Integration Essays: It's a philosophy

What is integration? Definitions can be confusing and clients don't use the word - but for adland it must be a 'way of working. No more, no less'.

When the word "integration" is used in the context of communications, it all too often causes mass confusion. Literally. No-one has the same definition and everyone gets grumpy.

Is an integrated campaign one that joins up strategically? Must constituent executions match visually to qualify? Or is there a form of integration that sits somewhere in-between?

The same is true of agencies. Is an integrated agency now a DM agency that also does digital? Does an agency need to work in every possible media and discipline to gain this classification? Is an agency integrated if it only specialises in a few areas? While some take pride in the term, others use it as an insult, as a description of an agency that isn't good at anything.

In truth, clients don't ask for integrated solutions because, in the real world, people don't talk like that. The reality is that organisations have issues to solve, targets to hit or people to please and that's what influences how clients and agencies organise themselves.

So, to keep things clear. Let's begin with a stab at a definition so that you don't get lost in the rest of this essay.

Let's think of integration as a philosophy, one that's based on identifying the most appropriate combination of messages and channels for the client's task. In practice, individual clients manage integration differently and it's driven by their own experiences and the needs of their organisations.

Some clients prefer to do the integrating themselves. They like to separate agencies by discipline and they enjoy getting heavily involved in orchestrating and aggregating the strategy. Critics might suggest that few clients can pull this off, but for those that have a clear understanding of their audiences - not to mention an open ear to the latest debates in communications-land - this can be very successful, although resource-intensive in terms of both time and money.

Others prefer to appoint a "lead agency" to make the big calls and to integrate all the other agencies on their behalf. In practice, this approach is only successful if the lead agency has the ability to generate (and drive) a genuine cross-agency team ethos or, as Jack Byrnes would say, to engender "a circle of trust".

To pull this off, you need excellent casting for your integrator and self-confident collaborators in each of the agency teams.

Then there are those clients who appoint a single agency group to integrate from the start. It's hard to say how successful an approach this truly is. There are examples where special multi-disciplinary teams have been created within groups as mini-agencies of sorts. In procurement documents, this approach can sound excellent but, all too often, it's a financially driven solution.

While many of the agency groups now house an eclectic mix of companies in a single building, they rarely share a single creative leader or a bottom line.

This inevitably leads to questions over their ability to give impartial advice. And there's always the nagging doubt that the group's best people won't even be in that team.

However, if we put those doubts aside, this should be an excellent option for large clients with big budgets because they'll be important commercially, with huge influence.

This leads us to the final integration option: the almost mythical one-stop-shop agency that can do it all, with every discipline under one roof, one bottom line and complete impartiality. Clients with smaller budgets often choose this option (or as near as they can find) for a number of reasons. It's easier for them to manage, there are obvious cost savings and there should be no question over impartiality across disciplines or channels.

Kindred (sort of) lives in this camp but it is not tied to it. Some clients hire us as their PR agency, some as their advertising agency, some as their digital agency and some across two or three of these core disciplines. And we also provide supporting services such as design, events, editorial and publishing when they're required.

Much as this approach works well for certain types of client, it does require a particular mix of people, structure and philosophy to make it successful day in, day out.

In terms of people, it requires both experts in specialist fields and also those with generalist skills. To succeed in these (ironically specialist) roles, generalists need inquisitiveness, a lack of ego, top-dollar diplomacy skills and the innate self-confidence to lead a collaborative team - all at the same time as knowing when to seek expert advice. For some, this notion of generalists has been scorned upon because no single person could ever know quite enough.

However, we believe that to deliver truly integrated solutions, you need both strategy and client service teams to have as broad a perspective as possible. This means we can orchestrate the "integrated" thinking and execution through teams of specialists.

A clear sense of shared philosophy is equally crucial. Making it work in practice, and actively nurturing the culture, then becomes vital.

Training should be central to agency working - week in, week out - and internal communication needs to become regular rather than something just brought out for special occasions.

Our clients seem to like what we're doing. Those that choose us for a single discipline have commented how they still get the expertise they'd expect but they also get a broader perspective that has an empathy and understanding for the other disciplines and their respective agencies.

Those that give us a broader brief enjoy the flexibility we offer and our ability to develop unusual solutions that wouldn't have been produced working in any other way.

And that, for us, is what integration is all about: a philosophy and a way of working. No more, no less. Put simply, integration isn't what we do; it's how we work. And that's one definition that everyone can understand.