Integration Essays: Customer love

Integration is done best when it is an accidental consequence of solving an advertiser's problems.

When online media expenditure overtook that of TV in September, Lindsey Clark, the marketing director of Thinkbox, responded by saying: "The internet is a fantastic technology and home to many different marketing activities that do different things. As such, it is interesting but meaningless to sweep all the money spent on every aspect of online marketing into one big figure and celebrate it."

The same could equally, if not more accurately, be said of integration.

However, the fact is, the term "integration" has never been more popular. But let's pause for a minute.

Don't we need to become far more analytical in how we both categorise and express "integration" and its benefits? Even if the term is limiting; now more than ever, it's ubiquitous. Both as a response to the recession and to the explosion and fragmentation of media and new thinking. These factors alone make it an inevitable and growing part of our landscape. (Does a client really want to liaise with 27 agencies simply to produce a relatively simple multimedia campaign?)

Whatever the reason, to paraphrase Lord Bell: "Integration is the new black." Of course, clients have been integrated since, well, forever. Any marketing managers worth their salt are able to move between the jargon of each communications channel, briefing suppliers as they go, with pretty much consummate ease.

Any debate about its merits clearly lies more on the agency side. By integrating our services, do our clients lose sight of the fundamentals of what we offer? Are they lost in a lowest common denominator "fog" of "whatever you want, we can do it"?

Is it not better that agencies act more like the clients they serve and offer greater differentiation and conviction about their services? In particular, for what purpose are we providing an integrated service? Integration as a concept makes more sense when it is the output of a specific objective. Are we giving it a secondary role or making it - and whisper this - an afterthought?

Shouldn't we worry far less about the form of integration and far more about its benefits? Our clients would then start to see greater clarity between the different forms we deploy. Isn't the most common request when selecting a supplier to see their relevant experience? Experience doesn't need to be framed in a specific sector, either. But much more so in relevant problem-solving.

One of the limitations of the traditional approach is the demarcation of the marketing services industry into the usual disciplines; advertising, direct, digital etc. All of these are terms that feel increasingly redundant. Not least for the advertising community, which spent the early part of this decade being beaten-up by commentators for not being "digital" when, in truth, it was far quicker to assimilate digital and online skills than digital agencies have been to assimilate an understanding of broader communication and brand issues.

By continuing to use such terms, we simply give ourselves the challenges of trying to gain credibility for the skills outside our headline expertise. Why put ourselves on the back foot?

Integration models make far more sense when they bring together skills for a common purpose. Something more meaningful is required. For example, "brands", "ideas" and, most precious of all, "customers". These are vital aspects of the marketing process. At any given point, a client will have an issue with one of them. In a world in which channels are so diverse, wouldn't it be better if we more openly encouraged clients to select agencies based on consistent problem-solving skills rather than on marketing formats set up 20-odd years ago?

Agencies have their comfort zones, however large and multinational they are. This should not denote weakness, but a strength of experience and a strong set of beliefs about how business and marketing challenges need to be tackled. At this point, we're more than happy to "come out" and declare our passion for one thing above all else: Customer-driven marketing.

We place better understanding of our client's customers at the heart of what we do. We believe that understanding how they live, sleep, breathe, select and purchase products and services is the fundamental start point.

By gaining that understanding, you can design infinitely more effective communications to reach them. You can design better selling messages and, in particular, you can understand the emotional relationship they have with the product, service or issue you're dealing with. We believe in this so passionately that we devote 30 per cent of our workforce to just that purpose. Theirs is a quest for intelligence made up of insights supplied by research and information offered by data.

As a result, and while we're not sector specific, most of our clients share common traits - they have large numbers of customers and tend to hold information in a database (some basic, others very sophisticated). They want to sell to them repeatedly and hold on to them for the long term. For most of our clients, their products are intangible and relatively homogeneous. We tackle these apparent challenges for large numbers of financial services companies, charities, utilities and public sector organisations on a daily basis and we're very good at what we do.

Integration in this model isn't an end in itself. It's merely the means by which you deploy marketing at key points in the customer journey. It is the form that follows the function.

While not eschewing those who would place brand positioning and awareness, or "the big idea", as the lead "value" in their integration model (and they are vital components), these skills can be badly deployed without a "customer-driven" approach. For instance, your client's brand competitive set might be entirely misplaced and "the big idea" might drive you down media channels that bear no relevance to the audience at all. Ouch.

Even the most limited study of business achievement highlights the value of observing people and their behaviour as the tangible basis of informed business decisions. So, in summary, be wary of those who argue for integration per se and consider those who, like us, integrate "accidentally", simply because we put a conviction to solving customer problems first.

- John Rowley is the chief executive, Andy Carolan is the chairman and Avril Ellis is a managing partner of Tangible.