Understanding your audience and using storytelling to connect with them. An interview with Cristina Loughrey…
Defining the head of thought leadership role over your first year.
An interview with Tammy Ammon about her role as Senior Director of Thought Leadership at Acxiom.
Ever wondered what it was like to be the Director of Thought Leadership for a major corporation?
Many organizations don’t define their thought leadership role at creation, leaving the shaping of those responsibilities up to the first person to take the position. That’s a tough job!
To better understand the first few months in such a role, we turn to Tammy Ammon, Senior Director of Thought Leadership at Acxiom. Acxiom is a corporation that strives to ethically use data and technology to fuel meaningful connections between brands and the people who love them.
Like many thought leaders, Tammy had already pursued a long career in product development and marketing. Senior Director of Thought Leadership was the perfect position to blend her passion for storytelling with her deep knowledge of client needs. Even so, her first few weeks in the role were spent defining the position , mapping existing pieces of content, and aiding with branding, marketing, and innovation at the highest levels of the organization.
Over time, Tammy realized that content creation, a big component of thought leadership, quickly evolves storytelling and strategy at the highest levels. She explains how she learned to define a brand’s story, and find the specific themes that will be helpful to support a compelling rendition. By moving through the organization at all levels, she’s learned to maintain a broad view of the company and carry that perspective to her audience.
Tammy ends our conversation with advice for those who are new to the role of thought leader in their organization; sharing tips, best practices, and inspiration she learned along the way.
Three Key Takeaways:
- Organizational thought leadership is about making time to learn your industry and understand your audience.
- Thought Leaders can draw insight by listening in on a wide variety of meetings, networking on Linkedin, and taking part in strategy discussions.
- As you grow in the role of director of thought leadership, you will need to learn which topics require your time, and which to pass on to your team.
Join the Organizational Thought Leadership Newsletter to learn more about expanding thought leadership within your organization! This monthly newsletter is full of practical information, advice, and ideas to help you reach your organization’s thought leadership goals.
And if you need help scaling organizational thought leadership, contact Thought Leadership Leverage!
Bill Sherman What happens when you step into a new role as the head of thought leadership? And how do you navigate your first year in that role? Today, I speak with Tammy Ammon. She’s the senior director of thought leadership at Axiom Marketing tech firm that enables brands to use data to drive people based marketing campaigns. Tammy took the role of senior director for thought leadership about a year ago, and I’m eager to sit down with her and talk about what she thought the role would be what she’s learned in the last year. I’m Bill Sherman and this is Leveraging Thought Leadership ready. Let’s begin. Welcome to the show, Tammy.
Tammy Ammon Thanks for having me, Bill. Excited to be here today.
Bill Sherman So let’s start with a question of focus on top leadership. I want to ask you what is at the heart of the thought leadership work that you do for Axiom.
Tammy Ammon So Axiom has a really simple mission, right? Simple or simple vision, if you will, right? Which is we want a world where every connection between brands and people is meaningful. Right? And so while that sounds really simple, right, that’s really hard to achieve. And so everything that we do and thought leadership is really lines back up to. Are we helping brands achieve that mission, right? So are we helping them understand who their customers are? Are we giving them helpful advice? Are we just there for them, right? And do they trust us? Right. So everything that we do goes back to, are we helping our customers with the vision of having every connection be meaningful?
Bill Sherman Now you started into felt leadership about a year ago, plus or minus from remembering right, right?
Tammy Ammon June 2020. A weird time to make a change. Absolutely.
Bill Sherman Yeah. So. What was it that led you into the world of thought leadership? Jun June 2020 So you started out and what drew you to thought leadership?
Tammy Ammon Yeah. So I’ve been working in the marketing and advertising space for over 20 years, and I had been working on the product side. And so building products, particularly in analytics and but had started my career in storytelling and on the marketing side of things. And so there was an opportunity that came up that we were starting, I thought, leadership practice at Axiom. And it was really an opportunity for me to take the my passion of storytelling and content creative in the way I started my career with the last 15 years or so of building products and working with clients and combining those. So that was really the opportunity that came up for us. So, yeah, so that’s why I made that. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity and make the switch.
Bill Sherman You said an opportunity came up in thought leadership was it was the role defined as a thought leadership role before hand
Tammy Ammon or I mean, technically, yes, right? The role was, you know, it of thought leadership. However, it was, I would say, minimally defined, right? I think we knew that it meant it needed to be a little bit strategic. There was a big content component, but it certainly wasn’t heavily defined, right? There was a lot of room for what does this mean, which, you know, causes a little anxiety and excitement going into a new role. You know that the excitement is I have this great opportunity. The anxiety is, you know, I don’t want to get this wrong.
Bill Sherman Maybe even we go a step back from that right? So you see this role that’s advertised as head of thought leadership, and it’s not like you’ve done that role 32 times or, you know, 20 people that you can pick up the phone and say, Hey, how do you evaluate that you’re a fit for head of thought leadership role? And what do you plan to talk about in that interview to say, Yeah, I’m a logical sort of fit for this for you.
Tammy Ammon Yeah, it’s the one thing that I would say that I’ve learned over the last year. Right. So if I was going to tell myself. A year later, is that? It’s I think there’s a lot of expectation that this is a content job, right? And so when you come in, there’s a lot of people who have projects in flux that they need help with. But what you learn over time is that it’s really a strategy job. And so in in my case, right, I really believe I’ve often said, you know, could I have done this job ten years ago? Probably not, right? I needed that experience in the business. I needed that experience of building products, talking to customers, understanding the trends and, you know, the marketing and ad tech space to come in and be able to help curate our thought leadership program.
Bill Sherman And so you used a key word that I associate with the head of thought leadership, which is curate, right? And I think a lot of people think that a thought leadership role is, oh, head of thought leadership. They’re the one with the smart ideas, right? Talk to me a little bit more about age.
Tammy Ammon Yeah, so, you know, I think that is true, right? I mean, I I do like to joke sometimes, you know, because we live in a virtual world that’s full of meetings, right? Like I literally have thought in my job title. So I need to make sure I have time in the day to think. But thinking a lot of times means that while you can come up with ideas, what you’re doing is you’re looking across the you’re looking across the business, right? So you’re networking across the business because usually our company is right and axiom for sure is filled with lots of smart people. And so you’re trying to, you know, what’s on their mind? What are they hearing from customers making time to read what’s happening in your industry, even industry adjacent? So, you know, I think that’s what curating is about making time to learn, and then it’s really being able to find those things that you’re willing to say yes to and those things you’re willing to say no to. And the no part is maybe harder. But as important or more important.
Bill Sherman So let me double click on that for a moment here. So in terms of how you’re getting that information? Give me a sense of a week in the life of TAM. Is it sitting in on meetings? What are you reading? How are you pulling these insights in and and where you going seeking information?
Tammy Ammon So there’s meetings, for sure, right? So we’ve done a couple of things, we’ve done a really interesting thing at Acxiom that I’m really proud of that we actually call Team 11. And so we’ve gathered thought leaders from around the business, right, who are in all different roles and different levels of roles. And we meet with them on a monthly basis to talk about tough topics. And we really make it kind of a safe space, right? Like there’s no wrong answer. There’s no wrong topic. We’re looking for those kind of golden nuggets, right? So that’s something that we do on a monthly basis, right, where we’re bringing these folks together and we ask them to bring topics, what’s on their mind, right? So it’s not like, Hey, you know, here you go. So we’ve created that team, and I think that’s a really exciting way to gather information.
Bill Sherman We’re also, of course, there for a second. So that’s a cross-functional team where you’re essentially serving as the moderator and establishing the space for people to come, bring ideas and topics for discussion. But you’re not pushing content. It’s almost a listening function for you.
Tammy Ammon It is absolutely a listening function. And I think the other thing that’s really important is it is a there’s an it’s a kind of a no fly zone, you know what I mean? So like, if an idea, we’ve had many conversations were like, Yeah, that’s interesting, and we’d all love to talk about that, but there’s nothing we can actively do with it, right? So, yeah, so we’ve made it the safe space, and it’s a great place. I would say we’ve gotten lots of really wonderful ideas out of that. We’ve really gotten, you know, nuggets that have helped us dig in like we have some thought leadership that’s coming out here very soon around customer experience and a lot of the ideas that are coming out of that. There are nuggets of that that came out of those team 11 conversations.
Bill Sherman And is that a monthly thing you may have said, but
Tammy Ammon how has a monthly thing? OK. OK, the monthly thing, but we’re also big Slack channel users as well. OK, so we have a Slack channel group and so we try to keep the conversation going. If people find interesting articles or interesting nuggets. Then we have them drop those in the Slack channel as well.
Bill Sherman Cool. So where else again in the week of the life of Tami listening? Where else are you listening and how?
Tammy Ammon Yeah, so we have a PR agency, and I think thought leadership is really closely tied with PR, and so we’re getting daily feed of where we are mentioned in the press. But more importantly, what’s what is interesting in our space that’s happening in the press stories that might be interesting to us. Things where our competitors are. So we’re getting that daily feed. And so that’s great. That’s easy. Quick hit. I also spend time on LinkedIn as well. You know, that’s where you and I connected. I think it’s important in this evolving field of thought leadership to see what others are doing. And so there’s that and then there’s just really participating in I participate in a lot of strategy discussions, right? You know, what is our brand story going to be? What is our product story going to be? So getting to, I think, participate in as many places where you can insert yourself to listen and hear very strategic discussions about what you should be doing and why that’s really helpful. And you can’t be afraid to ask to go. Right, I mean, that’s the other thing, right? I many times asked my hand and say, Hey, can I just listen in?
Bill Sherman So to amplify what you’ve said, the strategic element of thought leadership is often one that’s underappreciated, but it’s the most important work. How were you creating value through the thought leadership? How is it tied to the business goals and objectives, whether it’s a for profit or your objectives if you’re not for profit? You’ve got to know who are you talking to and why. And so what do you want them to do?
Tammy Ammon Yeah, exactly, I mean, I think it’s easy, right, it’s in some ways ideas are there’s tons of ideas, right? And so it’s knowing it’s knowing the ones you want to, the ones you want to dig in on for us. You know, I kind of started this conversation by talking about our vision and that one of the thing that’s really critical to us is to be helpful. So when we were you being helpful? We also means that also means we have to give our customers and our prospects actionable advice, too. Right. So it’s lovely to have these big thoughts and to interpret what’s happening. But what does that mean, I should do? One of my favorite sayings came from a fellow Team 11 member, and she shared with me that she really viewed thought leadership as something that’s going to challenge you to change the way you think or change what you do. And I think that’s a great guiding principle.
Bill Sherman Absolutely. Because if it’s insights that are only put into a white paper and people read and go, Oh, that was super smart, but they don’t know what to do, or maybe they don’t even read it right? Or the journal article or whatever. If ideas do not get velocity, then there’s really no point in the thought leadership. And so one of the things I look at from a strategy perspective is how do you take a complicated idea back to someone and say, OK, this is big, it’s messy. It’s going to take a lot of work to make it happen. But here’s what we need to do today, right? And to get that initial buy in. And I think a lot of thought leadership ties to that sort of getting of buy in internally and externally.
Tammy Ammon Agreed. Agreed. Right. It agreed. I think you said that well.
Bill Sherman Thank you. So. Let’s continue down the thread of sort of a year before and after, so first few days in the role, right? Where were you spending your time and what did you think? You were the most important thing, so give me that sort of snapshot of what you were working on. First week.
Tammy Ammon Yeah, I think first thing was, hey, we have content all over the place. Can you help us understand what content we have and what really is thought leadership? So I think it was just an effort of trying to put your arms around the content that gets created all over the place.
Bill Sherman And so was it like a scavenger hunt in some ways of the what is?
Tammy Ammon Yeah, yeah, it was. And it was also trying to figure out like, what’s important to know about that content, right? Is it owned content? Is it earned content? What story are we telling? What level of story are retelling? Right. And so really trying to map that out? And then the other thing was, Hey, we already have these huge projects in flight. You know, we have a very actively agen program. And so it was like we had these projects in flight and we need help, right? And these are our stories at the highest level, you know, can you help us? So that was really the first couple of weeks was just as you said, I like that doing a, you know, doing a thought leadership scavenger hunt, trying to find out what you had and then where working on active projects. It was a bit like trying to change the tires while you’re going down the road. But it’s what has to be done.
Bill Sherman If you are enjoying this episode of Leveraging Thought Leadership, please make sure to subscribe. If you’d like to help spread the word about the podcast, please leave a five star review and share it with your friends. We are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all major platforms, as well as at Leveraging Thought Leadership dot com. There’s often and thought leadership the file problem right where it’s on a shared drive somewhere, and somebody had a project that they were working on with a good idea, but it never saw the light of day within the organization, let alone out to a target audience, right? And the fun of it is when you start having those conversations, then people go, Oh, I was working on this two years ago, you might be interested. And then all of a sudden, these inbound flood of interesting stuff, it’s like, Oh, you got that 80 percent done? We could do something with that.
Tammy Ammon Yes, exactly. Yeah, yeah, we have there’s lots of great nuggets, especially with a company like Axiom. You know, our average associate tenure is 13 years. So we’ve got a lot of people who have a lot of really a lot of great nuggets that are hidden away. So yeah,
Bill Sherman so let’s jump forward to today, right? Yeah, you’re a year in. Mm hmm. What’s different? What have you learned?
Tammy Ammon Yeah, so I think, you know, we talked a little bit about thinking it was a content job, right? And it definitely is right. I mean, that’s just a critical component, but I think it very quickly evolves to a storytelling job, right? And in our case, we started saying, Well, what is our brand story, right? What is the brand story we want to tell? What are the and then what are the themes or the things that are going to support that and be helpful, which then really quickly evolves into a strategy? Right. And so what is our strategy? So when you think about that, logically, we kind of did content storytelling strategy because we were in motion, right? And we had to pick up and keep running. When you think about that now, when I think about that, like if I was going to sit down and logically approach it, you would say, What’s your strategy? What’s our story? Okay, let’s create our content. So I think, you know, before where I spent a lot of time on content and I still do spend a lot of time on content, I’m more choosy about the content that I spend time on, right? I am very willing to farm out other content right that we can we can get taken care of. But what I realize is that upfront energy on what is the strategy, what is the story, what is important to our customers, that work is so important. And so that’s where I spend a lot of my time now, you know, really having story mining sessions with executives, right? What what are you seeing, you know, really spending that time to figure out the strategy?
Bill Sherman One of the things that I hear it sounds like I’m hearing from you as well is you spend a lot of time moving through the organization top to bottom and laterally. Is that true? And do you have an example of that or how that works for you?
Tammy Ammon Yeah, sure. So I work a lot with some of the folks in our C-suite to really help them with executive visibility, so executive visibility is something that is in function, right? Our public relations team is responsible for and we have a PR agency and we all work together, right? But also there is a thought leadership component of that, right. So I will spend a lot of time working with them on particular pieces, particularly the op ed style pieces, right? Where it’s not a soundbite. It is more like I really want to develop the strong point of view. One of my favorite pieces, to be honest, is I worked on with our CEO chatting and Google is this piece that he it’s really his idea, right? It’s his idea would just be data driven or be displaced. And it’s this framework for what does data driven really actually mean and how do you actually achieve it? And so we put out a piece, we put out a couple of articles on LinkedIn. We put out a longer piece for our customers and we’re looking at other things we can do with that content as well. So that’s an area where an example of kind of working at the higher levels. I think working across the organization, we have industry strategists, right? We meet with the industry strategist. They’re deep in the, you know, the industries we serve financial services, automotive, insurance, retail, right. And so spending time with them to understand what’s on their minds and then really like spending time with our product team, what are they building and why spending time with our consulting team? What are they talking to customers about? So, yeah, so that’s kind of does that give you kind of a little bit of a flavor? It does. It does. Moving around the organization, I mean, it’s funny because I never really thought of it as a networking job, but networking is a huge part. You cannot stay in your bubble to do this.
Bill Sherman Yeah. So thought leadership, I think sometimes people think it’s sort of like the I went to the woods to live deliberately and, you know, go off in the cabin and have great thoughts. But no, it’s this constant conversation and plus and hearing pieces of ideas and sometimes connecting and saying, Oh, you should talk to this person over here. Yeah, some idea. Accelerate.
Tammy Ammon Yeah, it does. And one of the things I do is I kind of keep a I keep a running document like when I hear snippets of ideas and I make it really easy on myself, right? Which is I don’t have to have this full blown thing, but I hear a snippet of idea that I can’t do anything with at the moment. I’ll jotted down who it came from and kind of like what was something around the idea to give it a little context. You know, we’re talking like three sentences, maybe. And you just drop it in there and I leave it. But that’s a great repository for me to then kind of always be mining ideas. But it also gives you this practice of listening for ideas, right? Because, you know, it helps you kind of develop that listening skill. Oh, yeah, that’s an interesting nugget. What can I do with that?
Bill Sherman There’s a bit of a journalistic piece to the leadership where you’re putting the story together, and sometimes it’s storytelling, and sometimes it’s investigative journalism where four or five people within the organization have the pieces needed to tell the story. But you’ve got to put them together and figure out who has them.
Tammy Ammon Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, you do. You do. I mean, it really is, I mean, it’s funny you say that, right? I mean, in college, I was in journalism school, have a degree in English. You know, the who, what, when, where, why? Like, they’re just as important now as they were then. And so I think sometimes we like to put fancy words around things, but really, that’s the heart of it. You know?
Bill Sherman And I want to ask you this question, is it what you thought it would be a year in?
Tammy Ammon It’s better than what I thought it would be.
Bill Sherman Was that?
Tammy Ammon You know, I think I thought it was a content job, right? And I love content and I love storytelling. But I love the strategy piece of it, right, it’s there’s so much thinking and figuring things out. And I think also too, because it’s such a collaborative activity, right? Like you really do work with so many people. It’s also, I think it’s a place where you learn that it’s OK to have an idea that falls flat. Do you know what I mean? In some way, that’s almost a safe space for that because you’re going through so many ideas. I have had my boss, who’s our CMO. I have had him say to me, Tammy, put the red pen down, right? You know, and you know and you know, and he’s it’s coming from this good place. And I’m like, Oh my God, you’re right. Like, I totally just went too far with that idea, or not far enough. So I think it’s that it’s that it’s content is strategy. It’s people. It’s kind of also too like, I love Axiom. I’ve been at Oxford for 14 years, but it also makes you see the broadest aspect of your company, right? Like, I’ve been in product management before, you’re very focused in product management, right? This kind of lets you kind of see your company from a broad perspective and in some ways kind of like fall in love with what you do in your company all over again.
Bill Sherman That’s a really cool way of saying, right. And you said something there, you’ve been with the organization for 14 years and you’ve seen it from different perspectives. Yep. Do you feel that helped you with an understanding of the business and that helps your ability to do thought leadership? Talk to me about the connection on the business and thought leadership side.
Tammy Ammon Yeah, for sure, right? I think it’s really important to spend time in the business because you just, you know, I will get some of even some of my fellow marketers sometimes will come to me and say, Hey, we’re doing this product thing, but you were in that product side. What do you like? You were on the analytics team? What do you really think that means, right? And so I do think when you’ve spent time, you know, building products, talking to customers, doing different, you know, product marketing or whatever, when you’ve done those different tasks and side of the business, they’re all really focused, right? You know, product says, I’ve got to build this product. You know, product marketing is I’ve got to tell people about this product. Managing a customer is what problem are they solving and how can I help them solve it? But we’re thought leadership, you’re kind of touching all of those things. So, you know, it’s a job that I certainly and I may have already said this, but I don’t know that I could have done 10 years ago. I think the experience in the business and the deep knowledge, especially so for those who don’t know Axiom, right? Axiom is in the marketing and advertising space, right? So we help customers with their marketing and their advertising, and that is a complicated space. And so I think it’s, you know, it’s important when you’re in an industry to spend time learning it because it isn’t. If it was just a content job, you could go hire a copywriter, right, and give them some points, and they would could create some beautiful content for you. But it’s really taken the time to understand, understand the business.
Bill Sherman As we begin to wrap up, I’d like to ask you what advice you would offer someone who’s starting out in the role of head of thought leadership. What should they be thinking about? What would you say to past Tammy Fraser?
Tammy Ammon I would first say it’s a long haul, right? So this is not something where you’re going to have it completely figured out in three months and it’s going to be this well-oiled machine, right? So I think got to be in it for the long haul. I think you’ve also got to realize that it will shift and it will change and you will try things that work and you will try things that, you know, that don’t work and that’s OK. For example, we spend a lot of time at the beginning doing the scavenger hunt, as you said, right going and getting a lot of figuring it out. But then it was like, Well, how do we need to maintain that? Or do we have, you know, like how much effort needs to go into maintaining that list versus what’s really going to move the needle? So I think it’s that it’s understanding it’s the long haul giving yourself grace that things are going to change and shift and going along for the ride. And I think to building those networks across your organization are really, really important. It’s great. And I think best, if you have spent time in the business, if you have, you have those connections already. If you haven’t, go get those connections. They’re super important. And if somebody was starting out right, if somebody was like, Hey, maybe that’s not my next job, right? But maybe I want to do that five years down the road. The other piece of advice that I would say is, you know, in my case, I started out my career writing and doing content, and I loved and then I went into product management and technical roles. But I kept doing the writing and the storytelling because I loved it, personally writes. I had a personal blog and did lots of different things. And so I would say storytelling will always be part about leadership. So if you have a passion for that, just because it may not be in your current role if you want to get to thought leadership, continuing to build your storytelling skills are a must.
Bill Sherman I think we could talk a long time. This seems like a good place to wrap here. Tammy, thank you for joining us today. If someone wants to connect with you or follow you, where should they find you? How do they get in touch?
Tammy Ammon You can find me on LinkedIn. It’s Tammy Ammon. Or you can. I have a personal website, Tammy. MJ.com: In the last name is Ammo, and so feel free to connect with me there.
Bill Sherman Wonderful. Thank you, Tammy.
Tammy Ammon Thank you.
Bill Sherman If you’re interested in organizational thought leadership, then I invite you to subscribe to the OrgTL Newsletter. Each month we talk about the people who create, curate and deploy thought leadership on behalf of their organizations. Go to the website orgtl.com and choose Join our newsletter. I’ll leave a link to the website as well as my LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Thanks for listening, and I look forward to hearing what you thought of the show.