Thought partnership is the future winning agency’s best play

This article first appeared in my newsletter, the Executive’s Guide to the Content Galaxy. Feel free to subscribe here.

Journalists have had a tough go of things lately. Outlet consolidation and layoffs mean they must embody the “do more with less” principle.


So, it shouldn’t shock folks that journalists are turning to generative AI for help: A recent Associated Press study found nearly 70% of newsroom staffers use genAI in the workplace. Specifically, they use it to: 

  • Write social media posts, newsletters, and headlines
  • Translate and transcribe interviews 
  • Assist with story drafts


Common between these use cases is the desire to save time. Time-starved journalists are trying to regain precious minutes, and genAI tools apparently help them do that. Even newspapers’ ongoing lawsuits against the largest genAI providers over alleged copyright infringement are not preventing adoption among those conducting journalism’s grunt work.


But exactly what kind of time are journalists trying to buy back with genAI?


Thinking Time. Time spent not tossing meat into the social media grinder or transcribing an afternoon-long interview is time a journalist can spend being curious, pounding the pavement, locking down exclusives, and following up with sources.


In short, more Thinking Time makes them better journalists.


Journalists report as much: In that AP study, respondents listed “thinking creatively” as the least tedious part of their jobs. They then list items like “documenting/recording information” and “processing information” as the most tedious (which, lo and behold, is where they invite AI).


Their employers are buying into it as well. For instance, Axios recently adjusted its AI policy to include more genAI within journalists’ workflows. When asked why, CEO Jim VandeHei shared that:


…the only way for media companies to survive is to focus on delivering journalistic expertise, trusted content and in-person human connection. For Axios, that translates into more live events, a membership program centered on its star journalists and an expansion of its high-end subscription newsletters.


By deploying AI throughout its workflow, Axios wants to help its journalists do better journalism — to craft the “special sauce” stories nobody else can or will get. It reflects Mr. VendeHei’s belief that AI is here to help his people, not take their jobs:


“The premium for people who can tell you things you do not know will only grow in importance, and no machine will do that.”

The best agencies will find things you do not know

Axios’ ethos around genAI reflects the “unique differentiation” that content marketing now demands. We’ve been told that amid the gray seas of AI-regurgitated pablum, unique expert opinions and proprietary data are the linchpins of future marketing success.


But uniqueness incurs a time penalty. AI’s speed, cheapness, and ease of use are precisely why it’s flooding the internet so efficiently. If the marketing game is about fast production, then genAI wins.


We’ll see what our online overlords make of AI content. Still, plenty of companies want unique, standout content that highlights just how dang smart they are and what makes them special. Things a machine, by virtue of its dataset and programming, cannot do.


However, carrying the uniqueness time penalty internally can be cost-prohibitive. Everyone wants Thinking Time to dream up and activate unique and amazing ideas, but they don’t know how to get it without heavy time or financial cost.


This is where tomorrow’s winning agencies will feast: helping clients alleviate the penalty and reclaim their Thinking Time.

Give back Thinking Time with thought partnership

Ostensibly, that’s what agencies offer today. Companies pay retainers to avoid performing agency tasks internally. Ergo, agencies return Thinking Time to clients.


The cost agencies have incurred, however, is their own Thinking Time. They’ve been transformed into workhorses, beholden to producing stuff to run the race of fast marketing:

  • Fire off a hundred pitches.
  • Crank out monthly “momentum” press releases. 
  • Handle weekly sync calls with a dozen people who never talk.



That’s not to say client service should be tedious; rather, agencies sacrifice their own Thinking Time to serve clients better. But clients often fall back into tedium (e.g. reviewing pitches, chopping up releases, dragging on sync calls). Nobody’s gaining useful Thinking Time. 


This inefficient process is the gravest threat to agencies’ production-driven value propositions. AI is much better at handling the tedium at prices agencies can’t match. You’re in trouble if clients only hire you to serve as the production workhorse. 


Instead, agencies must move beyond production. Agency staff want to think creatively and solve problems, and clients want a partner to help them shape their thoughts and transform them into actions.


If agencies want to deliver more Thinking Time to clients, they must bring back their own Thinking Time.


What does that look like? It’s giving staff time to…

  • Discover and ideate on client topics beyond the top-level stuff ChatGPT spits out
  • Dive deeply into the research rabbit holes where the neatest ideas hide
  • Conduct expert interviews with incisive follow-up questions that uncover truly individual insights
  • Develop and apply skills in statistics and surveying to generate original primary research
  • Craft and tinker with compelling multimedia narratives that evoke deep emotional and logical resonance with clients and customers

Then, much like journalists have done, concede the tedious work to AI (with human staff guiding it): 

  • Let record and transcribe expert interviews. 
  • Use ChatGPT or to build weekly sync agendas. 
  • Deploy the built-in functions in platforms like Cision to help with pitching and media monitoring.

Agencies must bear the uniqueness time penalty on their clients’ behalf. But if executed well, you’re no longer just the workhorse that’s only good for churning out the next batch of pitches.  


You’re a recognized and celebrated thought partner, with staff demonstrating expertise, adroitness, and brilliance. And who can also write amazing content, secure coverage with killer pitches, and make clients look pretty dang smart.

If you’re struggling to set apart your services as a thought partner (not just cranking out stuff for clients), let’s chat.

Thinking time is winning time

I won’t pretend this is easy: Generous allowances for Thinking Time don’t fit traditional agency models, even with AI assistance. But agency leaders must face reality. AI isn’t going anywhere; even the journalists they pitch use it. 


The agency model isn’t dead, but leaders must find new ways to deliver client value. A purely productive function — trying to reduce tedium from clients’ workdays — is rapidly becoming AI’s domain.


Tell your clients the things they do not know, and then help actualize them. That’s the thought partner agency’s path to success.