Integration Essays: Roundtable discussion - Still hazy after all these years

They may have been debating integration since the early 90s, but agencies, media owners and clients are all still confused about what integration is and how best to do it.

Round table...integrated discussion
Round table...integrated discussion

The debate about integration has been going before any of us sent an e-mail, tried to tune our televisions to Five or thought of social networking as anything other than a night at the pub.

Yet, with the importance of digital media growing almost daily, clients realise more than ever that running campaigns that are not integrated is both ineffective and a waste of money.

But, after years of examination, why is it still so hard to get right? And how does its future look? At Campaign's second Integration Roundtable, industry leaders gathered to chew over these questions.

The lively lunch debate began as participants grappled with the definition of integration.

Bobby Hui, the executive planning director at Nitro, is first up. "At one end of the spectrum, it's about the present situation, cross media and the debate about: 'do things look the same or do they embody the same idea?'," he says. "At the other end, it's about helping our clients to better integrate their product with suppliers, and for us to act more as a business partner for our clients."

Tim Bonnet, the chief executive of Tequila\London, agrees integration is "less about 'brand across media landscape' but actually 'brand integrated in the heart and soul of consumers'".

What would a consumer define as integration, Glyn Britton, the planning director at Albion, wonders. "Just communication, the feeling is natural", he concludes. Jed Murphy, the digital director at Carlson Marketing, questions how much real understanding there is about how digital marketing has changed the way consumers interact with brands.

As a media owner, Claire Myerscough, the business intelligence director at NI Commercial, has a daily insight into digital's impact.

"With The Times, people read the paper as they commute. When they get to work, they switch on their computer and they've got Times Online there. They read it for different reasons at the office. So, we have to provide them with the right kind of information they need in the office, which might be different, but not completely different.

"With The Sun, there were fears that online could cannibalise paper sales, which is bread and butter for us," she admits. "We were tentative about it, and tested it with Bizarre, just to see what the impact would be on newspaper sales - and it didn't affect them at all. What we discovered was that, by switching our online offers to something more in-depth that was complimentary, we increased our newspaper sales with marketing activity."

Myerscough highlights the challenges of creative agencies working in the integrated world, pointing to News International's understanding of its readers and the value that it provides for clients.

Inevitably, her comments spark the contentious issue of who might be best placed to advise clients on integrated campaigns. And, despite some talk of ego-free, idea-sharing collaborations, most around the table take up entirely partisan positions.

Marc Giusti, the creative partner at the digital specialist GT, puts forward the notion that it is specialist agencies that hold the answers. "You could argue that maybe there is a beginning of the one-stop shop again," he adds.

"We're all trying to lift ourselves and talk strategically and have a channel planning opinion, but then what do you do - do you ring me up and try to get me to do an outdoor campaign or do you go to a specialist? You wouldn't be wrong for doing both."

Giusti believes many claims about integration are "huff and puff", and says there's a legacy problem to get over.

Carlson's Murphy takes the argument for a smaller agency on further, pointing to the impact of the growth of digital marketing. "In the old days, you had to have a specialist on board and then you had to have a media specialist on board as well," he says. "But then you ended up with this colossus with enormous overheads."

But, in the end, perhaps the role of specialists versus one-stop-shops is irrelevant. "I think actually understanding the role of the communications and that role tying directly back to your business strategy is what is critical," Kate Howe, the managing director at Nitro, contends.

There does, of course, exist a Utopian ideal of all roster agencies banding together and sharing brilliant ideas, from which the client chooses the best and the agencies then work together to deliver. True integration.

But that rarely happens, it was agreed. The consensus was that clients don't mind where a big idea comes from, but the sticking point always seems to come down to which agency leads the process. Crucially, in these days of fragmented media spend, who gets remunerated for what?

Cordell Burke, the executive creative director at Tequila\London, says he's seen great results stem from such an approach. "Some of the best work I've seen is when a client gives a problem to a group of agencies and says, 'I'm not the expert. You guys come back when you think of the best solution,'" he says. "And they don't need to know who actually came up with the idea."

But Tony Quinn, the head of planning at JWT, points to the rather practical issue of still needing someone to sign off creative work.

Arguments over lead agencies and demarcation issues prompts Sophie Lewis, the group planning director at JWT to raise a pertinent point: why is the industry still debating integration if agencies are so sure that they've solved the problem and have been "doing" integration for so long?

She has an answer, too. "It's because it's really difficult. The principal of being totally open to 'the best idea wins and then we'll sort out afterwards how to best make that work' is all well and good, but it's a really, really hard thing to do. I think identifying the good ideas is the easy thing. Who does what up to and to what point is the hard bit."

Douglas Broadley, the chief executive of Imagination, who wasn't able to make it to the lunch discussion, believes the real challenge is "how do you create an environment that truly generates the best ideas that are media neutral and don't come about because you're thinking about a particular profit and loss line in the agency?"

Having an environment that is creatively-led, independent and has multi-channel capabilities under one profit and loss line helps with this, he argues.

So, are there sufficient numbers of talented people around to make integration work? Absolutely not was the response from all around the table. To some extent, it was widely agreed, the lack of real integration is in fact driven by the way clients do business, with managers controlling their own "fiefdoms", as Claire Beale, the editor of Campaign, puts it.

Albion's Britton says his agency's client base has avoided such restrictions. "Because Albion's a young agency, we are sort of post-integration really," he says. "We've never really had that problem because we've had the luxury of working with interesting, very entrepreneurial clients."

Media buying, on the other hand, is definitely still handled in silos, Myerscough says. "We're in a situation where we're offering integrated solutions to advertisers and agencies, but you've got a press buyer who doesn't really understand online and then a digital guy who works for a different agency. It is incredibly frustrating; it's like herding cats."

So where to from here?

Remuneration is a natural concern, with most lunchers lamenting the rise of the art and power of the procurer.

Profit-sharing in clients' businesses was mooted. But, Quinn says, it is all very well as an idea, but why would a client give an agency 1 per cent of sales, which may be one million pounds, when it's been charged £300,000 for the work in the past? "They're just not going to do it," he says.

"And (for listed companies), even if you could persuade the client that that is a good idea, you've got to go back to (your shareholders) and explain that they're not going to have any revenue this quarter because it's all going to come in December. And that breaks the whole structure."

Quinn agrees that agencies should be finding ways to generate different revenue streams. But, he suggests, "the City's got to change."

The prospect of the City changing might at one point have seemed slim. But, then again, so was the idea that the UK banking system might need propping up by the taxpayer or that the FTSE might crash below the 4,000 mark in the autumn of 2008.

What is clear is that while no-one thinks integration is easy, there is a real commitment to making it happen, in a variety of forms. Even if the process of getting there is not quite as neat or straightforward as anyone might wish.

- Tim Bonnet, chief executive, Tequila\London
- Tony Quinn, head of planning, London, JWT
- Marc Giusti, creative partner, GT
- Jennifer Whitehead, writer, Campaign
- Jed Murphy, digital director, Carlson Marketing
- Cordell Burke, executive creative director, Tequila\London
- Chloe Lambert, account director, Campaign
- Nonsie Mtimkulu, account manager, Campaign
- Sarah Paez, senior sales executive, Campaign
- Kate Howe, managing director, Nitro
- Sophie Lewis, group planning director, JWT
- Claire Myerscough, business intelligence director, NI Commercial
- Bobby Hui, executive planning director, Nitro
- Glyn Britton, planning director, Albion
- Suzanne Bidlake, associate editor (reports), Campaign
- Claire Beale, editor, Campaign