Integration Essays: Losing it all

Brands are losing the attention, control and faith of consumers, so participation is paramount.

Are we still debating integration? Really? Agencies born in the noughties were conceived with integration in mind. To borrow the digital immigrant/native distinction, we're developing a new generation of integration natives, media agnostics who find the old above-the-line/below-the-line prejudices as alien as overhead projectors.

Integration hasn't stopped being important - campaigns still need strategic and creative coherence across channels - but, by now, we should all be good at it, equipped to execute ideas at every touchpoint and working flexibly with multiple agency partners to ensure the thinking and work hangs together. Integration's table stakes and the conversation must move on.

For us, it's participation, not integration, that should be at the front of our minds. The real challenge now is creating multi-faceted campaigns that people (including staff) want to take part in. This not only has implications for the types of campaigns we'll create, but also for the kinds of agency we'll work at and the ways we'll collaborate with our clients.

There are three principal reasons for this:

1. Losing attention. Fragmentation is more pronounced than ever - insert your own media fact here, but how about the three-quarters of people who say they're online at the same time as they watch TV these days? We're always on, stretching finite attention spans to breaking point.

2. Losing control. If it's a long time since audiences were great listeners, brands still had at least some sense they were leading the conversation. But, as of January this year, social networks became more visited than transactional websites. People are filtering out companies and products based on peer advice and aggregators are mediating more and more purchase paths. Clients and their agencies acknowledge the dynamic with their customers is troublingly complex and airbrushing brand image is no longer an option.

3. Losing faith. Brands used to take solace in the notion they'd replaced our great institutions - government, religion, royalty (you remember the chart) - as societal symbols of trust.

Yet, recent data had almost 50 per cent of consumers agreeing that companies aren't fair to them, a figure inflated by recession but hardly a ringing endorsement. The new normal is a world in which brands have to work much harder to rebuild consumer faith.

One of the outcomes is advertising is regarded with a more jaundiced eye than ever before. Jeff Jarvis, a leading US commentator, put it well: "Advertising is a tax on brands that don't have a relationship with their customers."

But where do these relationships start? How can they be stoked over time? Is it possible to advertise without advertising? It is, if your watchword is participation. By this we mean conceiving all communication with a view to how consumers take part. Add to it. Edit it. Play with it. Vote on it. Sing it. Dance it. Sign it. Enter it. Use it. Abuse it. Debate it. Defend it. Spend time with it. Share it with others.

Intuition tells us that ideas with which people feel this engaged have to be more powerful than something they simply watch, listen to or read.

Or, just as often, ignore. Hall & Partners' "big digital experiment" seems to prove the point, finding brand commitment and advocacy significantly increased by communication you share, not simply receive.

Approaching things this way isn't second nature for agencies and clients, though, and we'll all have to adapt in this new era. Here are five ways we're changing at CHI:

1. Be good enough to share. Remember that old adage: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." (William Morris, apparently) We could apply a similar principle here - everything we do should be entertaining or useful enough to share. If it isn't, you can't assume any claim on people's attention.

2. Generate ideas from the inside out. It's no good taking the old-fashioned "integrated" approach, where the idea was cracked in TV and then spun out to other media. Participative ideas start with the product or service or experience, the site or store or the people who work there. They start close to the customer, where people can feel most involved, and then, only then, are amplified in other media.

3. Brief differently. Most creative briefs still assume a linear process, where a well-crafted strategy is followed by a "creative leap". The best participative ideas aren't generated like this. They appear where strategy and creative meet. They demand a briefing process that is more participative, where a range of practitioners roll-up their sleeves to discuss and argue new services, new apps, new loyalty schemes or new events. As you move closer to the right thought, the creative brief becomes a record of the best ideas generated, the next step on the journey to bringing these to life.

4. Have a broad team of T-shaped people. Broad meaning as "full service" as possible, rich in creative and planning talent, but extending even to media buying, to make the participative ideas as actionable as possible. T-shaped meaning specialist and generalist people who can go deep on their own subject, but have an appreciation and respect for other disciplines. There's no place for tired preconceptions and complacencies in a participative world.

5. Encourage clients to embrace participation. Like the rest of us, clients will stick to what they know and prefer to stay in firm control of their output.

Participation requires greater channel objectivity and a freer hand with the direction of ideas. It may draw on more elements of the client organisation, as ideas extend their tentacles beyond marketing. It means less certainty, more experimentation.

Participative ideas will almost always be integrated ones. Their impact is felt in all aspects of the communications, even marketing, mix. But integrated ideas are not necessarily participative ones.

Without the encouragement to spend quality time with your brand that participation brings, the best integrated campaign in the world may only be so much wallpaper.

- Sarah Golding and Neil Goodlad, managing partners of CHI & Partners.