Integration is a marketing catchphrase of the moment. Its value propositions seems unquestionably strong—the whole of a marketing initiative can be greater than the sum of its multidisciplinary parts if those parts work tightly together to assist one another.

While certainly capable of delivering on this promise, integrated marketing is not without its inherent vulnerabilities. One area of definite risk with integration lies in its rigidity—its inability to handle change and dynamic competitive forces.

The need to coordinate a host of disparate marketing disciplines in a united cause tends to slow integration's ability to make on-the-fly decisions and act upon them. One can readily foresee situations where more maneuverable competitors could take fierce advantage of the difficulties of an integrated initiative to turn on a dime.

I would therefore argue that as integration continues to mature, the importance of marketing agility and maneuverability will grow in importance—both as a defense for and offence against integrated efforts.

An Integrated Background

The idea of integrated marketing is hardly new. Walt Disney was using what he called “synergy” in the 1950s and 1960s to drive the Disney company forward using coordinated marketing efforts in print, television, movies, merchandizing and his Anaheim theme park. Each part of the Disney marketing mix promoted other aspects of the mix that together built the Disney brand and revenue stream.

In the last 20 years, a wide range of marketers have begun to embrace integration as a mantra for their efforts in large part due to the increasing problems that exist with our mass mediums, which are presently fracturing and becoming growingly inefficient. This crisis in mass marketing has an ironic origin in the success of these mass mediums as advertising venues, which has in turn fed the growth of greater media complexity. This complexity has led to increasing difficulties reaching truly mass audiences as consumer media options become more diverse and segmented in an ever-growing sea of choices.

Integration has offered a partial fix to this problem by facilitating marketing efficiencies through a smart management of a total marketing mix. These efficiencies first took the form of the various media coming together to support a primary medium's effort (usually television) using consistent messaging across the secondary and tertiary communication channels.

This simple integration has given way to a more intense “synchronized” or “360-degree marketing” style of integration, which uses a total media mix to message consumer in a coordinated way with no one medium dominating. Synchronization is to marketing what surround sound is to an audio system.

A good example of how contemporary integration can work is to be found in the M&Ms Global Color Vote in 2002. The vote for the newest M&M candy color involved the coordination of not only a countless number of international marketing teams but also a series of marketing teams in the United States.

Porter Novelli kicked off the initiative in the US by building buzz for the vote using public relations pushes; BBDO then worked to drive further awareness using television and print advertisements; and Grey created a Web site infrastructure to facilitate the voting call-to-action and then collected new direct marketing leads as consumers interacted with the promotion.

The end result of the Global Color Vote was nearly 10 million consumers voting on the new color, a jump in product sales, and a dramatic harvest of relationship marketing leads for re-contact. The success of the effort was not easy, but this case shows well how the coordination of a series of marketing partners can yield dramatic results that any one of those partners alone could not achieve in today's difficult media environment.

The Risks of Integration

Success in integration requires much planning and management to orchestrate the varied mix of marketing disciplines. This need for strong coordination forms an Achilles heel for integration, since it often prevents rapid responses to unexpected situations and emergent opportunities.

To make matters worse, a failure of any one component within an integrated initiative, especially a synchronized one, can have dire results for the other marketing components that are dependant upon its success, which can cause a cascade of subsequent failures.

I can recall one cascading crisis where integration broke down when the public relations group working on a project responded to its own timing concerns by launched its PR push weeks early. The other partners were unable to change their schedules in time to take full advantage of the earlier-than-expected PR effort, which caused a significant loss in the effectiveness by the various disciplines at transforming public interest into program involvement.

The potential causes of integrated failure are many and commonplace, include these:

  • Incorrect strategic assumptions 
  • Inferior tactical execution 
  • Unanticipated marketplace changes 
  • Delays bringing products to market 
  • Poor communication 
  • Conflicts between integration partners 
  • Rogue partner behavior

The tactical rigidity of integration often prevents recognition of the above problems as they are unfolding, which hampers damage control and response. There usually is an uncomfortable delay between the origin of a problem and its identification within an integrated framework.

Much potential mitigation time is lost as the integrated team slowly identifies the problem at hand and then figures out how to get the various parts of the effort to respond to the problem, if they can. The individual partners tend to labor along to complete their assigned tasks independent of the larger picture until directed to do otherwise, which often gives integration for good or bad a feeling of unalterable momentum.

Despite the clear risk of change, most integrated marketing plans rely on a passive and dangerous assumption that there will be little need to respond to change once the implementation begins. Many integrated marketers seem to live by the optimistic belief that their plans will flawlessly execute, so there is little need to spend money to mitigate potential risks.

Accordingly, most integrated marketing plans have few built-in contingencies to accommodate change. They also tend to have ineffective feedback systems to know in the midst of the initiative what is working and what is not. It is as if an understanding of success or failure of the integrated initiative is largely left to the very end of the project—way beyond the point of redemption from problems that might arise.

The inflexibility of integrated marketing takes on a darker shadow when one considers that almost all marketing takes place in a competitive environment. Therefore, exploitable weakness in your marketing practices can lead to gains by a shrewd opponent.

A nimble marketer would do well to survey his or her opponent's integrated strategy as it tactically unfolds, and respond against those components expected to be the most rigid and therefore the most venerable. If successful, a marketer can send a competitor's integrated initiative into a crisis mode from which it may not easily recover.

The risks of inflexibility in a competitive environment have been nicely defined within the military strategy work of Col. John Boyd. Boyd spent the later part of his life creating Pentagon presentations that advocated against rigid command and control structures for the US Military. The most well known of these presentation is his powerful “Pattern of Conflict,” which formed a blueprint for combat successes first in Grenada and then the Gulf War.

Boyd argued that competitiveness in military conflict is dependent on the rate at which decisions can be made and applied. The faster one can make sound decisions and put them to use, the better one could compete with one's opponents. He further noted that faster maneuvering can destabilize opponents by continually short-circuiting their normal decision-making structures, thus providing even more tactical opportunity as the opponent struggles continually to reorient itself.

How Does This Relate to Integrated Marketing?

Boyd recognized that military competitiveness is best achieved not through creating stronger centralized command and control structures but by relaxing these structures, thus allowing team members to react fluidly to a changing competitive landscape that they can observe firsthand. In Boyd's vision, central leadership should exist to provide clear high-level direction and facilitate the efforts of the opportunistic practitioners under its command.

The teams on the battlefield should be able to improvise within the high-level direction provided by command in much the same way that a good Jazz band will play spontaneously with a music score. All the musicians are playing the same piece of music, but each is free to opportunistically modify his own part to delight an audience. Practice and mutual trust assures that no one band member deviates too far from the music score and opportunities are exploited in a coordinated manner by the whole band. A Boydian-style agile team needs to work in this same manner to be competitive.

Boyd describes the optimal competitive situation as having “harmony,” where all teams and team members are improvising in tandem toward a set of mutual goals while not requiring explicit orders to do so. When I played soccer, we call this same trait “touch,” which allowed me to know in the heat of game how best to set up a team member to score a goal without having to rationalize explicitly about how they were going to break toward the goal or what foot they preferred to use.

The typical integrated project does not fit the profile of competitiveness as defined by Boyd. Integrated programs usually have centralized and slow-moving control structures with teams that have low trust working with one another. Most often, integrated teams are a series of groups thrown quickly together for a project and have little incentive and experience to work together in anything that approaches harmony. The critical ability of coordinated improvisation just does not naturally exist in most integrated programs.

There are two direct implications coming from the above insights about integrated marketing's weaknesses:

  1. More agility and harmony need to be built into our integrated programs to defend them better against dynamism.

  2. Agility should be explored further as a David-versus-Goliath response against integrated competitors.

Harmonizing Integration

The harmonizing of integrated marketing will not be an easy task, but it is not impossible. The first place to start is with the planning process, by allowing adequate feedback and flexibility to achieve increased organizational fluidity.

The integrated marketer would do well to stop making the troublesome assumption that nothing will go wrong, and start investing prudently up front to have backup plans ready if potential risks become reality. An integrated plan should include both an exploration of available mitigation measures and hedges against loss.

Unlike the financial industry, where hedging is commonplace, marketers do not often use hedging strategies to limit their risks. This is a mistake. Hedges are powerful tools to contain loss and keep flexible in a tough market. For those unfamiliar with the term, a hedge is a tactic that acts like insurance against potential loss, thus limiting damage should an initiative go awry.

A good example of an integrated hedge would be compensating your partners using incentives where the extent of compensation for these partners is variable and based on hitting or exceeding project targets. This hedge works by binding the cost of a project to how well it performs, so that any losses can be limited if an initiative flounders. These incentives work best if there is a strong profit motive in doing better than expected, so your partners have a stake in doing the strongest work possible as a team. If the incentives go un-won by the partners, they can be reapplied to fund any needed mitigation efforts to further offset losses.

One mitigation that all integrated marketers should undertake is the prevention of an integrated initiative's tactics from taking on a life of their own and becoming divorced from the ultimate strategic goals of the program. Diligence needs to be fostered within all partners of an integrated team to ensure that goals and tactics remain aligned. Each integration partner should be tasked with monitoring and understanding the effectiveness of its part of initiative within the context of the program's larger goals. Further, the teams should be enabled to be entrepreneurial in their efforts to improve these measures.

The leadership of the program should further push the partners to act spontaneously together to exploit new opportunities and defend against nascent liabilities as they emerge. In a promotional effort, for instance, the interactive partner could routinely mine the Web logs of the promotion site for links to that site from other sites, which are a wonderful source of organic opportunities for public relations.

As part of the earlier-mentioned M&Ms Global Color Vote, the Web logs for the promotion led the interactive marketing team to a previously unknown grassroots campaign by Apple computer enthusiasts to vote for the color Aqua, which happened to be the code name of part of the new Macintosh OS X operating system. In a harmonized model, this information could have been put to use to intensify the promotion through public relations highlighting this strange connection, while guerilla-marketing tactics could have been applied to assure that it continued in a healthy manner.

This type of coordinated fluidity requires trust to work. Harmony will only grow when the various partners learn to trust one another and become comfortable with each other's tactics and habits. Therefore, marketers need to make a better effort to create a total-team feel on an integrated project.

Too often, only an uncomfortable bond exists between integrated partners, held loosely together by weekly conference calls to discuss milestones and deliverables. The lead marketers of an integrated initiative should encourage more and deeper contact between the partners under their leadership, including regular brainstorming about how to gang together to keep a project better on track and seek emerging opportunities. The different partners can even be provided financial incentives in this effort so that the needed levels of cooperation are not left up to chance or personality.

Confronting Integration

When confronting an integrated marketing effort by a competitor, the same tactics of increased maneuverability discussed above to defend integration can be turned against it. The strategy is simple—get inside your opponent's integrated decision cycle and destabilized it by creating unanticipated marketplace changes through your own communication efforts. With luck, your targeted counterpunches will result in the confusion of your opponents, a cascade of troubles for them, and a loss of positive efficacy for their efforts.

Given that integration typically works to serve the needs of brand marketing, the elements that most intimately support this endeavor should become the prime targets for any agile counterpunch. By striking at these elements, one is assured to be affecting the very success of the initiative, while often setting up your own brand for strengthening in the minds of consumers.

Brand marketing works by binding a concept of a product's differentiation into the minds of a consumer, and then using price and promotion to drive that consumer toward purchase of the product. One can readily derail brand-marketing efforts by affecting the successful execution of any of these steps toward consumer purchase. The agile marketers would do well to point its attacks toward counteracting an integrated initiative's effort to develop competitive differentiation, drive promotion, and make compelling offers in the minds of consumers.

For instance, Burger King recently launched a buzz-worthy interactive promotion called the Subservient Chicken, which allows consumers to visit a Web site and give a man in a kinky chicken suit orders. It was the hope of Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, the creators of the site, to start moving the image of Burger King away from just being centered on beef burgers by transforming the buzz about an oddball chicken Web site into momentum for a full integrated push to sell more chicken sandwiches at a fast food restaurant mostly well-known for selling hamburgers.

While successful at creating buzz, the new promotion does leave the Burger King brand in a venerable place somewhere between its traditional image and the new one they are hoping to mint.

If I were one of Burger King's competitors, I would be working double-time to make sure the handoff between promotion buzz building and image transformation does not occur seamlessly. One can sabotage this handoff by changing the discourse of consumers away from an interest in Burger King to questioning the meaning of this move by the company and its brand.

Why is Burger King abandoning its burger foundation? Can a fast food restaurant with “burger” right in its name really pull off a good chicken sandwich? And do I want to give business to a fast food joint that has a sadomasochistic bird as one of its mascots?

A good mix of tactical public relations and guerilla marketing could quickly get Burger King on the defensive with a damaged image somewhere between where it started and where they want to be. This could be quickly followed by a run of brand advertising by Burger King's competitors reinforcing the strength of their own brand image in contrast to the half-executed image transformation attempted by Burger King.

With luck, Burger King's strategy would proceed unaltered until such time that adequate damage has been done to fully derail the present initiative. It would then be up to our hypothetical competitor to wait and react with the same speed and purpose to what might come next from Burger King in hopes of continuing the disruption of its integrated marketing long-term.

This contrived example shows how an integrated effort can be taken on by a competitor and defeated largely by exploiting opportunities as they emerge and letting momentum take its course. Success in these matters does not rely so much on the scale of resources that can be brought to bear against the integrated target, but upon the speed and smartness of the tactics.

When that's done right, the integrated marketer becomes his or her own worst enemy while in the throes of tying to get an unwieldy marketing infrastructure to react to change.

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image of Matthew Syrett

Matthew Syrett is a marketing consultant/analyst—a hybrid marketer, film producer, technologist, and statistician. He was vice-president of product development at the LinkShare Corporation and vice-president at Grey Interactive. Reach him via syrett (at) gmail (dot) com.