Integration Essays: Set the agenda

A 'brand idea' that gives clients a sense of purpose, focus and pride must come first and guide communications ideas towards integration.

Ask an agency about its approach to integration, and it'll tell you how important it is to have "the right idea".

Ask a number of agencies and you'll learn that there's little consistency around what "an idea" actually is. Some will talk about an inspired creative execution that can be used in every channel. Others will point to a "look and feel" that draws everything together. Others will enthuse about a powerful audience insight or a brilliant articulation of the brand's unique selling point.

Increasingly, you'll hear "the idea" is an ingenious use of social media, user-generated content or an amazing experience. There are more types of idea than there are types of communication agencies.

Of course, these are all ideas that can help clients meet objectives. But we need to recognise that these are communication ideas and communications is a tiny tributary of marketing proper. If marketing is to take more of a whip hand in the overall direction of an organisation, communication ideas alone won't do it. They are too narrow in their application.

What we require are brand ideas, not communication ideas. Yes, brand ideas engage consumers, but they do much more. They give the brand's stakeholders a stronger sense of identity and purpose. They are relevant and inspiring to staff and persuasive both to suppliers and city analysts. Brand ideas set the agenda within their own organisation and in the lives of the audience they target. They're not advertising ideas. This last point is so important that we believe the only real way to develop them is far away from campaigns and media laydowns.

An example for us is the idea we developed for Strongbow (known as the 'Bow by its fans). When the brand set about asserting its leadership in a fast-developing category, we realised the brand needed to set a new agenda. It needed a purpose, to find someone to stand up for. There is a huge group of men who do real physical work (not the latte-coiffing chin-scratching we do in media and marketing). They start at 5am and finish in the afternoon with their throats full of plaster dust.

With its sharper, sweeter refreshment qualities, Strongbow is perfect for those blokes - Strongbow rewards hard graft. Hence the idea is Bowtime, hard earned. This is not simply the advertising line. Our idea was first brought to life in other channels by other agencies, more than a year before we developed the ads. It's the platform for all of the brand's activity.

Ian Wright entertains the audience on his Bowtime show on TalkSPORT. The Bowtime bar at festivals provides the ultimate weekend of reward. It's a mobile CRM reward programme, and an internal staff engagement scheme within Scottish & Newcastle - the Grafter of the Year awards.

If you Google Bowtime, you'll see a page of activity that shows how Strongbow is there for grafters. Check out the unofficial Bowtime (not Strongbow) groups on Facebook. Or check it out on Twitter. Drinkers are marketing for us, and in an integrated way, yet, amazingly, they never attended one of those all-agency meetings.

When a brand has a real agenda, it has a real place in people's lives. Every element of the marketing mix has a focus and energy that it previously lacked and it inspires sharper, more innovative communications ideas from its roster agencies.

More and more brands are seeking to be clear about their idea before they commit to media spend or channel choice. They understand that advertising is often the last thing they need. The first thing is to solve the big strategic problem, then consider briefing the campaign. The agenda-setting idea doesn't replace the many kinds of communications ideas agencies offer. Instead, it guides them.

For the marketing director working with a roster of agencies, it is easier to brief, and to identify, the communications solutions that are going to have the greatest impact on the business. And because agenda-setting ideas give brands a strong point of view about the world around them and what should change, they are perfectly placed to make an impact in the worlds of social media, PR, corporate social responsibility and sponsorship.

Clients will look for the necessary mixture of creative and strategic talent, regardless of what discipline the agency works in. Gone are the days of hoping that the right idea for the brand will emerge in the expensive creative process of developing a campaign. It is counter-intuitive, especially for advertising agencies, but it is what we need to learn. In the long term, it will makes everyone's lives easier and the communication ideas far sharper.

At St Luke's, we've made a start, working with brands to set new agendas. Magic helps "lift your mood", H Samuel "helps you say it better", and Skandia cautions "don't hope for the best, plan for the best". Each of these clients wanted the platform for the brand agreed before any advertising was discussed. They recognised the important first step was to give their organisation a sense of purpose, focus and pride.

So how can you develop ideas that put brands on track for long-term success? Resist the temptation to think about advertising, media, PR or social media - they come last. Ask a different set of questions: What agenda can this brand set in the lives of its audience? What do we stand up for? What are we against? How will the agenda inform not just the way we communicate, but how we operate?

Getting to the answers is not easy.

But when you do, the power to create change and inject energy and momentum into the brand's marketing is transformational for all involved.