We're having the wrong debate. Too often when we talk about integration, we use it to describe better ways to organise and manage media. We should reclaim this overused word to describe something altogether more powerful.
It's something that forward-thinking business people are already doing and all will do eventually. It's the integration of creative thinking across all parts of a business. It's about moving marketing out of a department and into the fabric of an organisation.
It means thinking about customers, not as the subject of a campaign but as part of the business itself, determining the products and services they want and how they are delivered. It also means opening up to work with third parties who may know the capabilities and customers of a business better than it does.
On the face of it, this seems like a terrifying prospect for marketers. After all, if we don't own the connection between brand and customer, what's our purpose? In my opinion, however, once we understand that what's needed are the things we've always been great at - such as making the complex simple and figuring out what makes customers happy - then it's clear that we're essential. We may not be delivering the same kind of output, but I think the wider integration of creative thinking represents a compelling opportunity for us all, whichever side of an agency invoice we sit.
So let's consider what this approach can actually do for a business. I'm going to focus on two key benefits: revenue and brand development.
Arguably, the turmoil of the past few years isn't about a cyclical economic dip and we shouldn't be expecting everything to bounce back. Tough times and broken business models are the new normal. That makes identifying new ways to drive revenue imperative and working with third parties to find them is one option.
The Guardian's Open Platform project is a great example of this. At a basic level, it's a piece of technical functionality that delivers high-quality, mashable content to third-party websites and communities to mutual benefit. At a more sophisticated level, it's a way for anyone to create new ways of interacting with Guardian content, developing their own means of delivery and presentation and then sharing with the wider audience.
A second example is an open innovation project we're delivering for Telefonica. It is opening up its network capabilities to application developers and providing them with a direct path to market. By involving people who are closer to the customer, it's able to share the responsibility for "picking winners" and can deliver the sort of new products and services customers are happy to pay for.
By integrating third-party thinking, both businesses can draw revenue from niche areas that are difficult to find and uneconomic to prospect. They are also empowering a much broader team to help create and deliver new sources of revenue for the future.
If the only way people interact with a brand is transactional, it's hard to develop an emotional attachment. By creating a programme that customers admire or feel connected to, we can bring them closer and build the sort of brand value that helps avoid the death spiral of becoming a commodity.
The Puma Creative initiative is a great example. It's a series of challenges and grants for film-makers, focusing attention on a range of human issues. This isn't just about charity or logo slapping, it's an authentic representation of the real values and behaviours of the business and how it produces its output. It gives Puma brand kudos among the socially aware urban audience it wants to target and has given it distinction in the fiercely competitive sports lifestyle market.
So what does this mean for us as marketers? These examples show that for a business to integrate creative thinking more thoroughly, it must have strong vision, structural flexibility and the ability to accept that customer relationships can be curated but not controlled.
As an agency, we see it as a huge opportunity. Applying our talent to creating products and services, projects and programmes for our clients rather than just campaigns gives us a bigger canvas to work with and helps us build richer, deeper relationships. Most importantly, it gives us a platform to create things that customers love.
To deliver this value successfully means agencies and clients need to change the way we work together, our attitude to reward and the type of people we hire. That's really where things move from theory into practice. Leaning on the model of IDEO's Tim Brown, we need to employ T-shaped people. They balance a strong and specific vertical skill with the ability to branch out more widely and they have the desire to explore insights from many different perspectives.
I suggested at the start of this piece that if we're limiting our debate on integration to the management of media channels, then we're doing the word a disservice and missing out on a huge opportunity. Businesses that integrate creative thinking more widely have a better chance of driving the innovation and customer connection that have become essential.
Doing it raises significant new challenges and often puts us all in uncertain territory but if engaged customers who tell us what they want and value their involvement are the prize on offer, I, for one, wouldn't want to change a thing.
- The integration debate shouldn't be about managing media channels
- Our focus should be on the integration of creative thinking across a business
- Getting it right can help identify new ways to drive revenue and unlock huge benefits in brand development
- Agencies don't own this model but have a valuable role to play
James Easterbrook is the managing director of MyAgency
(From Campaign's "What Next in Integration" supplement, December 3 2010)