The Meaning of Integration

25 years ago almost to the day I sat in the boardroom at the Leo Burnett building on West Wacker, Chicago trying to persuade Cathay Pacific to extend the agency’s relationship with them beyond traditional advertising.

At the time Burnett were embarked on a network-wide initiative they called ICS, which was all about trying to access advertisers’ marketing budgets as opposed to limited themselves to that portion accounted for by advertising.

The agency’s case to Cathay encompassed ticket wallets, anti-macassars and other on-board materials, airport presence, mails, travel agent collateral (remember travel agents?) and even touched on the planes’ livery (anyone remember Mary Wells?).

There was nothing wrong with this idea in principle – everything communicates and if everything could be persuaded to say roughly the same thing in the same way then that surely is to the good. We would be taking 2 + 2 and making 5, at least.

Even though it was a long time ago I can remember the client’s reaction to the agency’s pitch as if it was yesterday. In effect he said that yes he understood the concept, yes he bought the fact that a big idea should drive not only all ads but all communication between the airline and its customers, and yes making 2 + 2 equal 5 would be very nice but he wanted to make one point.

Which was – he had proven partners who made the anti-macassars and designed all collateral material. Why would Burnett do it any better? In fact why would we be even as good as those he currently worked with? He concluded that he would consider our proposal if we were at least as good; we didn’t have to be better, just as good and with respect he didn’t really see why one or two frontmen with a title and an ambition would be as good executionally as his current, proven, specialist suppliers.

No-one has any problem with the idea of integration, indeed in this complicated world the whole concept is more valuable than ever, but it’s important to look beyond the concept to the execution.

Agencies that are very good at one thing – say, ATL, traditional creative work – are not necessarily that great at native advertising, or social. They might be excellent at more than one discipline, but they are unlikely to be great across the gamut of communication opportunities.

If you’ve sat through a credentials presentation from a PR agency you might well think you’re in a media agency pitch from 10 years ago. The fact that the PR world has discovered audiences and audience and related marketing datasets is great news for the PR industry, but it’s rather old hat for many in the media agency business. You don’t find PR agencies responsible for overall comms strategy.

Similarly ask a media agency about their PR capabilities and you’ll be similarly underwhelmed.

Holding companies and how they work across disciplines, even when they own the practitioners involved is at best a work in progress (RIP horizontality).

When a client talks about integration, he means working with the best talent wherever that talent is housed. When an agency, or holding group talk it they mean: ‘give us it all and we’ll make it easy for you’.

Compromising on quality for ease of execution is at the heart of many disappointingly ineffective marketing campaigns.


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