Syntax Error. The Failure of Traditional Integration.

Mergers and acquisitions have been the building blocks of the modern agency networks. In the past decade, it has mostly been about catching up with the digital age, and therefore trying to secure the best digital agencies out there.

Personally, I seem to go through several stages of feelings about these acquisitions when they happen. First, I tend to get excited. “Perhaps”, I think to myself, “this time it will result in true integration, a cornering of the market in the new marketing landscape, and a strong thought leader in the future of communications.” (Yes, I know. I can be pretty naive some times.)

Then I usually wake up, and realise that there won’t be much difference – we’ve seen it so many times before.  What’s the actual plan to make the acquisitions work? Are they looking to just add another digital agency to their network?  Or are they really planning to integrate digital into the core of the business? Unfortunately, either plan won’t work. The first plan (another digital agency) won’t get the network more revenue other than the revenue the digital agency brings in. So 1+1=2. Not disastrous, but not exactly brilliant either. The second plan will most likely be a disaster. It usually becomes a cultural collision of unknown proportions. In most cases it ends up alienating all the digital talent, and inspire them to jump on the phone and call recruiters. And it makes the traditional creatives feel even more schizophrenic, as they are trying to please everyone, but really not impressing anyone. I know, I’ve seen it – from both sides.

So what to do? Well, if we let go of the past for a moment, where structures are set in the Jurassic era, there is only one way to make integration work – build something from scratch. Make a revolutionary fully integrated agency that understands the nature of communications in the 21st century. Identify the skills and personalities you need to build that agency – and make sure you build a culture that is highly strategic, media neutral, digital centric and focused on great ideas.

Of course these skills exist in agency networks today. There are thousands of talented people working on exceptionally integrated campaigns. But, unfortunately, in many agencies it comes as the result of a single opportunity and a dedicated team, rather than a systematic approach. So in order to truly make integration work, the first thing that has to go is the egos. We all know that agencies are riddled with egos that think they alone drive success for their clients. But communication is teamwork, and the sooner we recognise that all parts are equally important, and that we all have to work towards integration, the better.

Practically, there are a few important steps to take to create the most effective set-up for the future. The first is to only hire people with hybrid backgrounds. If they have agency background, make sure they have worked for two or more categories of agencies. As in digital agencies, traditional agencies, design agencies, PR agencies, media agencies, DM agencies, etc. One of those agencies should definitely be a digital one. Don’t discount people with other experiences than agencies, though. There are a lot of talented people with hybrid experiences that have never worked in an agency.

Next, don’t give anyone titles that indicate “digital” positions, such as Digital Director, Head of Digital, Digital Creative Director, Digital Account Manager (I mean, I don’t even know what that is). Everyone is “digital” – or they have no place on the team. The exception would be developers, creative technologists (this is an interim role, in the future they will simply be known as creatives), digital producers etc. They are of course exceptionally important in the organisation, and even as you move towards a more holistic approach, they will be key in your new culture. When you have the team set up, have one person responsible for integration, like a Chief Integration Officer.

Finally, provide cross/disciplinary training. And by the way, shy away from “digital gurus”, unless they realise that people live fully integrated lives, and therefore all media and activities need to take an integrated approach. Anyone who says “digital is the only answer” (or “advertising is the only answer”, for that matter) should be shunned.

Marketing communications (or advertising) and tech is going into the most exciting, but difficult, era ever. Only a new creative revolution, where the complete set of tools is made available to brands will turn the idea of true integration into reality. If we don’t, the whole industry will be rendered extinct. The agency side has a long way to go, and many clients need to change their organisations to adapt to the future. But if everyone agrees on the basics – that all media channels are useful tools to reach the right audience at the right time, with the right message, well then we are on the right path. I for one will say it: “I believe in digital centric integration. I believe in collaboration. I believe in being useful to people. And I believe that creativity will lead to the right path.”

Erik Ingvoldstad is the Founder & CEO of Acoustic.
Follow Erik on Twitter @ingvoldSTAR, follow Acoustic at @AcousticGroupSG
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[Main photo by susan, under CC]