Integration Essays: No need to smack

What's the best way to control a 'misbehaving' consumer? Is it steadfast discipline, or a collaboration of disciplines working to provide a solution?

You don't need us to tell you that, over recent years, consumers haven't been acting normally. Quite the opposite, in fact. They've stopped sitting there obediently while we dish out our clients' messages with the same tried-and-tested media mix. They've stopped being passive recipients of what brands have to say about themselves.

They've started misbehaving.

Aided and abetted by an unstoppable and irresistible growth of media platforms and an exponential avalanche of technology, they've stopped treating brands with the respect they used to. Instead, they are developing their own messages, their own platforms for communication and their own forums for debate. Some have even developed their own language.

Agencies, especially big agencies, have responded with something called "integrated communications". By combining advertising with digital (and maybe a bit of DM, promotional marketing or PR), they claim to have these misbehaving consumers under control.

Of course, they don't have them under control at all. Why? Because they are still dishing out messages like before: a one-way, take-it-or-leave-it transmission that, despite the funky new digital outfit, are pretty much the same as the old ones.

In return, consumers have delighted in misbehaving even more. That leaves some clients in a tricky position. Their consumers are deciding for themselves what their brand is about and what they want to buy. They're also deciding for themselves how to use that brand and how to interact with it.

All of that makes disturbing reading for many clients - especially the big ones, the brands whose presence in consumers' lives is as central as water and air. So you'd forgive clients for asking the questions: "What exactly IS my agency doing? And, given this huge sea-change in consumer behaviour, what SHOULD it be doing?"

Well, our answer to the first question is this: it's probably panicking, just like you are.

Our answer to the second question would be this: it should understand the consumer. Not only how it thinks and feels, but what its interests are, who it is in conversation with and how it reaches purchase decisions.

It should also grasp how different tools allow us to converse with consumers at every point along that decision-making process - each in a way that is appropriate to helping them move through the buying process. If it's got that right, it can ensure that while all communication stays in the brand's voice, the tone must differ to suit the occasion and the communities in which it's echoed. In other words, if it knows the brand and its consumers intimately, it can start to have conversations rather than bark orders.

To do that effectively requires a different kind of agency. Clearly, it requires an agency with a broader range of disciplines than just advertising, or just digital. The modern communications landscape is far too complex to approach with a single discipline, no matter how good you are at it.

But even that isn't enough. Those disciplines need to be truly united, ideally operating with a single profit centre, so that each new brief doesn't descend into a bun fight over the budget. Each discipline also needs to understand that simply badging its own work with a line or logo doesn't make it part of a genuinely collaborative campaign. Instead, each discipline must be a part of a whole, rather than trying to out-gun the others.

In short, the agency can't favour any discipline other than the one (or combination of many) that will best solve its client's problem. "None of us is as smart as all of us" should be its mantra.

Of course, many agencies say they do this. But how do clients know if it's the real deal or just another lot of the adman's flim-flam? We'd suggest three ways to spot the walkers of the walk among the talkers of the talk.

First, look at a multi-disciplinary campaign as a whole and ask if it's a mosaic that forms a bigger picture, or a series of snapshots held together by a line. Next, hold up one discipline's contribution and examine it closely. Is its place in the campaign underpinned by a real insight? Is it just badged or does it carry the brand's message in the most appropriate way for that medium? Finally, look at the total payload of the campaign and ask if it contributes to sales as well as brand building.

If there's a tick in those boxes, you've got disciplines that are truly collaborating, rather than just working on the same brief, and that means you've got an agency that is a united entity, rather than an "integrated" one.

To end, the big question is: how does all that really help us correct the misbehaviour at the start of this essay?

The answer is simple: this is now the era of collaboration. So, if you're still thinking that it's even possible to correct consumers' misbehaviour, you've missed the point. The title is a deliberate trick. Correcting behaviour with or without smacking is about a parent/child relationship, but the momentum of technological and cultural change has put the consumer in charge. The curtain has fallen on the era of one-way conversations, with agency as parent and consumer as child.

Now, it's more like a conversation between two adults. It also obeys the wider rules of adult conversation: if brands are open, if they clearly explain what they want from consumers, if they speak in an authentically human voice, then the conversation will flow.

Crucially, agencies and brands need to allow consumers to participate and misbehave, developing the pace, content and progress of the conversation in a way that suits them, not us. All of which means leaving single-discipline dictatorship behind and learning to collaborate with expert discipline specialists in both planning and execution to deliver the solution.

Through collaboration, brands will start listening, start acting with greater authenticity and start forging stronger links with consumers. As agencies, our job is to drive that collaboration, and to act as pathfinders, discovering ways of perfecting the art of conversation.

- Chris Lovell, group chief executive and David Longden, head of national, Golley Slater Group.