Integration is A Way of Working, Not A Service Offering

By Tim Williams

By Tim Williams

If every agency in America is a “full-service, integrated marketing communications firm” (like they say they are), why do clients chronically complain about the lack of integration from their agencies?

Unfortunately, just because agencies have a long list of disciplines doesn’t mean they have the discipline to make them all work together. It’s more likely they have sewn together a Frankenstein that is less, not more, than the sum of its parts.

Lee Clow of TBWA/Chiat Day once raised a very thought-provoking question. He wonders, if we agree that the consumer decision-making process is complex and emotional, why is the process we use to develop our messages to consumers so structured and rational?

In other words, crafting a message that will speak meaningfully to that complex animal we call a consumer isn’t just a matter of going through the sequential steps that begins with opening and job and ends with emailing a PDF to the client. Yet, sadly enough, that’s how it works a lot of the time in a lot of agencies.

The process we use to develop marketing solutions needs to be much, much more interactive between internal groups in the agency. For one thing, this means replacing “meetings” with a more productive way of working together – like the daily “scrums” (brief, stand-up sessions) used by organizations that follow agile methodologies.

It also means finding a way to get everyone excited about contributing. Interaction is as important in agencies as it is in sports. Can you imagine a football game in which the game begins with a briefing by the coach, but then the team never huddles one single time during the entire game? The quarterback does his best, the receivers do their best, the front line does their best, but they never stop to huddle, talk about the game, and make changes to the game plan.

That’s what we agencies do all the time, day after day. We have a creative brief, but no briefing. Concepts, but no concept review sessions. We don’t stop often enough to huddle.

One more team member

Has this ever happened at your firm? After weeks of late nights and Chinese take-out, the creative team is finally ready to present their recommendations for the new campaign. Their enthusiasm turns to disappointment when the client approves the weakest idea of the bunch instead of the strongest. Should they have presented with more conviction? Defended with more courage?

Very often, the best ideas are lost because the client was involved only at the end of the process – not the beginning. Clients aren’t given an opportunity to feel ownership in an idea. Instead, they are kept at a safe distance from the rogue creative minds of the agency. They are barred from seeing the rough ideas pinned up in the agency’s inner sanctum, and instead are shown highly polished concepts in the sterile environment of a conference room. They have no idea how the agency got from point A to point B, and they have little appreciation for all the ideas that were considered but discarded.

Why? Because they weren’t there. They weren’t involved. They weren’t asked for their opinion, their perspective, or their feedback until the whole process was over. Is it any wonder that clients feel a lack of partnership with their agencies?

Many agencies also keep the client at an unnecessary distance through an unhealthy dependence on the client service team to get work and recommendations presented and approved. As long as the account manager is the sole ambassador of the agency – shuttling work back and forth – other members of the team will have little empathy for what the client wants to do differently and why.

Remember that true integration includes one other important team member: the client.

Integration is something you do, not just something you sell

Let’s also define what integration is not. Being integrated doesn’t mean that your agency offers every agency service imaginable. Not only is this unbelievable (from a client perspective), it’s also quite impossible.

Agencies become famous by focusing on what they do best.  My friend, the immensely talented creative coach Tom Monahan, calls this “playing within your game.” Tom observes that “Some of the best athletes in the world are great because they play within their game. Some of the best singers and musicians are great because they don’t try to do things they can’t do.”

Bartle Bogle Hegarty co-founder Sir John Hegarty says BBH owes a lot of its success to sticking to what it does best. “The trouble with agencies,” says Hegarty, “is they don’t limit themselves to what they’re good at.”

In the end, integration is more about how you work than anything else. It’s no coincidence that the A-list agencies are characterized much more by their ability to effectively integrate internally than by their ability to offer “everything” as a service. In fact, most of them don’t.