Integration is not dead. It may have been the victim of negative publicity and misrepresentation in the past, but it is alive and kicking and is as relevant to the advertising industry today as it has been in the past. But we do need to create a common understanding among academics, clients and practitioners of what true integration is, what benefits it can bring and how it can be achieved in order for the industry to develop.
True integration is the process of managing all elements of a brand communication programme. For this to operate successfully, it is necessary to bring the customer into the centre of the frame. This doesn't just mean being customer-driven; it means being customer-centric. Some agencies seem reluctant to recognise that customers are increasingly in control of the buzz around a brand and are no longer passive receivers of communications. Customers want to participate and claim ownership of the brand. They want to participate in the creative process, which is great in terms of brand engagement, but a little scary in that it questions the role of the agency. But as campaigns become more complicated and creative ideas pop up from a variety of directions, it is the role of the agency to be the guardian of those brand values and create cohesion across the brand platform.
Some agencies still seem to interpret integration as "lots of media" or "joined-up conversations". It has been suggested that integration at this tactical level is an excuse for not making decisions. We would argue the opposite. Very difficult and often unpopular decisions need to be made. Media-neutral planning means starting with the customer and identifying what is needed to assist that customer. It could be a one-off advertisement; it could be a total repositioning of the brand values. Any communication tool may be chosen: sales promotion, PR, social media or any combination of these tools, and they obviously have to integrate and support each other to create the desired brand values. This even playing field can be difficult when a number of agencies are involved, or even when different departments within the same agency are competing for recognition or influence. It is certainly not an easy option. But if the customer-centric approach is adopted throughout, then this provides a focus to work around.
But integrated marketing communications is much more than media choices. Everything the company says and does sends out a message about the brand. True integration takes place when brand values are influencing not just the marketing communications activity, or even the marketing or branding activities, but the whole business and the people who work for it. To achieve this, an integrative business strategy is needed at the corporate level of an organisation that influences human resource management, production, finance and operations as well as marketing. It includes the actions of all stakeholder groups inside and outside of the organisation. A good example of this is Pedigree. With the strapline "We're for dogs", it was considered unacceptable at corporate level that the lease of the head office building prevented staff from bringing their dogs to work. You cannot say one thing and do another. The company consequently moved offices to ensure that its brand values were reflected in its HRM policy.
The role of the staff within the organisation is crucial for full integration. Internal and external communications need to be brought together to ensure that each employee is a brand ambassador, living and breathing the brand and its values. They too wish to be involved, wish to contribute their creative ideas and wish to be listened to. A good example is the new "To fly. To serve" British Airways branding platform. These brand values not only communicate to customers but also motivate and provide guidance to the employees. As Larry Light (McDonald's former global marketing officer) put it so succinctly: "Any single ad, commercial or promotion, is not a summary of our strategy. It's not representative of the brand message. We don't need one big execution of a big idea. We need one big idea that can be used in a multi-dimensional, multi-layered and multi-faceted way."
IPA-supported research from 2008 on the views of UK advertising executives indicated that integrated marketing communications (IMC) was perceived as the "co-ordination of the various communication disciplines". Our own study this year suggests that this understanding has changed, but some agencies still perceive integration as part of marketing and do not identify the strategic role within the clients' organisations or the involvement of employees as part of their remit. This may be because the client brief provided to agencies does not include these more strategic issues.
Agencies may be prevented from adopting a fully integrated approach because their clients are not convinced or aware of the benefits of IMC. Indeed, studies show that many clients lack the knowledge, skills and organisational structure to implement IMC fully. Instead of taking time to introduce comprehensive and fundamental changes, they prefer to undertake small-scale adjustments that often provide disappointing results. This is where a more common understanding across academics, clients and agencies is necessary to identify the benefits that integration can bring to the client and the role that practitioners can play to contribute towards that.
Integration is as useful to the industry as it has always been. Yes, the environment has changed drastically since the 90s, when it first hit the headlines. But this has resulted in it being even more relevant. It does not need to be killed, replaced or posted. It just needs to be understood and implemented.
Sally Laurie and Dr Kathleen Mortimer are senior lecturers at the Northampton Business School
- True integration takes place when brand values are influencing not just the marketing communications activity, or even the marketing or branding activities, but the whole business and the people who work for it.
- The role of the staff within the organisation is crucial for integration to be achieved.