Feature

How Integration Can Save Advertising

The case for integration has been long since made. But is what sounds so good in theory proving less so in practice? Justin Gibbons explains how adland can solve the integration conundrum.

The word "integration" seems to bring about feelings of despair in most advertising and media people. As researchers, we regularly look at integrated campaigns and we know that, come 6pm, the various people responsible will arrive at the groups looking disorientated and anxious. Not only with the work they have produced but with precisely who has produced it: clients have done the media buying, media planners have done the account planning, creatives have done the channel planning, digital experts have been talking TV and the PRs have come up with the big idea. They have become detached from their core disciplines, distracted by new umbrella jobs that don't make sense. Everyone feels like they are picking their nose with rubber gloves on.

Integrated communications is what everyone wants, and what our industries have been coalescing around for years. And, yet, if we're honest, we haven't cracked it - the signs of failure are all too evident.

Planners have been dragged from their disciplines in search of integrated manna and have become less focused, less confident, less skilled. Like the final scene in Reservoir Dogs, everybody is left pointing at each other - "you?", "me?", "him?". In simpler times, planners of all flavours stood tall, their claim staked, their clients awed. Now they are pygmied, strategically emasculated by the holes in their experience. In their confusion, they have become more competitive, less willing to compromise. There's a bizarre turf war going on, everyone competing for territory they don't want. It's like everyone invading Belgium.

I don't think the work has improved as a result of integration either. Too often, the creative device is stretched paper thin as it is given an unsympathetic 360-degree once-over out back; expansive ideas pruned and squashed into little spaces; untouchable, statuesque treatments forced unhappily into the spotlight of social media; cute, tactical opportunities forced to labour under the weight of big idea badging. And that's the relatively logical stuff. Other campaigns have found themselves the victim of "integrated planning as excuse for chaos": outlandish stunts from blue-chip brands that end up looking like they have just woken up naked in the hotel foyer, ad-funded content from brands with nothing to say, horrid-looking sponsorship credits ... the list of casualties goes on.

And clients can't, and don't, look at this and see success. They don't think we get it, they don't think we believe it, and, consequently, they aren't willing to pay for it. As one client confided to me: if you want integration, you have to do it yourself. They're not talking here about checking the historical stock levels in Wales, or the promotional codes in the Swindon Gazette - they are taking back ownership of the communications architecture. That should be our bit and we're about to lose it and become picture drawers, spot buyers, release writers and Flash geeks.

So what's the problem? Why has nobody got this right? First, I think it's because we've become lopsided in our thinking. Good advertising is built on three things: brand understanding, consumer insight and a great idea. No more, no less. Forget the company manifesto about transforming communications exchanges or building engagement platforms - this is what we really do. And the drive for integration has created an imbalance in how we do it. Agencies of all flavours have become besotted by the big idea and have neglected the other members of the holy trinity. Ask a planner what the consumer insight is behind their latest campaign and you will be met by blank stares and that disoriented look I described earlier as they search in vain for a PR exec to point at.

Second, by over-egging the big idea pudding, we have made our jobs executional rather than strategic. By which I mean that integration has become a process, and often a tiresome, difficult one. We have become builders rather than architects. When faced with the challenge to do integration, we have responded by exploring the "how". And the result has been the dysfunctional phenomena of all agency status meetings, dodgy processes that pass ideas through prisms and the spectre of "T-shaped people", whatever that means. The question we should have been asking, and which reframes integration and makes it achievable, isn't "how?" but "why?".

Why did clients suddenly want it?

Put simply, they suddenly had lots of agencies and they wanted to feel like the effort was aligned. They wanted to make their money work harder - not low prices but maximised bang for buck. They wanted navigation through the changing landscape. They didn't ever mention wanting campaigns that could run in every channel known to man, or a lead agency, or one big idea. Integration is about harmony, value and innovation.

Integration can save advertising if we start to think of it as an outcome, not a process. You can't build it and hope they'll come - you have to aim for it, make it your ambition, let it seep through your veins and become part of your operating system rather than an app to be switched on and off.

We need to let integration become its own reward. And it's the punters who will ultimately see and decide if it's integrated or not. We should ask one more question: why do people want integrated campaigns? For harmony, value and innovation read clarity, something that is valued and exciting.

People in the real world don't see the 360-degree plan, or experience every nuance of the carefully crafted campaign. They see fragments, they join up the dots, interpret and deconstruct. "Ask not what your advertising does to people, ask what people do to your advertising" is a retro ad phrase about to come back into fashion.

If we believe in outcomes over process, then there's a massive evaluation point here. We should be finding clever, consumer-centric ways of picking up people's different experiences of a brand's communications. We spend too much time measuring out campaigns in the coffee spoons of impacts and ratings, and not enough time seeing what the consumer sees. The metrics of integration are not awareness, recall or impact; the magic formula is an understanding of "what do they value? (and how much?)", "how interested are they? (and what have they done?)" and "what's the point? (clarity of purpose)". Measure those three things, do something clever with the numbers and finally we can all stop being bullied by AIs and blunt, boring, unreal tracking studies.

The good news is that we can get this right. First, we need to rebalance the effort of our collective endeavour and focus on consumer insight again. Then, we need to walk away from the processes of integration, those curiously worded "new planning" mantras, and get back to the basics of our disciplines and our craft. Finally, we need to be a bit more like the consumers we are trying to talk with: chaotic, unpredictable and inconsistent. Here's the alternative guide to integration:- The simple insights are the best. I'm all for a bit of complexity and there's no doubt we're surrounded by it in the digital world. But sometimes I think we overlook the straightforward, undemanding truths because they are, well, a bit undemanding. Here's another way of looking at it: start with a simple truth and do some laddering, ask why and why and why, and you tend to find a world of richness and insight lurking away there. Loads of texture rooted in a simple insight, not nonsense clinging to more nonsense.- Get up close and personal. Observational research is back in fashion. Thanks to behavioural economics and neuroscience-lite, there is new-found value in observing the consumer traits that punters can't tell us about. Evenings in pubs, afternoons in supermarkets, eye tracking and spying are all back on the menu. In a recent study, we researched the topic with mums first and then talked to their kids to find out the real truth. Intrepid planners need to find their sense of adventure again.- Research isn't the same as insight.

We are all oversupplied with research, sitting at our desks drowning in data. And much of this data is commodity level stuff, building blocks and currencies used and produced with equal lack of imagination. Smart organisations of the future will provide insightful frameworks for interpreting and analysing information. Make friends with a dashboard developer today.- Silos are the enemy. When our view of the consumer becomes blinkered, the game is up. Each discipline has its own source of consumer research: planners have their groups, media people their currencies, DM their data, digital their traffic analysis and so on. There's no wonder they can't be successfully knitted together at the end if they all start from different places. Find a shared starting point - nobody ever conceived in separate beds.- Rubber gloves off. I have never, ever met a superplanner who has divided their career equally and successfully between every discipline. People love working with talented specialists who know what they are doing. Return to source. Sometimes it feels like we're all a bit embarrassed by our core skill. And it's a happier way to live.- Walk away from the process. To paraphrase a saying originally aimed at econometric models: "Integrated campaigns are like sausages - you don't want to see them being made." The processes I've seen are too rigid and too uncreative to allow great things to flourish. Comedians are funny; they don't have a funny process. Outcome, not process.- Normal people don't care about advertising. This doesn't mean that we should stop caring, but this insight can lift at least one neurosis from our furrowed brow. No consumer has (or will) ever complain that the print work is tonally inconsistent with the TV ad, or that the testimonial strategy is off-brief in digital. In fact, consumers are playful creatures when it comes to advertising and they are happy to be treated to a chocolate box of brand delights. Matching luggage is our original sin.- Cupboards should be organised, not communications. I think we are in danger of over-planning. First, life isn't that neat; second, we create a model of effect that is unrealistic; and, third, our business has become faster and more opportunistic, which calls for fleetness of foot. Somebody clever once said the map is not the territory, and sometimes it feels that the comms laydown is confused with reality. It isn't real.- Consumers are mad. That is: irrational, illogical, untruthful. And yet we play them with a straight bat. Keynes once said: "There is nothing so disastrous as a rational investment policy in an irrational world." Mirroring is the strongest sales technique and we should be meeting our target market with a glint in our eye and pencil up one nostril. Brands should be unexpected, surprising, challenging. Integrated communications all too often produces the opposite: more of the same, yawn, consumer coma.- It's time for remuneration. We need a model that values what we do. The current model is barmy: production mark-ups, media kickbacks, free planning, loss leaders and more (or less, depending on how you view it). One agency we work with is looking for a Return On Idea formula. That's the way to go and good luck to them. Clients are culpable in this - you get what you deserve.

- Justin Gibbons is a partner at Work Research.

HOW TO MAKE IT WORK

1. Ask why your client wants integration. Their desired outcome holds the key to this and yet I bet nobody has ever asked that question. Harmony, value, innovation.

2. Ask why a consumer would want integration. What is the outcome as seen from the couch and the aisle and the laptop? Clarity, valued stuff, excitement.

3. Focus on one big insight, not one big idea, not lots of little ones that get you nowhere. Gorgeous things can grow from the big ones.

4. Remember this was meant to be fun: advertising's magic is that it is the fun bit of business. We over-plan ourselves into procurement departments.

5. Think outcome, measure outcome: there is a new evaluation standard out there and the sooner we drop yesterday's tools, the better.

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