Integration: It's all about the customer

Marketers and advertisers need to pay much closer attention to what the customer has to offer when it comes to devising and creating a truly integrated, effective and strong ad campaign.

There's never been a greater need to weave a consistent story through a brand's communications with its customers, and there's never been a harder time to do so.

Many things get in the way, but three issues come top. First, customers; second, a lack of strategic focus; and third, how agencies have a knack of making a mess of working together.

Customers are avoiding traditional communications channels. While marketers tend to concentrate on the "sell", customers are only half listening. They're moving on, giving feedback online to a competitor's new product design or telling 150 friends on MySpace why they wouldn't buy that product again. Word-of-mouth isn't a new phenomenon, but it has a new engine in technology and it's driving change in markets like never before.

Trends are being adopted earlier, adapted by the mainstream earlier and ejected in record time. Witness healthy yoghurt drinks in the UK. First, there's startling growth as customers are switched on to the idea of probiotics in a food, then the sector is awash with competitors and own label, followed by the next science food trend to come along and market penetration hits its ceiling ... and all in the space of six years. The scientific food trend ricocheted around health food communities and the media in a flash, and the category lost its zip very quickly. This is the pressure advertisers face.

Communications strategies that are built with integration in mind can have an advantage here. Use different channels to invite audience participation in creating your story. Weave interaction between channels into the thinking. If you don't, it'll happen anyway. Good integrated planning must accommodate and welcome the organic, discursive nature of how ideas and brands grow and develop in people's minds.

Customers have the answer, they're the ones creating the integration. It's up to us to plan for it.

The second point is the issue of strategic focus in terms of how channels and messages knit together.

It starts with the marketing department and the question: "How do clients set marketing budgets?" Many clients struggle with the challenge posed by integration because they often exist in silos, where digital channels, sponsorship, advertising, trade marketing and others all compete for budgets without a vision of how they fit together. Factor in the distance some organisations place between marketing and the operations and sales divisions, and it's easy to see how hard it can get.

But, assuming there is an appetite for a truly holistic marketing approach, strategic focus needs three things: a discipline-neutral starting point with the customer at its heart; an obsession with return on investment; and a small team to create the plan.

Certain agency suppliers have the ability to maintain a genuinely neutral standpoint; and they start "customer-up", not "channel-down".

But wherever they're from, the small team of people creating the plan must ensure the central creative and channel idea is, as we say at MEC, "as hard as nails" - rigorously challenged, and based on genuine insight. The team must set measurement benchmarks in advance to forecast and measure the plan's performance. And it's essential to guide the idea carefully through its journey to the outside world. One of the dangers of integrated planning is neatly summed up by what Mark Fenske(1) called "the nincompoop forest that grows up around a new idea".

To summarise, in the area of strategic focus, the customer has the answer. Thinking should be "customer-up", not "channel-" or "discipline-down".

Third is the role agencies play in delivering the integrated plan. It's fair to say that when a group of agencies are involved, there are plenty of opportunities to mess up.

To get the best out of agencies, there are three rules. First, be clear who's leading the integrated planning. It might be the client, it might be an agency, or even a virtual team picked from different specialisms. To avoid squabbling for strategic bragging rights on the client's dollar, and when you want one central idea, be clear who is leading and who needs the most support.

The second rule is that disagreement is good. While clients want their agencies to have a shared business ambition and a respect of each agency's specialism, they don't want passive agreement when there are important decisions to be made.

The third rule is to recognise the role of the customer in the process. The engine of integration won't be the architect of the plan, but the customer who puts all the pieces together. It should be part of each agency's remit (the advertising, DM and digital agencies, and so on) to ensure they help customers by showing them how to interact between their channel and others.

So, genuinely integrated communications are possible when customers are allowed to co-create a campaign, when there is a clear strategic focus, and when agencies find the glue between their specialist channels.

And, of course, when all this works, truly integrated communications can transform clients' businesses. A study of more than 880 IPA Papers(2) found that campaigns which included a range of below-the-line channels, in addition to above-the-line channels, were 25 percentage points more effective than those with ATL alone.

For example, Persil's "dirt is good", where summer finger-painting events were as important as the TV advertising, and Dove's "real beauty", which challenges beauty sector conventions.

Planning that is led by a dominant channel or a dominant function cannot be truly integrated. Give customers their heads and take their lead. They will be the ones truly integrating, and creating, your campaign.


(1) Mark Fenske, Virginia Commonwealth University, "14 anti-laws of advertising"

(2) Marketing in the Era of Accountability, IPA dataMINE 2007

- Stuart Sullivan-Martin is the chief strategy officer at Mediaedge:cia.