Integration: Integration, lies and videotape

Integration has been around forever, but depends on an organising principle and belief system.

Just as every generation of teenagers believes they've invented sex, so each successive generation of ad people appear to think that they are the first to stumble on the integration issue. And yet most weeks, Jeremy Bullmore's column refers to the good old days of "full service", when advertising agencies handled all their clients' marketing communications, and a lot of their pack design and new product development too. Dammit, they even planned and bought the media.

But, like sex, the integration issue has been around forever. Every agency I've worked at (and I'm old enough to remember Kevin Roberts before he became a Kiwi) has had a take on it. At Lowe Howard-Spink, we launched a very successful direct marketing agency (I think Campaign's front page that week said something like "Frank Lowe invents DM") and bought a sales promotion agency (remember sales promotion?). We all worked pretty well together for some large, shared clients. In fact, I think we were integrated. So why does Campaign think the word is buzzing now, in the 21st century?

Well, we "dis-integrated", following the money, as usual, with the media/creative dislocation that we all now kvetch about being the most damaging consequence. Media, of course, got tired of getting left off the end of the agenda (I know it's a cliche, but it happened) and went off to develop a sophisticated and separate product. Direct marketing, sales promotion, design, publishing and the rest did likewise, only more quietly.

There are, of course, a few honourable examples of companies that didn't jump off the bandwagon and, therefore, have no need to jump back on it. They have been successfully making integrated campaigns for happy clients for years, and are probably having a good laugh at the rest of us. Our neighbour Rapier is a great example. But the rest of us are faced with the challenge of putting the bits back together.

So, new agencies launch on "media-passionate-but-solution-neutral" platforms, and nail their colours to the mast by hiring non-advertising creative directors. Bigger agencies are busy developing "villages" of partners. Network agencies are looking for ways to make their often mutually hostile specialists play nicely together. Some groups even offer any and every part of the organisation for a potential client's delectation - not a notably successful strategy so far. Everyone has a slogan: choose from "360-degree brand stewardship", "the power of one", "la holistique difference" and many, many more - all meaningless and benefit-free.

The spectacle of everyone heading inexorably for the same positioning utterly confident that they alone have got it right certainly adds to the gaiety of nations, and proves the aphorism that all companies start off different, but end up the same. But let's remember that this is being done in the name of the people who pay the bills. Do clients want it? Do they need it?

Until about a year ago, a prominent intermediary was still saying there was no point in agencies flaunting their integrated credentials because clients didn't shop that way. Ad accounts moved, media accounts moved, customer relationship marketing accounts moved, but they never moved together. This, of course, is changing, and the thing that's changing it is digital. It's another cliche to say that digital sits at the heart of everything we do. (Group chief executives are starting to repeat it, mantra-like. But where were they all on the night of the Campaign Digital Awards?) We only have to look at the US to dimly discern our own future. The digitalisation of our business and 21st-century life is the driving force behind 21st-century integration.

And clients need and want it (though not necessarily from the conventional sources) because they need the industry's guidance again. Yet our delivery against a whole new set of requirements, our organisational structures, our ability to reframe and redefine our creative product and charge for it appropriately is stuttering. And that's because there are a number of things that need to be in place before agencies can integrate their operations and provide properly joined-up thinking and execution. And here they are:

- Real expertise. Really. It's not enough to know a bloke round the corner, or have a friendly, occasional "affiliation".

- A unified management group. Which means someone has to be in charge of the whole thing, willing and able to bang heads together (in a modern, non-coercive way).

- One bottom line, and senior management team incentivised on group performance. Obvious, but comparatively rare.

- In one space. Geography changes behaviour and proximity promotes learning and mutual respect.

- An idea to integrate around. Most likely to come from the deepest insights and the best planning, so still likely to come from an ad agency, but can come from anywhere (even a media company).

- An organising principle. It's not enough to "create bespoke account groups". This just means you don't have a strong point of view about how to do it.

- A belief system. Preferably expressed in one simple word. And a consequent set of behaviours and systems that underpin the integration process.

No-one has all of these in place. Most have some. But the last two are the most important and, of course, the hardest to create. You have to organise in a way that optimises the ability of specialists to make their contribution (we call it Media Arts). And you have to have a philosophy that unites the disciplines, provides a common language and understanding, and orientates the team so that they're all pointing in the same direction. We call that "Disruption", and it means everyone knows what we're trying to do before we try to do it.

The rest is just management.

- Tim Lindsay is the president of TBWA\UK and Ireland Group.