.” The monetary return may not be immediate, or even tangible, but “there is a good possibility that you can recover the cost over time.”

He says several of his clients’ books have gone into second and third print runs and led to paid speaking engagements.

Sara Holtz is one of those authors. The San Francisco-based lawyer and consultant wrote Bringin’ In the Rain: A Woman Lawyer’s Guide to Business Development. Writing it positioned her as an expert and thought leader in her field, which increased her profile and led to more clients, and more speaking engagements. “I call the book my extensive business card,” Holtz said.

But the same technological advances that make it easy to share information have also led to a glut of it: Self-styled “experts” enjoy the same access to the Internet as the leading figures in a field. As such, there are skeptics such as David Dunne, marketing professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, who appreciates the value of intellectual capital but is less enthusiastic about some forms of marketing it. “I don’t know how much of a reputational impact it has when word gets out that [the book] isn’t from a major publisher, which would be more selective.”

Bob Buday of The Bloom Group, who is considered one of the leaders in the field of thought leadership, content development and marketing, doesn’t disagree. His firm, based in Hopkinton, Mass. – the starting point of the Boston marathon – has ghost-written white papers, article pitches, the articles themselves, and books for clients.

Mr. Buday, whose clients include Microsoft, Deloitte and Fujitsu, said anybody can have a blog. “But if you can get an article published in the Harvard Business Review, that will give someone enormous credibility because it’s so difficult to do.”

“Having a best-selling book … is very difficult [to achieve], but even a self-published book … is better than doing nothing,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s the audience that’s the judge. If you don’t have compelling content, thought-leadership marketing doesn’t matter and it won’t do much for you.”

Mr. Buday’s company has ghost-written white papers, article pitches, the articles themselves, and books for his clients. “I’m not the expert in their fields. What I do is help them capture their central idea. But the key is that idea. If you have a mediocre idea, it’s not going to get you very far.” On the other hand, “If you have a great idea but you don’t market it, then it won’t get very far either or not for a long time.”

Gershon Mader who co-founded a management consulting firm based in Thornhill, Ont. called Quantum Performance Inc., is one of Mr. Buday’s clients. Tthought-leadership marketing helped him understand his company’s true intellectual capital in terms of “what we could bring to the party that nobody else could bring,” he said. “It was a complete transformation of what we were about and that changed our professional life.”

With Mr. Buday’s guidance, Mr. Mader and his partner wrote a white paper about strategies for engaging work forces in corporate objectives. They went on to write several articles in leading business publications, including Forbes magazine, and a book, The Power of Strategic Commitment.

Mr. Mader said his company tripled its billing and now works with much more senior levels of management. They are writing a second book about how to build high-performance management teams.

In the end, marketing your intellectual capital “cannot just be an ego trip,” said Highspot’s Mr. Slater. “[The project] has to have value in itself … [and] there has to be a return on that.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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