Integration Essays: Beware big loitering ideas

The integration debate needs to move its focus on from 'stimulus' to the challenge of 'response'.

1993 was a pretty uneventful year for me. It was an odd year, for a start, so there was no World Cup or European Championship to get excited - and ultimately depressed - by. I ate a lot of pies, if I remember correctly, and played a lot of video games. Pies and video games. That was about it for 1993 and that's probably why I remember that it was also the year I first became embroiled in a debate about integration.

Since then, much has happened, much has changed. Video games have taken a back seat to SpongeBob and my last dalliance with a pie was four years ago: an organic stilton and fennel steam-bake from The Farmers Market on Church Street.

However, I still find myself getting horribly excited prior to any international football tournament and the integration debate still rolls on. I can't help thinking it does so because we're not asking ourselves the right questions; we're not addressing the right business problem.

Integration today seems to be a debate broadly centred on channel selection, one that acknowledges the fragmentation and proliferation of the media landscape and challenges us to work out the most efficient means by which to integrate our brand ideas across them.

We spend our working hours, and many of our sleeping ones, in search of the Holy Grail of integration, the Big Idea: an idea judged first and foremost on its ability to spread our brand across the increasingly complex network of channels - over 55, according to a recent Boston Consulting Group study.

Having defined our Big Idea, we then draw on a raft of models of execution. The "matching luggage" model involves key imagery, usually TV, being integrated through the remaining channels. The "hand-holding" model recognises the different roles channels can play in the purchase cycle, and attempts to convey brand propositions in respect of these roles. And the "sum of the parts" model respects the multi-faceted nature of the modern brand and mobilises different channels in a bid to express the brand as a whole. There are many more, I'm sure.

However, the net effect is that we sign on to our Big Idea, choose our model, make our channel selections and wait for the audiences to come flocking, yet they rarely do. Which is why, I suspect, the debate still rages.

In 1974, Stephen King wrote The Planner's Guide, principles of the dark art of advertising planning. In it, he makes the distinction between "stimulus" and "response". Stimulus being that which we say and where we say it; response being the impact this stimulus has on our audience. I think that within this distinction lies the real business problem. Within it, perhaps, lies not only the reason why the "integration" debate still rages, but also the key to resolving it once and for all.

To date, the integration debate has mainly centred on the "stimulus" - how we marry brand idea and channel - rather than the more fundamental challenge of "response", how our brand idea stirs consumers. The debate has centred on brand/channel integration rather than the ultimate ambition, which clearly has to be brand/consumer integration.

Of course, I can see why we have become preoccupied with the brand/channel debate. Changes in the media landscape over the past five or so years are tangible; they touch us all daily and the challenges they throw up appear countless.

Consumers, on the other hand, we know all about; they're a bit old hat. They've been our bread and butter for decades. We profile them, we glean insights and marry them up with our single-minded propositions and have done so quite successfully since well before the fella in the Hathaway shirt donned his eye patch and seduced us with the promise of intrigue and mystery. However, if the media landscape has changed beyond recognition, then it pales in comparison to that of the consumer landscape.

As consumers today, well, we've never had our heads so full. Connection to the world around us has never been so widespread and the inspiration we draw from such connection, real or digitally delivered, means we know much and are truly impressed by little.

And connection is clearly more than just a function of "place". The circles we mix in today reach all four corners of the globe. We're as likely now to seek the opinion of, form ideas with and draw conclusions from bentback43@hotmail.com, whom we've clearly never met, as we are from friends we've known for decades.

The reason we do so is because we've never been so wary. We've been turned over so often by the institutions that we once built our entire belief systems on to some extent - religion, government, authorities, media etc - that we're suspicious of just about anything we're told. "Trust" levels have never been lower.

I could go on and on; this is just the tip of the iceberg and The Changing Global Consumer is a very different essay. However, it's clear that consumers today are more demanding, more suspicious, more difficult to impress and more empowered than ever before. It's a complex and altogether different landscape that brands face today. And, therefore, if, as Stephen King suggests, the ultimate objective for any brand communications is to create a response for and on behalf of our client's brands, then there has never been a more challenging time in which to do so.

And this is my point, the real nub of why the integration debate rolls on. While we spend time believing the true challenge of the integration debate is centred on brand/channel integration, the "stimulus", then there's a fair chance we'll lose focus on the much bigger and more important challenge, the "response", or brand/consumer integration. And there's a real risk that we'll achieve little other than brand ideas that effectively and efficiently surround our audiences rather than those that are strong enough, insightful enough or imaginative enough to pull at their heartstrings, poke around in their souls and fundamentally shift their thinking and feelings.

There's a mountain of failed, high-profile, integrated ideas to suggest that we are coming up with precisely those "Big Loitering Ideas" rather than "Big Stimulating Ideas".

So if my premise is right (and I sort of know it is), whose fault is it? Where can the fickle finger of blame be pointed?

Not at clients, that's for sure. They pay a lot of very bright people a lot of money for the advice and guidance to see them through the murky waters.

And I certainly wouldn't blame the media fraternity. If clients are becoming preoccupied with the wrong debate, it can only be because the evidence presented to them is hugely compelling or, perhaps more worrying, the evidence presented to the contrary is not.

So, let's accept it's gloves-off time. Let's accept that no-one has the divine right to run the integration show and that it will ultimately be those with the most compelling arguments and the finest thinking who will lead the way. So this is a call to all planners, to all ad agencies, to forge the right thinking. Because, if the integration argument doesn't re-centre on Big Stimulating Ideas rather than Big Loitering Ideas, then I suspect we'll be still debating this in another 15 years.

And I really can't be doing with that.

- Tony Quinn is the head of planning, London at JWT.