Integration: It’s Not Just Talk Anymore

Back in 1999, when I started covering interactive advertising, every traditional agency had its designated online unit. To give a few examples, Young and Rubicam had Brand Dialogue; Ogilvy & Mather had both OgilvyOne and OgilvyInteractive; Rapp Collins had RappDigital. For many of these agencies, the ultimate 1999 dream was to grab all those venture-fueled dot-com dollars and cash in even more aggressively by spinning off the interactive unit and taking it public.

Alas, it was not to be. Stripped of their glamour and earning potential in the dot-com crash, interactive agencies fell into disfavor. Layoffs ensued, and the remaining cadre of online marketers struggled to make their voices heard.

Needless to say, things have changed. How dramatically they’ve changed became clear as I spoke with interactive agency folks about shifts in their relationships with their traditional brethren.

The Super-Agency Approach

WPP Group’s Martin Sorrel, speaking at the CSFB Media and Telecom conference in New York a while back, said it best. According to a published report, he talked about what he called the “super-agency” approach, in which several agencies within a holding company team to service a large client that’s looking for integration. Sorrel reportedly said the approach helped WPP agencies win the HSBC Group and Samsung accounts. IPG CEO David Bell said his firm followed a similar strategy with the Bank of America business. In that case, one executive at the holding company oversees the account, managing $600 million in spending shared across 16 agencies, according to reports.

From what I’ve heard, it looks like this approach is growing more common. More interesting, interactive is finally, and literally, getting a seat at the team’s collaborative table.

Gregg Fujimoto, SVP at McCann-Erickson and group managing director for the Avaya account, explains how it works within his group. “The senior-most people of the disciplines get into the room and talk about what the objectives and the client’s needs are, before we create anything. It starts at the very inception,” he told me. “When you bring them in as equals and peers, then they can discuss what they think can happen. So it becomes media or channel agnostic.”

McCann-Erickson Worldgroup has codified this approach through something it calls the “Demand Chain.”

Why Now?

What’s driving this push toward integration? To some extent, it’s agency leadership, but more important, it’s the clients. As it conducts an agency review, Intel has reportedly gone to the holding companies — rather than to individual agencies — and asked them to propose a “dream team” of companies to partner to service its account. (Presumably, enlightened agency leaders simply seek to serve such clients.)

“Some of it is just being smart and recognizing where the market is going,” Scott Litman, the former president of WPP’s connect@jwt North America, told me. “I think to a certain degree, the clients drive the bus. Who do they pick? If you go through a series of losses and the winners are the ones delivering a well-integrated offering, you learn from that.”

Some Examples

Litman describes connect@JWT’s work on the U.S. Marine Corps account as an example of a success story. (It won the agency an EFFIE, meaning others agree with Litman’s assessment of it as a success.)

As part of the work on that account, agency folks not only got together amongst themselves, but also visited Marine bases, took target practice, and generally got a feeling for what being a Marine is all about.

“We’ve had some great strategy sessions and powwows so everyone is there hearing the story from the Marines. Everyone there is getting the same message and working as one creative team,” Litman said. “Now, literally almost 50 percent of recruits interact with marines.com.”

Fujimori says great integrated campaigns start with an idea that “has legs” — an idea that can be expressed through various media in the ways a consumer desires. Don’t start with a great print idea and translate it to the Web, or start with a great Web idea and translate it to TV. The idea must have the potential to be expressed in different ways depending on the medium.

“They [consumers] have so many choices now. They’re not screaming that they want ‘integrated,’ but the consumer is being very judicious about the time they spend on any brand,” he said. “They have to be very judicious about what they buy and what they experiment with. The stakes are getting higher.”

At last it looks as if traditional agencies — and the holding companies that house them — are beginning to ‘get it.’ Consumer media consumption patterns have changed dramatically, and the “super-agency” approach is designed to catch up. Will it work? Intuitively, I think it will. Why? Because interactive brought something important to the table: metrics. Marketers and agencies are getting smarter. If the new approach doesn’t work, they’ll know. Hopefully, they’ll fix it.

Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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