Many companies claim to run integrated communications, but how many actually do? Tom O’Sullivan reports on the findings of the first comprehensive UK research into the area and finds that agency egos and fears of losing control are hampering full-scale adoption

Advertising agency egos and internal politics pose the greatest barriers to fully integrated marketing in the UK.

That is the headline finding of research compiled to assess just how far the integrated marketing bandwagon has rolled since companies’ first realised its potential.

Although the picture painted of protectionist-minded agencies and individuals fearing a loss of control, and in some cases budgets and jobs, will come as little surprise, the research reasonably claims to be the first comprehensive assessment of UK client attitudes to the development of integration – one of the great marketing mantras of the late 20th century. It is relentlessly sought by marketing directors but has re-mained tantalisingly out of reach for most.

The research, “Client Perceptions of Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) in the UK”, surveyed 231 senior marketing and communications personnel in companies ranging from financial services to brewing, telecommunications to high street retailers and fast food.

They were asked about the degree to which marketing functions are integrated, externally and internally, their attitudes towards further developments and also to examine their own definitions of IMC, something which already has at least 101 other explanations. The responses relied largely on commonsense perception that a more co-ordinated approach has to be more cost effective.

“There is such a lack of material on IMC,” says the survey author Helen Mitchell, a researcher at the Cranfield School of Management and a consultant to integrated agency The Communications Unit. “Everybody is talking about it but there is no real research on any aspect of it or any consensus on what it actually means.”

The research starts from the assumption that an integrated approach is the best way forward. The core question is how much external and internal integration of marketing functions has already been achieved and, crucially, who is controlling and driving its development.

“IMC is really the only way to manage all client messages and get control over that process,” claims Mitchell. “To get across an holistic message in a fragmenting media market, it is going to have to be done.”

Mitchell has no doubt that clients are driving the process. Sixty per cent of respondents said the impetus had to come from the client rather than agency side – much greater than expressed by US research. The other 40 per cent believe there should be an accommodation between a client and its agencies.

The cost of TV advertising has forced car manufacturers to reassess their use of the medium. As a result many have shifted towards a more integrated approach.

Honda, along with Peugeot, Rover and Vauxhall, have all invested in integrated programmes. Honda’s launch of its five-door Civic last year used the same branding and visuals across its TV ads, direct marketing and sales promotion – and its agencies were forced to cooperate with each other. The campaign was its first TV advertising for more than a year, an absence used to develop its integrated approach.

The desire for control and ownership of the process is further reinforced by the most popular definition of IMC, chosen by 28 per cent of those surveyed. It states: “The client alone determines strategies and assigns individual functions to agencies but all these suppliers stay in touch with each other.”

The clients want agencies to know their place. However, ad agency egos, fears of losing control and budgets start to figure as external barriers to change, for more than 60 per cent of marketing controllers.

“One of the greatest fallacies is that agencies can do this (IMC) for clients,” says NatWest marketing director Raoul Pinnell. “I am increasingly of the view that the client has to be the instigator and to fit the pieces of the communications jigsaw together. I do not see the idea of a fully integrated communications agency working in practice.

“Clients have to understand that while they may use – as NatWest does – a lead agency in a strategic role to get clear thinking, you cannot rely on an agency to communicate all the ideas in an integrated way.”

The research suggests that the level of integration is already higher than many suspect. But much of this may be the result of coincidence, rather than the product of a coherent business approach.

More than 60 per cent of those questioned believe IMC can reduce media wastage and will be more widely used over the next five years. More than half believe it gives companies a competitive edge.

But almost 70 per cent of companies still dish out marketing responsibilities to different agencies. Only seven per cent of agencies employed by those surveyed have responsibility for three or more marketing functions – be they advertising, sales promotion, design, internal communications, or sponsorship.

However, Mitchell’s research does reveal that where companies have multiple relationships with external suppliers, ad agencies have the upper hand. Almost 40 per cent of them are responsible for at least two communications areas and over 13 per cent of clients admit ad agencies control three or more functions.

This contrasts sharply with the US, where earlier research shows agencies have an even tighter grip on multi-discipline work, with 30 per cent responsible for three or more areas and 50 per cent responsible for at least two.

In the UK, none of the other disciplines – sales promotion, direct marketing, PR and packaging – even hit double figures for three or more responsibilities.

Mitchell’s work shows that internally the pace of integration has been more rapid. Again, whether this has been a conscious decision is unclear. But 39 per cent of marketing managers, 34 per cent of marketing directors and 18 per cent of brand managers have responsibility for three or more strategic marketing functions. And, remarkably, in 43 per cent of the companies surveyed, marketing directors had no responsibility for any of the big five functions.

Mitchell admits that any doubling up on responsibilities could be a hangover from the recession, when jobs were cut as a reflex reaction.

Pinnell argues that an integrated marketing approach can only succeed if other business issues are addressed first. “In very many cases IMC is not the central issue. There is a real need for companies to ask why we are in this business, what are we trying to do and then ask how to deliver and execute messages.”

But Mitchell’s study poses as many questions for the future structure and development of advertising, sales promotion, direct marketing and PR agencies, as it does for brand management.

It provides a better picture of how close companies are to achieving true integration – more a snapshot than a panoramic view, but the important elements are there. Clients want ownership of the process, they are driving it forward, yet real integration is being stunted by vested interests and fear. Clients see agencies, perhaps unfairly, as obstacles to, rather than conductors of, change. Mitchell paints a future that suggests communications “Czars” will pull all the strings.

“I was surprised at the ferocity of the anti-agency feelings expressed,” says Mitchell. “I thought client relationships had improved, but it resembles trench warfare. If the situation does not improve, nobody will win. Clients have to go to agencies and tell them what they want rather than just moaning, which is what they are doing at the moment.”

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