Thursday, February 1, 2007

The “New”, “Improved” Integration!

Advertising, even if it does not reinvent itself, certainly discovers new concepts, theories and schools of thought that give the industry fresh leases of life. These also are gentle reminders to the marketing world that advertising is alive and kicking. The first breakthrough if you could call it that, was provided by Rosser Reeves of the Ted Bates agency who coined the term “unique selling proposition”. David Ogilvy created a ripple with his advertising built around brand image. His “Man in the Hathaway shirt” followed by the campaign for Schweppes with the picture of the Chairman of the company Commander Edward Whitehead created more than a ripple. It set the stage for the formation of a major agency group. And David Ogilvy did something more. His “Confessions of an Advertising Man” which sold over a million copies probably did more for the advertising industry worldwide than the Volkswagen campaign which was arguably the greatest campaign the world has seen. This campaign and a few others like Avis, Alka Seltzer and Polaroid created by Bill Bernbach’s agency spawned a new style of advertising that was “substance with style”. Bernbach’s advertising was like a breath of fresh air and his legacy lives on. His principle of “rewarding the reader” is perhaps even more relevant now given the enormous clutter that today’s advertising has to contend with. The next big impact was by Al Ries and Jack Trout who proposed a new approach to marketing and communication packaged as “positioning”. Their scientific papers and book “Positioning: The battle for your mind” ratified what advertising agencies had been doing and highlighted the strategy crucial to the success of advertising campaigns. The next big development in advertising to my mind at least has been the emergence of integrated marketing communications (or IMC) which started with a bang and runs the risk of ending with a whimper. And yet to me IMC seems to provide a great opportunity in today’s cluttered world to make the brand stand out. But the agency needs to re-orient itself to the new realities and the new challenges. The question of course, is simple. Is the agency prepared for this challenge?

IMC? What it is?
Integrated marketing communication is based on the principle that a single strong brand idea will be the basis for every possible communication to the consumers. This will be exploded across every possible medium and will explore every possible consumer touch point. So it is not only the high budget TV commercial but outdoor, sales promotion, merchandising, direct response and public relations that carries the same brand idea. Nor is this a completely new concept. Agencies globally and in India have used this concept to great effect. One of my favourites is Britannia 50-50. The interesting brand name already gives a lot of creative scope not only for creating striking ads but also for tremendous integration as well. All the situation of the numerous commercials are humorous depicting situations which are 50-50 in nature. But the piece de resistance (or the pinnacle if you will) of integration is the sponsoring of the 3rd Umpire’s decision as to whether the batsman has made his ground or not. Other brands like VIP with the campaign line “happy journey” and the jingle “bye bye” sponsored travelogues, baggage tags, etc to demonstrate that integration is beyond mass media. We too were involved with an extremely successful IMC campaign for Dalmia Vajram built around the key thought “100/100”. The brand idea was exploded across multiple media vehicles and extended to dealer and mason meets. The campaign has continued for several years even as the brand enjoys tremendous success and visibility across the Tamilnadu and Kerala markets. Yes, integration has delivered and will continue to deliver if handled intelligently.

So, what’s the problem?
IMC as a concept and a strategic tool continues to offer a great opportunity to advertising agencies. But one wonders if it has delivered its potential. The reasons for that vary. Whilst a few advertising agencies have realised its value and capitalised on its potential there is a reasonable amount of ignorance about its capabilities and a fair amount of laziness about its implementation that is shared by quite a few advertising agencies. Agencies sadly seem to believe that what they don’t know can’t hurt them. In actual fact their ignorance is hurting their clients more. The next major problem seems to be the agency’s pre-occupation with mass media and the almost child like faith in the power of the 30 sec commercial. TV is a powerful medium and quite a few brands owe their success to this powerful medium. Yet the situation has change quite dramatically. The proliferation of channels, changing media habits particularly of young customers and declining advertising budges of companies forces agencies to rethink their old strategies. And yet how many of us are willing to look at change even more when a lot of agency revenue seems to come from this medium. Yes we live in our comfort zones. And we are better at controlling and directing media that are within our control – TV, Press, Outdoor, Point of Sale, etc. Today a big opportunity for brands presents itself in public relations. Advertising agencies have a very limited understanding of the power of public relations. PR firms too on occasion do not understand the value of integrating the brand idea with their public relations programe. So a large section of the communication is outside of the integration net. Today there is another complication as well. Completely new media like the internet, affinity groups and modes of self-expression like blogging have begun to assert themselves. How clued in are agencies on these? How do they integrate these new media with the brand idea? Can it be done?

The way ahead:
Agencies are challenged today. They have been constrained to move away from the “full service” model. They have unbundled – stand alone media agencies are just one example of this specialization. The agency is realizing that even if it wants to integrate less and less is within its control. Today clients are working with multiple partners (or is it the right expression vendors)? In addition to the creative agency, a packing specialist, a brand consultant, a PR company, a direct response agency, an events company and a merchandising expert….. Can you imagine the complexity of the client’s job? And to add to all this, integration has now become the brand manager’s job. Does she have the skill sets, the desire and most of all the energy? What does the agency do? Take the data at least resistance and say "every client gets what he deserves." That would be an easy way out but not a genuine option.
The brand belongs to the client (and yes, the consumer) but the responsibility for the brand in terms of setting its creative direction has to be with the agency. It must take the lead. Integration has gone through a difficult time and the marketing discipline runs the risk of missing out on this important strategic tool completely if it is not careful. For too long, advertising agencies have followed their clients. The client said: "Open an office in Timbuktoo," and the agency obliged. Now is the time for the agency to follow consumers. If the consumer is going online the agency needs to build competencies there. If the consumer is guided by editorial then how can the agency use this knowledge?
Agencies have to lead rather than follow. Integrate even as they create. Create what the consumer wants, and not what they are comfortable doing. Move out of their comfort zone. And that will be a great source of comfort for the client.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO of Brandcomm.)