The Integration Question

I’ve been reviewing agency websites and what began to become a repetitive theme was the notion of integration. It cropped up on the majority of sites I’ve reviewed so far. What struck me was a muddying of the water in relation to what a number of agencies actually practice. The slide from ‘we are an advertising agency’ to ‘we are an integrated communications company’ feels like a fashion rather than a fact.

A few web sites dodge the issue very well by simply talking about the work they have done for a range of clients without any attempt to articulate a mission/philosophy/descriptor.

It seems to me the best marketing organisations have always been concerned about integration; presenting their products consistently throughout all channels to the consumer at large. The task of integration was firmly with the client, that was a key marketing role, as the client was the brand manager, not the advertising agency. So what has muddied the water?

Casting back a little while the impact of the internet would appear to be the driver as I suspect the new channel has hi-jacked the attention of numerous clients leaving behind more traditional channels. Nobody wants to be chained to anything ‘old’, everyone wants to linked to the ‘new’. For good reason in many circumstances. A number of years ago Mike Gold said “The biggest innovation in poster advertising is the move from wooden to aluminium ladders” – how things have changed.

So has the digital age required ad agencies to claim they also understand how to do work for the internet thereby forcing them them to change the sign over the door from ‘advertising agency’ to ‘integrated advertising agency’?  This seems unnecessary to me and leads to a loss of focus.

One reason is that most, if not all, new entrants in to the wacky world of advertising are seriously savvy when it comes to the internet whatever their discipline. So it isn’t new, it’s established just like other channels. Therefore most people think internet as they are thinking about television. Don’t they create advertising for the appropriate channels just like they always have?

Also the confusion that still exists is the difference between ideas and production. The production end of the digital world appeared to dominate the sector for a long time, a kind of mystery science owned by youngsters dressed like college undergraduates. This has never happened in television for example, the ad agency develops the ideas then hands them across to a specialist production company. The difference of course is that in the early days of television the know-how already existed with film production so why re-invent the wheel whereas in the world of on-line no such thing existed.

We are now though in a more mature place with the internet and I would suggest the time is approaching for specialists to stick to the knitting and say ‘we are an advertising agency’ developing work for all channels of communication, out-sourcing the production to specialist companies. I know of one well known agency that has already taken this logical step, they develop the ideas, give the client a quote to produce the work and then out-source to a specialist digital production house.

I strongly believe it is better to stand for something rather than attempt to be a generalist. Bill Bernbach said something along these lines – “If you stand for something you have people for you and people against, if you stand for nothing then you have neither”. He was commenting on the need for singular, clear positioning for brands; I would argue it is the same for any business in the broad advertising community. Understanding the relevance of differing channels should be a basic skill in any communications business, but attempting to claim the ability to deliver for every channel seems to me to be a stretch too far.

If agency websites today are a genuine reflection of the industry I would suggest they confuse rather than clarify and the core skill of any particular business is masked by the attempt to claim an integrated offering.

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