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Tess MacGibbon of The Lacek Group: “Be in the moment”

Be in the moment. When COVID-19 hit, we knew that organizations would be seeking advice to handle the crisis. As an agency whose focus is customer engagement, The Lacek Group delivered a series of strategy pieces that have been widely shared and read by thousands and thousands of people. Our team of strategists, researchers, and […]

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Be in the moment. When COVID-19 hit, we knew that organizations would be seeking advice to handle the crisis. As an agency whose focus is customer engagement, The Lacek Group delivered a series of strategy pieces that have been widely shared and read by thousands and thousands of people. Our team of strategists, researchers, and writers came together and delivered expert advice to help clients and potential clients in the moment.


As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tess MacGibbon, director of Thought Leadership and Health Care at The Lacek Group, based in Minneapolis.


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?

In college I had seven majors in three years — including prelaw, international relations, and integrated liberal studies. I was spending a lot of money to get nowhere fast, so I took a year off and worked in retail. When I returned to school, I chose something I knew I could finish: communications. Obviously, my instinct was correct, because I’ve worked in communications my whole career.

Starting out, a marketing communications role was often what an admin was promoted into. Only during the last 15 years has marketing communications become far more appreciated as a strategic and equal partner to marketing. Yet throughout my career, I’ve forged relationships with key opinion leaders and thought leaders, and I’ve worked to position any organization I’ve worked for as a thought leader within its industry.

I started in the dot-com boom with Medscape, which publishes peer-reviewed journal content. We exhibited at conferences; reported live there, offering key takeaways; established relationships with physicians; and promoted key thought leaders within respective disciplines to build the credibility of our organization. It was a good 50/50 split between doctors who were extremely excited to access thousands of journal articles online and those who were disgruntled, worried about patients reading medical content online and bringing those articles into physicians’ offices. The internet was still so new that there was a real variety of information, credible and not credible, including nonmedical publications that weren’t based on science.

After working there for about two years through the IPO, I took a new position at a start-up as director of marketing, digital, and events. This firm offered a private, patent-pending technology, which pushed curated, customized content to patients via anonymized patient diagnosis codes. They were way ahead of their time.

I then moved to Minnesota and started working on the device side of health care, beginning with Coloplast. For this really cool Danish company, I built nine physician advisory boards, 17 advance-practice nurse advisory boards, and a new online, accredited educational platform. All of these helped position the company as a thought leader, and the platform became a standard — required staff training at hospitals. From our advisory boards, we leveraged our top-notch physicians’ expertise — and they’d actually thank us for asking and then relying on their insights. Of the roughly 100 highly respected physicians we worked with, about half became our advocates. Not all of them were even our customers, yet our sales went up approximately 33 percent.

Moving on from there, working for other global brands, I was constantly making sure that the science-based content that came out of my organizations was edgy, forward leaning. I remember being in Paris for St. Jude Medical and the minute our clinical trial data broke, we had a key opinion leader ready to talk about the data and a worldwide sales alert campaign that went out. And we had online data available within 24 hours.

Being in the right place, with the right content and the right people speaking on your brand’s behalf builds quite a credible story. But delivering in the moment adds that extra punch. It elevates not only your data but your company. Those are the kinds of multitiered projects that are viewed by others as thought leadership.

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

I didn’t always have the weight of a thought leadership title as I do now, but early on I found that the people I was surrounded by had dedicated a great deal of time and energy to become experts in their fields, and many were thought leaders. I quickly learned the value of thought leadership from a brand perspective and from a personal perspective, and I’ve done that throughout my career. Every single role I’ve had has been about positioning a brand as a thought leader in its field.

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

It’s hard to zero in on one, but one that pops to mind is a project I led roughly a decade ago for 3M. They’d hired me as a contractor for my decade of digital experience — something somewhat rare at the time in health care. I had two tasks: to develop a website for their development team and to create an app for their sales reps. While it was risky, I pushed back on the latter project, noting that they’d just shot 10 training videos. I suggested creating an app for an external audience instead. While they were wary about an external project, I won their approval after writing a case for an educational app for physicians and nurses to help them identify serious heart conditions. I then teamed up with the 3M Lab, an educational resource, and a medical animator to create the division’s first app, the Littman Soundbuilder. Suddenly, physicians and nurses could learn how to discern between various heart conditions by listening to key heart sounds. Viewed on an iPad, users could even feel the heartbeat. In two days on the App Store, it went global. Soon med schools and nursing schools around the world added it to their digital library resources. And it won 3M’s Global Marketing Excellence Award for health care. Looking back, it was super cool as a contractor to be given that trust.

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?

I had just started working with Coloplast in Denmark. My mistake was not impressing on my colleagues there of the folly of a plan: to give advisory board attendees — an audience of American physicians — magazines, scissors, glue sticks, and posterboards, and then to ask them to create mood boards about talking with patients. Having worked with American physicians for eight years by then, I raised my hand and said it wasn’t a good idea, but I didn’t stop them. When a colleague presented this next task to the audience, the tension in the room rose. Suddenly all the docs had to check their pagers, call their offices, and head out to the restrooms. I was mortified. From then on, even when I’ve been new to a team, I’ve leaned into my instincts and communicated those more clearly.

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?

An influencer helps market others’ brands, growing audiences to influence purchasing behavior. A typical leader, if there is such a thing, often looks internally, working with employees, constituents, or students to best achieve commonly understood goals that best align with an organizational vision, mission, and values. A thought leader, in contrast, may share qualities of a typical leader but typically focuses externally, assessing the needs and wants of key audiences, working to fulfill those needs while always looking ahead, and seizing the moment in relevant and meaningful ways. A thought leader courageously stakes a claim to help benefit various audiences.

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?

Sharing the benefits of becoming a thought leader is exactly what I do at The Lacek Group. I tap our really talented team to find experts who will offer compelling, forward-thinking content that conveys what a smart and creative organization The Lacek Group is. Last year we published 50 pieces of content, both on our website and externally, expanding our audience by a whopping 9,000%. That’s why thought leadership is worth the investment.

Often I find experts with long tenures in their fields; I’ve even tapped our CEO. That said, thought leaders aren’t always an organization’s most tenured employees. It’s worth the effort to look at people earlier in their careers too. A year or so ago, one of our marketing interns wrote a blog for us, sharing her insights on marketing to Gen-Zers. Obviously, she’d been a member of Gen Z her whole life, and she’d spent four years studying marketing, so it made sense that she was an expert on that topic. Last year, following the murder of George Floyd, one of our younger team members wrote a compelling piece on what it will take for agencies to become anti-racist. External audiences were highly engaged with both of these pieces.

Not everyone is a thought leader. Not everyone wants to stick their neck out and share their opinion, even when it’s backed up by research. Risk takers aren’t a dime or dozen. It takes real bravery. That said, thought leaders rarely stand alone. Most need cultivation, encouragement, and the work of others to put the polish on their writing and the sparkle on their presentations. That can’t be overlooked. Thought leadership is an enterprise effort.

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?

Thought leadership creates natural pull-through opportunities. The more you let the world in on your forward-thinking expertise, the more people will be interested in you and your organization. At The Lacek Group, we share content on loyalty, customer engagement, and data insights. By leaning on our expertise, we’ve driven double-digit engagement across our social channels. Ogilvy, our parent company, has shared our content widely as well. And all that has generated significant new client leads from various industries, including health care.

My one caution to organizations is this: Don’t create content on topics on which you’re not an expert. That’s an unnecessary risk that could hurt your brand’s perception. Only share credible content. The last thing you want to do is opine on something just because someone asked you to or because it’s a hot topic. The risk-to-reward ration isn’t in your favor.

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.

  1. Take risks. I’d point to my 3M app example. By sticking my neck out, even as a contractor, I helped deliver a project that exceeded expectations. There’s that old saying: no risk, no reward. That certainly holds true in thought leadership.
  2. Be in the moment. When COVID-19 hit, we knew that organizations would be seeking advice to handle the crisis. As an agency whose focus is customer engagement, The Lacek Group delivered a series of strategy pieces that have been widely shared and read by thousands and thousands of people. Our team of strategists, researchers, and writers came together and delivered expert advice to help clients and potential clients in the moment.
  3. Own your opinion. If you’re reading this, it’s highly likely that you’re an expert in your field. Consider what you know that could help others in your industry, particularly things that they can control or things that are just on the horizon. Then reach out to people within your organization, particularly those in marketing communications who could help you package those ideas and share them publicly.
  4. Elevate those around you. In every organization for which I’ve worked, I’ve looked for the people inside and outside the company who could best represent the brand. My advice? First, uncover the experts you work with on a daily basis inside your company. Many are waiting to be asked or just need a nudge in that direction. And second, reach out to industry leaders outside your organization to see if they might partner with your brand. Working with famous cardiologists, for example, brought authority to my brands, even if that authority wasn’t inherently theirs.
  5. Leverage strategic partnerships. Partnerships are often found in thought leadership, with the goal of reflecting positively on the various partners. At The Lacek Group,for example,we’ve been conducting ongoing conversations with other agencies that also want to lead in health care. By leveraging our various strengths, we extend our brands together.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

Bill George, Medtronic’s former CEO, is a fantastic example. During his career, he became a celebrated leader, known for his integrity, honesty, and trustworthiness. After retiring from Medtronic, he has stayed focused on the topic of leadership — authoring numerous books on the topic, serving as a professor and fellow at Harvard, and often appearing in the media as a leadership expert. In addition, Bill George has leveraged his celebrity to focus on the philanthropic causes that he and his wife, Penny, have championed. Through all this, he’s remained accessible and humble. He’s a great thought leader and role model for other thought leaders.

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

I don’t find the term thought leadership trite or overused. Rather, it’s a term of honor and one that shouldn’t be said about oneself or one’s organization. Thought leaders rise through the perception of others. Our audiences decide if we’re thought leaders.

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

Keep learning and keep elevating those around you. Your experience will be different every time, because every individual is different. Burnout comes from doing the same thing day in and day out. When you elevate others, whether they’re inside or outside of your organization, the thrill is new every day.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂 After everything we’ve learned as a nation over the past pandemic year, my movement would bring access to health care to those who need it most and often can’t get it. Whether by grassroots, technology, outreach, and/or eduation, I’d love to put a coalition together to help solve for this enormous challenge.

Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is from the French novelist Marcel Proust: “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy. They are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” I’ve always consciously surrounded myself and my family with good, kind, and positive people. We’ve enjoyed many lifelong relationships with people who enrich our day-to-day lives, and we’re better for it. We’re also committed to community giving and volunteerism so we may give the same back.

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? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

That’s easy. Michelle Obama. She’s one of the most organically grown thought leaders of our time. I’d love to have lunch with her. And considering the company, I’d order a very healthy lunch — topped off with champagne for the table.

How can our readers follow you online?

Readers can find me on LinkedIn and follow @TheLacek Group.

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

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