Integration, by which I mean integrated marketing communications, is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Indeed it’s in danger of cracking up.
And this crazy little thing called digital is largely to blame.
The front end of integrated communication – the carefully orchestrated end result that gets seen by the outside world – is, when it works, a holistic, whole-greater-than-sum-of-parts thing.
Seamless. Joined up. Resonant.
The back end of integrated communication – the organisation, the processes, the haggling, the compromises – is, when it works, a high-order diplomatic exercise in aligning discrete vertical skills, disciplines, personalities and agendas.
Integration done well has always been a minor miracle if you ask me.
The conditions for it to work (and I think you need all of these) are:
- A brand idea that lends itself to “proper” integrated comms. Not the same execution repeated slavishly everywhere, but an idea that allows each channel to utilise its inherent strengths whilst building towards a coherent whole.
- Maximum complement and minimum conflict in the expertise and commercial agendas of the various parties.
- A secure environment facilitated by the client that allows the various agencies to take a long term view and resist the temptation to make as much as possible out of every project.
- Light touch management from the client. Set clear expectations for what integration should look like then trust your agencies to make it happen (i.e. make them responsible and accountable.)
- Strong personal relationships between peers at every level in each agency. It helps if people at your various agencies genuinely like each other. Smart clients facilitate this with frequent social occasions.
“Digital” and social media are making it harder and harder to satisfy these criteria, particularly when it comes to maximum complement, minimum conflict. They play havoc with the fragile back end agency ecosystem that sustains integrated comms.
Integration was about aligning vertical disciplines.
But digital is not just another vertical.
Digital is horizontal too.
It has girth.
It fracks verticals.
Every vertical – advertising, PR, DM, media, sales promotion, events – is also digital (and social) these days. The boundaries between agencies, which once were clearly delineated, are increasingly overlapping and blurred.
Digital introduces agency conflict where once was none.
Digital has you watching your back.
Border skirmishes are a weekly occurrence.
It’s not much fun sometimes.
I presented at a DMA conference earlier this year, at which Kate Cox of Havas Media shared a lovely metaphor for what integration has become.
She described it as a pirate ship.
Viewed from the outside (i.e. the client’s eye view) it all looks fine. Everyone is on board and the vessel is moving in the right direction.
But what you can’t see, unless you’re on board, is the crew fighting amongst itself and slitting each others throats over hard tack biscuits.
Everyone at the conference laughed – clients and agencies alike. The comedy of recognition.
I offer here an alternative metaphor.
The golf balls of my youth were not solid like today. Beneath the plastic shell was a tightly bound ball of rubber bands. If you hit a bad shot and cut through the outer layer you released the pressure that was holding the rubber bands in place and they would unwind, sometimes spectacularly, of their own accord.
Integration is an old style golf ball.
And digital & social media are the bad shot that splits the thin shell holding the whole thing together.