Is the distinction between above the line and below the line blurring?
Clients certainly think so. Above-the-line agencies will see it differently, as will below-the-line agencies and design companies. And everybody would point to media-neutral solutions, convergence, or integration as evidence of a changing conception of how agencies operate in general. But the explanations, implementation and reasons why vary wildly.
In the current climate, it's almost impossible for an agency not to spread its wings into other disciplines. During a recession, agencies have to maximise their opportunities, and so-called "integration" is a way to tap into budgets that might otherwise go to different shops.
But the problem is taking on board the tenets of those other disciplines. Broadly speaking, dedicated below-the-line agencies don't create excellent above-the-line work and vice versa. You end up with a blurring of the disciplines, but not, I think, true integration.
Below the line is about changing behaviour. Below-the-line agencies deal in the rational, return on investment and response. ROI can be seen as an income stream and below-the-line agencies have become steeped in processes to deliver ROI. Direct marketing classically aims for conversion from the converted. The audience is ready to buy - a position that above-the-line agencies cannot count on.
Conversely, above the line is about changing attitudes. But above-the-line creatives don't accept or understand that much below the line is not about creating interest, but is about narrow-casting to people who are ready to buy.
Below-the-line agencies move above the line without changing their thinking.
They still have the mindset of "tipping" the consumer over to buy. What worked before will work again, and this is the very antithesis of above-the-line thinking. And even if DM agencies hire above-the-line creatives, they tether them with below-the-line thinking.
The placing agencies also need to come to terms with this. In matching agencies to clients, clients to agency, they are still working within the old paradigms. They are not interested in inter-disciplinary creative wrangling and labelling, nor in recognising the veracity of agency claims to "work integrated". And while they recognise the desire in clients to produce cohesive work, they have not yet defined the shape of an agency best able to create cohesion.
The confusion about the new narrow-cast potential of what used to be regarded as mass media encourages clients to think that the disciplines are interchangeable. Increasingly tightly targeted media means traditionally above-the-line media can now be used to achieve below-the-line ends. Meanwhile, clients believe they are buying above-the-line work but that they are getting more immediately measurable ROI than an above-the-line agency could give.
Does some of the new thinking come out of the fact that the media is changing? Certainly, narrow-casting above the line is now possible, thanks to the proliferation of TV channels. Design companies are winning TV briefs that traditionally would have been above-the-line fodder. Above-the-line agencies compete with interactive agencies for viral campaigns.
Telecoms companies offer an insight into the present state of integration.
They need cohesion: whenever the consumer touches the brand, it needs to be expressed in a consistent manner.
O2's launch last year was difficult to avoid. Was it a triumph of integrated thinking or the result of strict adherence to corporate guidelines? Would the advertising agency have had the idea if it hadn't had to follow the look, which was born, ultimately, from a different discipline?
Of course, where other markets have already embraced this they would wonder what all the fuss is about. In Australia, South Africa and some of the US (not including Madison Avenue), there is no "line" for creatives or clients. Which is why UK shops are hiring creative directors from these countries.
Perhaps one would expect such mind-sets to slowly change as the personnel in agencies change with the influx of different disciplines? In fact, in the minds of those who espouse the benefits of each, the distinctions of above the line and below the line are as strong as ever.
Before you break down the barriers between disciplines, you have to break down the barriers between people. At the end of the day, creatives can only move from their respective comfort zones and into new areas when agencies create an arena in which they can learn or create.
And when an agency becomes an integrated shop through acquisition or through organic growth, the agency ethos may not adapt to the new situation.
To be really inter-disciplinary, an agency would have to start from scratch.
But if clients could go to one person who could do everything, they would.
The main problem is how we do it. Communication has changed. The way people talk and think has changed. We don't interact with consumers the way we did 20 years ago. Consumers have moved on, leaving the communications business still squabbling about how a marketer should cut his budget.
Viral, ambient, event promotion and PR are all additions, providing yet more specialists to include in our blurring communications mix. We've never been offered so many experts in each niche. How can eight or ten people act like one person? That's the challenge, and the agencies who overcome that stumbling block will be the winners.
Is blurring happening between the above-the-line and below-the-line disciplines? Yes, out of necessity. But are the distinctions between the disciplines blurring? No, and they won't unless the recession continues unabated. The search for other disciplines' budgets may force agency managers to redefine the distinctions. However, you can bet that when recovery comes, the industry will simply slump back into compartmentalisation.