Integration Essays: The integration blues

True integration is akin to a group of musicians, each playing their own instruments but coming together to form a masterpiece. But get it wrong, and the advertiser will turn the music off.

You know, I've always wanted to play the harmonica. Not because it would give this pasty-faced Londoner the borrowed air of a grizzled Mississippi backwoodsman (well, OK, partly because of that).

It's more because of the way it can seamlessly integrate into whatever a band is playing. You've got your rhythm section laying down the foundations, your guitar riffing on A, E and B7 - and you've got your harmonica. Filling the gaps, adding those flourishes that nobody else brings to the party. What's not to like?

And, more to the point, what better way of illustrating the right way to integrate a campaign across agencies? A handful of musicians, playing in harmony, each bringing their own constituent part to the whole - but all bringing something different. The result? In the words of the mighty Neil Diamond, a beautiful noise.

Yet, when it comes to integrated campaigns, the reality's often closer to the "matching luggage" approach so bemoaned by direct and digital agencies. The "can-you-just-put-the-press-ad-headline-on-the-homepage/ e-mail/leaflet?" school of integration. Yeah, I know. We've all been there. Group hug.

The thing is, there's just no reason to do that kind of integration anymore. To go back to our musical metaphor, it's like hiring the five best musicians you can find, then paying them to play exactly the same riff, at exactly the same time, for eight minutes and 42 seconds. Even Oasis (RIP) went beyond that.

You can see why it happens. In the same way that - as the line goes - nobody ever got fired for buying IBM, nobody's going to get fired for following the new ad campaign their brand manager's just bought. It's safe, it's easy - and it justifies the money that's been spent on it, too. Which, these days, has a lot going for it.

Yet the main problem with this approach is that it means campaigns tend to integrate around the wrong things. And by "wrong things", I mean the campaign's superficial elements - ensuring that its lead headline or image are dutifully placed on every element, in every channel.

There are a couple of major flaws in this. First, from a purely practical point of view, different media have different lead times. For example, you can be perfecting a press ad the night before it goes to print. But if you're doing an integrated through-the-line launch, your DM pieces will have to go to print a month or so earlier.

Second, a lot can happen in a month. I can think of several times when a DM campaign integrated perfectly with the advertising at the point it went to print, only for the advertising to change its main headline several days later, to one that bore little relation to the line on the soon-to-be mailed DM. So, despite all the best intentions, the integration disintegrated.

And yet there's a bigger, more fundamental issue with this "superficial" form of integration - one exactly like the problems I had with my old Clash compilations. See, a mate of mine used to do me taped copies of his Clash cassettes - tapes from which I'd take songs to stick on my own compilations.

The problem was, by the time they'd been copied two or three times over, Joe Strummer's vocals appeared to have been recorded underwater and Mick Jones sounded like he was playing London Calling on Fisher Price's "my first guitar". The lesson? Don't go far from the source. In this case, your product's main strength.

So don't make the start point of your integration the headline on your press ad, as that's already one agency's interpretation of that strength. Do that, and the agencies who'll have to follow that headline's lead will end up putting their own spin on it throughout the rest of their creative - and very soon, you're three stages removed from your product's main strength and your perfectly integrated campaign has turned into Chinese whispers.

No. It's time to create a different model of integration, one that doesn't take a press ad as its starting point, but one in which every element of an integrated campaign - from advertising to direct to digital - starts from the same place. And that place is data.

Because, by collecting as much data as you can about consumers, you'll be able a) to develop an insightful, relevant brand promise to form the backbone of your campaign; b) to use it to inform that campaign's every aspect and, crucially; c) to deliver it in a way that utilises each medium's individual strengths to make that promise personal to the consumer, whether that's in advertising, digital ... whatever. With each channel adding to the whole, but in its own unique way. We're back to our musical metaphor again.

Do it right and you'll have an immersive, interactive and involving campaign that balances putting the consumer at its heart with delivering a consistent, coherent brand promise.

Adopting this more consumer-focused, "bottom-up" approach also allows you to seamlessly integrate social media into your integrated campaign in a way that the "matching luggage" approach just doesn't allow. Go on, you try telling bloggers to "use the headline from the press ad". Exactly.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, making the consumer the still point around which everything integrates forces all of us to raise our game. To dig deeper into our data. To pinpoint those reasons why consumers would listen to us in the first place, then dramatise them in ways they'll actually connect with. Rather than just telling them the same thing, in the same way, over and over again, in the vain hope we'll beat them into submission. We won't.

And the sooner we realise that, the sooner we can disintegrate the old model of integration and build a new, truly integrated one.