Ian Darby - Many talk integration but few can achieve it
A view from Ian Darby

Ian Darby - Many talk integration but few can achieve it

The delivery of integration for clients seems to elude the majority of advertising agencies. We are reminded of this on a frequent basis.

If only agencies could assimilate the master drinker Kingsley Amis' shrewd advice for "integrating" a pint of lager. He'd take Carlsberg pilsner and mix it - half and half in a silver tankard - with its rocket fuel sister brand Special Brew, to create "as much good will as I know".

A feeling that rarely results when agencies offer an integrated service. Many have worked hard at transforming their processes so that their output is far more varied than a TV ad. Yet when a large client asks an agency to handle all of its communications (encompassing digital, direct and sometimes media), panic tends to ensue.

There have been successful attempts, but these are few and far between (CHI & Partners' work on The Carphone Warehouse is a current exception that proves the rule). And it seems unlikely that DDB UK's effort at integration on the Virgin Media business will form a textbook study to be consulted in years to come. This week's news that the media company is to hold an advertising-only pitch, just 15 months after appointing DDB to handle ads, digital and direct, indicates to me that the integrated experiment has not been a total success.

So what happened? Client change seems to have been a factor, with the chief marketing officer, Nigel Gilbert, arriving at Virgin Media well after the appointment of DDB (though colleague Jeff Dodds was there at the time). Key planning and creative personnel have left the agency since it was appointed. But it's hard to escape the feeling that integration so often sounds better in a presentation than it works in reality.

At the time of DDB's appointment, Virgin Media and its pitch consultant, ISBA, pushed for integration at all costs but, as one source close to the situation puts it: "I just don't think that, apart from maybe Iris and maybe Rapier, there is any agency geared up to deliver integration at that level. There are just too many pressures."

Virgin Media also seems to take this view. It will focus instead upon hiring a best-of-breed advertising agency to do its creative stuff while not worrying about the detail, the dull stuff of joining everything up (something that agencies just don't seem to get). And, who knows, this agency could well turn out to be DDB.

Moving on, it's hard to escape the thought that integration is best handled by a client's own processes. By bringing together the best specialist agencies to sing from the same hymn sheet, it gets the best results. Mainly because advertising agencies seem broadly incapable of discovering the correct way to inject that special boost to supplement their creative excellence.

Claire Beale is away