Friday, May 27, 2011

Reflux redux.

Growing up, I remember deciding this: I will know I’m old when I start making that little grunty noise when I sit down. But, like so many of the things we tell ourselves as adolescents, I was wrong about this. I will now know that I am old when I start making that little grunty noise when asked to discuss the integration of marketing communications.

That’s what I was doing yesterday, at a wonderful conference called mesh. Attended mostly by digerati of one stripe or another, it bills itself as ‘Canada’s Web Conference’, and so the question of integration was not surprisingly bent in a digital direction. The web marketing world has suddenly realized that it’s still sitting at the kids’ table when it comes to brand building and, while it may not be clear exactly who the grownups are anymore, they want in. Prepping his panel for the discussion, the moderator – with almost palpable exasperation – wanted us to think about why in the blue hell this cross-platform integration thing wasn’t working, how it could, and whose job it was to make that happen.

Well, welcome to the grownups’ table, kids. That’s been a preoccupation of the marketing world since Dallas was a prime-time juggernaut.

Back when we all had flowing beards and wore robes and sandals to work, this very question was already transformatively vexing the advertising industry. “Lo,” said Maurice and Charles Saatchi, “verily, our lunch is being eaten by companies that are not even advertising agencies. They are public relations companies, and promotion companies, and design companies, and – shudder – direct marketing companies. Since we do not like sharing our fatted calf thusly, we will buy them all. Go forth,” they intoned, “and integrate.” And so the multinational advertising conglomerate was born. And they started integrating, all right. But for too many of them, too often, that integration stopped at the balance sheet. Clients paid too much for one stop shopping while functionally siloed agency teams fought internally over budgets and bonus targets, and the closest too many of them ever came to integrating branded communications was when their production studios, wielding Pantone books like scripture, enforced graphic standards. Then as now, there was no answer. Just a lot of competing interests, a lot of rank, parochial ambition dressed up as principle.

The fact is, and always has been, that two conditions are necessary for ‘integration’ of a brand’s marketing activity: Engaged, culture-driven organizational leadership, and a really well defined and understood brand. Then, integration happens by itself, whether you’re talking about print ads or web banners or dancing monkeys. If you have to ask whether digital media changes the integration game, you’re doing it wrong. In fact, if you’re still using the word ‘digital’, it’s possible you’re not ready for the grownups’ table at all. What technology has done to media has changed a lot of things, but one of them isn’t human nature. Branding is like nation-building: you have to be willing to acknowledge there’s something bigger than you, no matter how awesome you are at your job, or you’re just part of the problem.

So, how has ‘the emergence of digital’ changed integrated marketing? It hasn’t. Not one bit. The problem is, as David Byrne might put it, the same as it ever was. There are people who want to help brands tell their stories, and there are people who want to show off what they know how to do. And as long as the latter outnumber the former in the marketing services community, the responsibility for integration is going to have to default to the marketer. Not the answer anyone in the room was hoping for, I suppose, but there it is.

Man, I need to sit down. My self-righteous indignation is killing me.