Close-Up: Live Issue - Developing a new breed of integrated planner

Is a unified planning department the most effective way to achieve genuinely media-neutral advertising, Kunal Dutta asks.

Last week's announcement that DDB London is to merge its planning department with those of its digital subsidiary Tribal DDB and the direct marketing company DDB WWAV Rapp Collins has brought the complicated issue of integration front of mind again.

DDB's plan is to create one pool of planners working across accounts. The move, cited as an extension of the agency's "open planning ethos", attempts to break strategy silos and promote media-neutral planning across the group. "The goal is that you have planners that understand all media and where their crossovers are," says Lucy Jameson, DDB London's former head of planning who was appointed to the role of executive strategy director following the restructure.

Despite merging its planning departments, all three DDB brands will retain their separate brand identities. Creative teams have been moved into the same working space, but will remain under separate leadership. And the account management departments remain separate except for accounts that run across the group such as Philips, Volkswagen and Hasbro. These will continue with one assigned account team across disciplines. So is this integration in name only?

"No," the DDB London chief executive, Stephen Woodford, says. He cites client perceptions and current purchasing behaviour of clients as one key reason for maintaining separate brands. "Certain clients want to buy integrated solutions, but others still want to buy discipline by discipline."

The Guardian is one such example. When it moved its creative out of the agency and into Wieden & Kennedy last year, it kept the digital portion of the account at Tribal DDB. Agencies with proven competencies in specialist areas still appear to hold much value in the market, Woodford says. "Tribal DDB, like DDB London, has become a global brand and I don't see the need to change that right now," he adds.

So why start with strategic departments? Matt Dyke, DDB London's new head of planning, asserts that a media-neutral strategic approach is the best route towards truly integrated campaigns. "A media-neutral planning process means that from the outset you don't have any preconceptions about channels or the creative answers you're headed towards."

DDB London is not alone in ploughing this furrow. TBWA has also taken up the quest for media-neutral strategy by integrating five companies to plan across disciplines in the TBWA\BDH office in Manchester. Paul Bainsfair, the TBWA European chairman, stresses the business benefits of the structure. "This is just as much about sensible business practice, realising efficiencies and economies of scale as it is about the working process." For clients, it offers the option of one cost centre charging for strategy, regardless of channel; for the agency, it means fewer departments with operating costs. "As we move forward, and more of our clients want integrated solutions, we will see a unification of generalist skills, with planning a core component."

But Kate Waters, the planning partner at Partners Andrews Aldridge, warns that merging a strategy department can dilute knowledge in areas that are becoming increasingly specialist. "Integration works at different levels, and DM and digital are incredibly technical disciplines that will require more expertise as media fragments," she says. "You must think carefully about how a strategy is executed and ensure that an integrated approach doesn't just result in taking an idea and plastering it across every channel."

Critics counter that the specialist approach creates confusing messages: take AKQA's online and television advertising for Yell.com and Mother's work for Yellow Pages - it's hard to find any common ground between the two.

John Shaw, the group planning director of the Ogilvy Group, argues that strategy should not necessarily take priority over other elements of the mix. "The strategy, creative idea and execution must all live together," he says. "Some of the best examples of integrated thinking, such as Dove or Lynx, show media-neutral strategy combined with consistent creativity and intelligent thinking about how best to exploit channels."

DDB London will hope to avoid both pitfalls through a structure that will see one planning ambassador liaise with a pool of specialists, be they DM, media, digital planners or econometricians. "We're doing this now because we can," Woodford says. "DDB has got the biggest, strongest and most varied talent across disciplines and we have to pull this all together. For the agency that invented planning, it's time to reinvent it."

But is this an all-encompassing overhaul or just a reaction to changing media-consumption habits? "We are in a period of transition in the way consumers are responding to media. The principle of starting with strategy is sound, both in terms of the depth of planning and savings it could yield," Bainsfair says. But he also warns that such a move may not suit everyone. "If agencies want to follow suit, they should do it for the right reasons."

Despite the growing number of agencies looking at an integrated offering, clients appear wary of the one-stop-shop approach at present. Eurostar and 3 both included a mixture of traditional agencies and specialists on their pitchlists. And until there is tangible evidence that one shop can deliver the best solution across channels, these mixed pitch lists may well become the norm rather than the exception. An integrated strategy will shine through only when it is executed faultlessly across every channel.

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