Thursday, February 12, 2009

Integrated marketing is harder than it has to be

Many big companies (certainly those in the Fortune 500) use more than one agency for campaigns encompassing multiple communication mediums. A common scenario might look something like this:

  • Big brand agency for national TV and print brand campaigns
  • Digital agency for Web design, online advertising, email and social media programs
  • Direct marketing agency for targeted customer acquisition and retention efforts
  • Promotions agency for trade and shopper marketing and field merchandising support
  • Multi-cultural agencies for Hispanic, Asian or African American specific campaigns
  • And so on…

There’s one critical problem with this scenario. For several reasons when two or more ad agencies are engaged to create an integrated campaign achieving great work becomes hard, not impossible, but hard.

There are many causes for this, but I think the main culprits are:

  • Client side practices (especially in the area of briefing) that discourage inter-agency collaboration
  • Inter-agency competition
  • A lack of cross-trained, multi-discipline marketers on both the client and agency sides
  • A cultural divide between the types of agencies involved

In my opinion with one exception these causes are hard to manage let alone eliminate – here’s what I mean.

Inter-agency competition will never go away
Agencies are always competing – it’s part of the business. And they compete on many levels: for the account, for their ideas, for a bigger share of the marketing budget, etc. Agency competitiveness is driven by ambition and ego; hard things to change let alone eliminate.

Training multi-discipline marketers – nice idea, but unrealistic
The notion that multi-lingual marketers can be created through some kind of corporate training program is not only naive, it’s a contradiction in terms. This is especially so with respect to agencies.

We have specialization in marketing communications for a reason. It’s a response to our increasingly complex, multi-dimensional and tech-driven culture. Specialization is an outgrowth of this complexity. As a result each marketing discipline has its own idioms, methodologies and techniques. These are not things that can be learned, at least not beyond a superficial level, through a training program.

Bridging the cultural divide – good luck
Habits, old and new, die hard. Agencies like all organizations are creatures of habit. For example, while some of the big brand agencies are starting to break away from the formula they have used for over fifty years, many still default to the 30 second spot as the central creative device. On the other hand, digital agencies think of interactions and non-linear experiences. While direct shops focus on driving response. Etc, and so on...

Along with these different approaches come different thought processes, value systems and theories on how things should work. The assumption that you can lock these different agency types in a room and they will miraculously and seamlessly collaborate is crazy – it’s mixing like oil and water.

Clients hold the keys to success
I think the best opportunity for getting great, high-impact integrated creative starts with clients. But the fact is that the engagement models many clients have in place are not sufficient to meet the challenges of a multi-agency arrangement. That said, I think there are at least two things client marketing organizations can do to meet the challenge.

1. Consider universal briefing and an inclusive approach to concept development - big ideas can come from anywhere. And in many instances the more agency minds working a creative problem the better. What’s needed is an environment where multiple agencies can collaborate and riff off of each other’s ideas as opposed to working in channel or audience specific silos. Consumers, after all, experience brands across multiple channels and touch points; the creative process should align with this reality.

All too often one agency, usually the brand agency, is briefed on a new assignment before all other agencies (who sometimes are not briefed at all). Clients should consider changing this practice by briefing all agencies at the same time with a universal brief that considers all channels and audiences. Then task each agency with coming up with ideas that both meet their specific channel/audience needs and are big enough to extend beyond as well. Then let the best idea win.

2. Use a program management approach to coordinate inter-agency activities - coordinating and synthesizing the myriad activities a large integrated marketing program involves is a complicated undertaking. Many client marketing organizations, unfortunately, don’t have the right processes in place to effectively meet this challenge.

Here’s where program management can help. Program management is the process of managing multiple projects
towards a certain outcome (as opposed to project management which focuses on outputs) and has been used for years to coordinate complex technology implementation and software development initiatives.

In the context of integrated marketing, program management can help ensure that all agencies and client marketers are aligned and working towards a common goal. 

For example, program management techniques would require that client managers focus on orchestrating the full portfolio of cross-agency activities. Instead of looking at things from a channel or audience perspective, client focus would be drawn to the macro level and determining if activities across the portfolio are advancing in a way that best meet the desired business and marketing outcomes.

Another benefit is that program management techniques can be easily learned. There are four key aspects of program management that involve skills that most managers already possess; it just changes the focus and manner in which they are used:

  • Strategic planning
  • Governance (including definition of roles and responsibilities)
  • Ongoing management of project and program level activities
  • Financial management and control

Clients should want their agencies to focus on creating great work that drives results – not competing with one another and jockeying for position. The stakes are too high and the budgets are too big especially in this era of limited resources. While nobody likes excessive process I’ll take a little process over the alternative – ineffective and disintegrated marketing that no one is happy with.

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