“5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry”, with Phil Schraeder

Seek opinions you don’t like. They keep you sharp. Avoid people you don’t like. They rub off on you. Identify one bad habit every year. Stop it. Create one good habit every year. Stick with it. And, most importantly, keep an eye out for the up-and-comers. Embrace them when they appear. The world is changing […]

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Seek opinions you don’t like. They keep you sharp. Avoid people you don’t like. They rub off on you. Identify one bad habit every year. Stop it. Create one good habit every year. Stick with it. And, most importantly, keep an eye out for the up-and-comers. Embrace them when they appear. The world is changing too quickly to deny the wisdom of youth.

As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Phil Schraeder, President and CEO, GumGum. Phil Schraeder is a seasoned media industry executive and recognized thought leader on the subjects of digital advertising and programmatic technologies. As Chief Executive Officer, Schraeder is responsible for GumGum’s success in revolutionizing the digital media and sports marketing industries. He is a regular contributor to Adweek, AdExchanger and Fortune, and a 2017 Los Angeles Business Journal’s CFO of the Year award honoree. Schraeder, who joined GumGum in 2011, previously served as the company’s President, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer. In those roles, he developed the management, revenue, planning, accounting, controls and human resources infrastructures that fomented the company’s rapid expansion and growth. Prior to joining GumGum, Schraeder was VP of Finance for Verifi, a full-service provider of global electronic payment and risk management solutions. He has also worked in accounting and finance roles at the 3D technology licensing firm RealD, the film studio New Regency Entertainment and the accounting leader KPMG. Schraeder owns a B.S. in Accountancy from Northern Illinois University, where he minored in Communications. When he finds time, he enjoys travel, football, relaxing in the Florida Keys and being with friends.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I had a conventional suburban childhood in the Midwest. Everyone’s a little repressed in that world, so even once I realized that I was gay I never felt that I didn’t quite fit the mold. But it does say something about the force of that traditional Midwestern culture that I stayed in the closet through college and then went straight into a conservative, super regimented corporate finance job. About a year into that, I woke up and realized I was suffocating.

I hemmed and hawed about it, but eventually packed up and, without a job or much of a clue, drove to LA — where all pent-up Midwestern’s go to follow their dreams.

The senior financial analyst role I landed at a small production company opened my eyes professionally. The small teams, connectedness, heterogeneity in that business culture let me be myself personally and recognize my potential. I had never been someone who believed they’re going to outperform expectations but working in Hollywood and then in startup world jump started my confidence. In those industries, you’re challenged but also respected and you can have fun and security at the same time as unpredictability and innovation. Pretty quickly I got the leadership bug and started trying to excel in areas my old instincts would have told me to ignore. I am where I am because I found the right culture. That’s something I think a lot about and its why I evangelize for culture as a key variable in the productivity and success equation.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

When you’re in a senior leadership role, especially in fast growing industry like tech, you really have no choice but to become an authority on thought leadership. In order to stay at the cutting edge, you have to study the thought leaders who are honing that edge. Senior leaders who are not experts on thought leadership really need to question why. To be a strong business leader who can guide teams and deliver on clients evolving expectations, you need to be constantly learning from and incorporating the knowledge of leaders beyond your own expertise. Just in doing that, you will start to see what makes great thought leadership.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Our recent spinout of a dental company from our core advertising business proved to be among the most interesting periods of my life. But that was really an interesting experience, not an interesting story. I think that the circumstances surrounding my life in the Midwest and my decision to quit corporate finance career and head for LA make a pretty interesting story perhaps — but that’s a long story!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Many years ago, I had an experience on a sales pitch meeting that taught me the huge importance of optics and ego in business — a great lesson because those are two things that are easy to exploit to your advantage. I was the senior leader accompanying one of my sales members on a pitch to a senior exec at a major beverage brand. We walked into the room and started to introduce ourselves, but suddenly the exec stopped cold, stared daggers at my sales member and said, ‘Why do you have that?’ I’m clueless until I see that my associate is holding a water bottle from a rival beverage company. My sales member tried to apologize, but the client made him throw the water away — and then never looked at, let alone spoke to my associate again. I see the whole episode as pretty funny now, but at the time it was deadly serious — because that is a mistake you’re taught never to make. I was still fairly new to the advertising business and I’d always assumed that, despite warnings, in practice individual client reps couldn’t really be so precious. I was wrong and I felt terrible for my sales member, because as the senior leader I really should have been more attuned to details. Since then I’ve made sure our salespeople are following very explicit protocols to avoid similar mistakes. But I actually learned a subtler lesson from that episode: People’s egos are wrapped up in the brands they represent. If they can be outraged by the sight of a rival’s logo, then they can be wooed with their own. I’m a big proponent of branded account-based marketing tactics — and a lot of my confidence in those programs stems from what I learned in that terrible meeting about just how intertwined corporate brands and personal egos can become.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

They both have expertise and knowledge in a particular area, but what makes an effective thought leader and what makes an effective typical leader are quite different. That’s because they serve different goals. Thought leaders spread awareness widely or inspire action in the service of an entire industry. Typical leaders share and deploy their knowledge carefully to help a team achieve a set of desired business objectives. When typical leaders pick up the thought leadership mantle, they can wield influence that benefits their efforts as a typical leader, but that’s not a two-way street. It is certainly harder to make the transition from thought leader to typical leader. As far as influencers are concerned, I think from my previous answers you can tell that I actually see them as a variety of thought leader. They inspire action. Of course, not all influencers are true thought leaders, because their mode of influence is material or superficial.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

By becoming an expert in a space, you are training yourself to challenge your existing perceptions and conclusions. When you’re a thought leader, you have to learn to hear differing points of view more openly, because it is the only way you can actually develop leading thoughts. Increased awareness and open-mindedness are major benefits. The costs associated with becoming a thought leader generally pale in comparison to the benefits. Industry-wide credibility pays huge dividends in both internal and client facing situations. There’s a confidence boost from naturally with becoming thought leader — and that confidence give you the power to make good decisions quickly and with less information. Until you have thought leader level confidence, you’ll always find yourself pushing off decisions until you’ve collected enough data — and that can really stifle productivity.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

I think I’ve touched on this a bit already, but as a thought leader you’re able to command an audience and when you can do that, you can get in front of people might be the gatekeeper of your next big opportunity. One particularly nice thing about the credibility that you gain through thought leadership is that it can actually bridge across industries, opening up opportunities in entirely new categories. I’m thinking, for example, about our ability at GumGum, which had always ostensibly been an ad tech company, to develop and spin out Pearl, a dental AI company. Obviously, we had the technological capability to develop a dental product set, but the effort GumGum’s founder Ophir, myself and other executives here put into developing voices in AI thought leadership gave validation to the dental project. Our ad tech solutions are AI powered, so we were able to take that AI expertise and develop an AI thought leadership voice at the same time that we were applying the technology to solving problems in this entirely unrelated dental vertical. AI thought leadership helped shift GumGum’s public image from “ad tech company” to “AI company”, so when we went to investors with a dental AI it made sense in a way that it probably would not we not used thought leadership to establish AI as one of our core competencies.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

Know what kind of thought leader you want to be

  • Thought leaders generally fall into two categories: activators and educators. If your mission is to effect change or inspire a movement, then you’re an activator. If your mission is to spread wisdom or reveal truth, then you’re an educator. How you approach becoming a thought leader will vary depending on which of those thought leadership lanes you want to occupy — so figure that out first.

Lead with passion

  • Whether you’re an activator or an educator, enthusiasm is a key ingredient for successful thought leadership. People’s ears prick up when they hear excitement in someone voice. If you’re passionate, people will listen — not always with a friendly ear perhaps, but they will listen. And, with so much noise out there, getting people to listen is one of the biggest challenges an aspiring thought leader will face. Of course, where you should focus your enthusiasm must vary depending on what type of thought leader you are. Activators must be passionate about their agendaand place unrelenting faith in the power of their thesis. Educators must be passionate about their field of expertise and place unrelenting faith in the power of the evidence they find.

Be authentic

  • If passion is what draws people in, authenticity is what keeps them there. Essentially, it’s what separates the thought leaders from the blowhards. No one will take inspiration or accept knowledge from people they don’t trust — and one of the easiest ways to lose an audiences’ trust is to present a misalignment between your identity and your message. When that happens, activators become disingenuous hypocrites and educators become charlatans. So, it is key that activators practice what they preach and educators both know their stuff and acknowledge the limits of their expertise.

Make allies

  • It’s hard, if not impossible, to become a thought leader without support. That goes for both activators and educators. If you’re an activator, seek out established industry leaders who have agendas that align in certain ways with your own. Share your ideas with them in order to get them to recognize how your advocacy will serve their interests. They can become effective agents for your thought leadership brand. Their credibility will rub off on you, validating both your voice and your message. If you’re an educator, you’ll want to take a slightly different approach. You won’t find it particularly helpful to make allies whose expertise aligns with your own. They’re more likely to see you as a rival to their own thought leadership status. Instead, seek out recognition from experts in other, indirectly related fields whose own intellectual reputations will given credence to the merits of your intellect. As an educator-type thought leader, your reputation will be built on the intellectual credibility of the company you keep.

Seek opposing ideas

  • As much as you need to know your allies, you’ll also need to know your opposition. It may seem obvious that effective thought leadership requires a thorough understanding of all perspectives at play in your field, but studying opposing ideas is an often-neglected enterprise. Most aspiring thought leaders explore the full array of ideas and arguments related to their topic as they develop their ideas, but then they tend to become myopic once they’ve composed their thoughts. There are many reasons for this, but the echo chamber effect and confirmation bias are the two primary culprits. While not stopping to rest on your laurels makes thought leadership more work, the best thought leaders make a point of staying abreast of all opposing perspectives as they arise. Educator-type thought leaders who don’t do this will quickly lose their claim to expertise, and activator-types will be blindsided by threats to their agenda. You’ll never hold onto your thought leadership mantel if your thought leadership isn’t up to date. So, remember: Keep studying the opposition and your thought leadership will endure the test our rapidly changing times.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

It’s definitely overused, but what are you going to do? Its meaning is clear and it our digitally networked world, where any compelling ideas, good or bad, can spread like wildfire, thought leadership as a descriptive meme seems like it’s not going anywhere. Of course, if you have a good alternative, I’d be happy for a little variety.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Seek opinions you don’t like. They keep you sharp. Avoid people you don’t like. They rub off on you. Identify one bad habit every year. Stop it. Create one good habit every year. Stick with it. And, most importantly, keep an eye out for the up-and-comers. Embrace them when they appear. The world is changing too quickly to deny the wisdom of youth.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d love to lead an empathy movement. I look around and see all these challenges and even existential threats facing humanity — things as simple as bigotry and as complicated as the climate crisis. Almost all of the things that trouble me in the world, could be resolved, to a large degree, if we simply learned to relate more perfectly to the experiences of our neighbors, near and far. If we were led by empathy most of all, we could come together to find a path of least suffering and greatest hope.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My dad always said, be good, do good. That’s pretty simple and I like it. But my catchphrase is actually “good times, great oldies,” which isn’t a life lesson quote, but rather the tagline for a radio station I grew up listening to. I like it because the idea that comes through to me in those words is that if you appreciate the present moment, you’ll always be able to tap into the feeling — and maybe that the feeling will actually improve as a memory. You always hear that the ability to defer gratification is a hugely beneficial trait, but I think there may be a little truth in the suggestion that investment in happiness right now can pay dividends down the line.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I think breakfast with RuPaul would be about as good an investment of my time as I can imagine. I’d love a glimpse into the wisdom he’s developed — and the stories he can tell — as a thought leader in the LGBTQ community through so many decades and periods of upheavals. He has brought light into the lives of so many, he has given voice to so many people, that I think would be profoundly enlightening to hear from him how his work has affected his own life and changed his own voice.

How can our readers reach you on social media?


Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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