Rajat Sethi
May 29, 2014

Integration within ad agencies: Fact or fiction?

More often than not, 'integration' is a promise unfulfilled. How can we live up to it?

Integration within ad agencies: Fact or fiction?

How easily we promise ‘integration’ to our clients and how often words like ‘synergy’ and ‘seamless coordination’ are used in our new biz pitches.

For me, there is often a hollow ring to these words, and I fear clients will feel we are perpetuating a myth if we do not soon live up to our promise of integration.

The issue is not simple and we cannot just ‘integrate’ one fine day just because we want to or because the client demands it. The 360-degree concept rolls smoothly on the tongue, makes us all feel good and transports a potential new client into a make-believe world of a well-oiled machine working for him and his brand.

The reality is somewhat different. Often the servicing people in the agency are not really interested in integrating (as it takes away from their revenues and further adds another operational pain to their already ulcer-filled lives). The client is often interested only because they can get a cheaper, ‘all-in-one’ package from the agency. And the other disciplines are not interested because they suffer (maybe rightly so) from a ‘poor country cousin’ syndrome.

So how do we get out of this self-inflicted situation?

Firstly, by recognizing that our business has evolved. Today, each discipline is strong in its own right and, if nurtured well, can substantially value-add to the brand’s strength and presence in the market.

Clients will always have a choice to buy cheaper services, and the agency should not get intimidated or pressured into compromising financially. I can buy a three-in-one music system which is cheap and gives me ‘music’ or I can buy separate components which, though expensive, are best in class and substantially enhance my listening pleasure. The choice is ours.

In today’s environment, I believe developing a loose federation of best-in-class services would be a better bet for agencies than promising an integrated suite of services—if that means compromising on quality.

Secondly, as my ex-colleague David Sable aptly puts it, "At the end of the day there is one powerful word that defines and differentiates the real agencies in this arena—the ones who make it work—who operate in a seamless fashion as a matter of course. That one little powerful word is intent. Plain and simple. You either want to be a team player or you don't. You either get it or not. You either see the big picture or you're a 5X7 type."

Integration works best when the commitment for it starts from the very top. If the head honcho is not convinced about it or does not believe in it, no one else will care. Some issues are best addressed top down, and this is definitely one of them.

Thirdly, like in everyday business, information and knowledge is key. How can we expect the agency people (long fed on the mass media dream) to adopt a new way of thinking if they don’t know what benefit they can get from it. Often the disciplines meet for the first time in the client’s office, just before the presentation starts and the body language (or the lack of it) is evident to clients. The disciplines are often presented in a tactical opportunistic way, and that too is evident to the client. When this happens, clients perceive them as a sort of collateral competency of an advertising agency and as such, they are easy to not take seriously. It is easy to overlook their speciality competencies.

If we go back a few years, you will recall that the "owner" of the client relationship was in every case the advertising agency. And it guarded that relationship, and its attendant revenue streams both jealously and understandably so. This ownership was not simply based on personal or long-lasting client agency relationships: it sourced to the fact that the highest level of brand knowledge resided within the main agency. Under that scenario, the other disciplines such as PR and direct marketing could only gain access to the client when the agency decided it could, under conditions that the agency could set. And whatever brand knowledge the other disciplines gained was knowledge that the agency decided to give up. I know this. I was there. I was a guilty party. 

When we went to a client, it was not as an integrated offering, but rather as "Integrator" and "Integrated".  Internally, it was "do what we tell you, when we tell you, how we want it, or you don't gain access to 'our' client." Hardly a collaborative spirit in which integration can work!

However, things have changed and disciplines have become strong in their own right. The monopoly on brand knowledge (and strategy) once enjoyed by the agency has been broken, and agency groups have become much more egalitarian. This equality of partner allows, even demands, an active collaboration that was missing before. And only this active collaboration can result in creating proactive, strategic and collaborative offerings—which surprisingly we do so well in new business pitches.

Fourthly, timing is critical. If a discipline competency is introduced to a client just because it exists within the agency group, it doesn't present a compelling offer. "Hey, we can do that too!" doesn't give any benefit to a client. Ideally, there should be some sort of catalyst that disrupts the status quo and creates an urgent need for an integrated solution. Urgency is good. We thrive on urgent situations. A new competitive threat, or the launch of a new campaign, or perhaps a new product introduction.

Finally, it is important to recognize that all disciplines have limited resources. Agencies do not hire in anticipation of business, they hire as a consequence of it. Yet my experience is that when offered multiple opportunities simultaneously, the agency chooses to pursue them all. As a result, they will prepare poorly for these opportunities and they will not implement or executive flawlessly, and the relationship owner, in this case probably the agency, will be embarrassed. Whatever collaborative spirit existed before will suffer, resulting in a lack of confidence amongst the agency disciplines.

It is better to prioritize the opportunities so that the ones that are pursued professionally, reflecting the full competency of each discipline. This is especially important if the inter-discipline relationship is a new one and the collaboration is untested.

To sum up, if integration has to work, let’s forget the traditional above the line and below the line vocabulary. There isn't a line anymore, so there can't be anything above it or below it. There is no longer a distinction between strategic and tactical. There are only points of contact between consumers and brands. And all points of contact must be managed from a singular brand point of view.

Rajat Sethi is partner at Strategic Caravan International


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