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The Truth About Integration

The dust has settled on another Cannes, and the annual soul searching regarding advertising agencies’ monopoly of PR awards did not disappoint.  This year’s Grand Prix Winner for Public Relations was . . . AMV BBDO for their thought provoking “Trash Isles”  campaign for the Plastic Oceans Foundation and LadBible.  Disappointed as I am that it wasn’t a PR firm behind the campaign, it demonstrated all the elements of storytelling (ie. multi-platform, sustained, audience focused . . . ) to which the PR industry should aspire.

This campaign, however, was pretty exceptional.  Particularly when it comes to the holy grail of ‘integrated’ programming, all too often, PR is considered an afterthought; a manner if securing industry recognition for a fantastic marketing idea.  Be truthful . . . . . how often do PR briefs revolve around the campaign (rather than the audience) in all its glory, highlighting the ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ behind the same?  All very laudable, but a television commercial (TVC) accompanied by a press release describing the ‘making of’ does not constitute integrated thinking.

I’m not suggesting that industry and peer recognition is irrelevant; creating an opportunity for clients (CCOs and, increasingly, CMOs) to share their insights and thinking can be beneficial for all concerned, including the PR agency.  However, if such extensions come to define ‘integrated programming’, then the PR industry is missing its biggest opportunity in a generation to create a really distinct proposition, and, perhaps, secure more podiums at Cannes.

Here are my criteria for genuine integrated – or ‘integratable’ – campaigns:

  1. Audience; The audience must be the protagonist not the brand; great stories for and are about people, not products or organisations.  I appreciate this marketing heresy, where brands are considered the starting point for any brief.  I believe otherwise, and call the concept ‘pre-brand’, the land that marketing forgot.
  2. Association; The brand must credibly associated with the audience through and in the story.  Trying to associate an ill-fitting brand with an audience insight – no matter how compelling – can be painful (sorry, WhoppHER, talk about inclusion and employment, but this association succeeds only in trivializing the issue).  Any tobacco association with sport from the past, generates a similar disconnect in today’s context (‘21 out of the 23 New York Giants World Series Winners Smoke Camels  . . . .’ (from 1933))  So, we should apply some criteria to the process!
  3. Debate; The story must contain an element of debate or discussion; great stories are not platitudes that generate instant and universal approval; genuinely compelling stories generate and accommodate multiple interpretations and points of view.  This is as delicate as it is necessary; brands intuitively steer away from conflict towards consensus and agreement.  However, a consequence is that resultant stories lack flavor and nuance; they become simple platitudes that neither differentiate drive engagement for the brand.  In effect, such stories fail in their objective to drive conversations.  I apply the concept of ‘safe debate’ to such instances; the storyline should be able to convene and house as many differing opinions as possible, without compromising the integrity of the brand. The reality is: the more debate . . . . the more engagement.
  4. Longevity; the story must ‘have legs’; it should be capable of being told and re-told with relevance and meaning over a sustained period (at least 12 months).  This is crucial for genuine integration.  Different platforms and media are defined by different propagation rates; traditional traction can require months of relationship meetings and campaigning, while social can work (or go off the rails!) at the speed of light.  In messaging terms, a certain degree of management and control can be applied to print engagement, while all rules are out when it comes to digital . . . the brand needs to cede control for a campaign to really propagate.

These four principles have served me over the last decade; to try and assess the validity of a campaign (particularly one emerging from the marketing department) and its viability for genuine integration. It also provides clues regarding aspects which could be tuned or changed to enhance the process.

I also use this framework to assess entries for integrated awards.  Such ideas are not the preserve of the PR agency, but given our background of earned engagement, dialogue, comment, intervention, and conversations, we should be best placed to develop them.

So, now we are clear what integration is not; let’s focus on what it should be, for next year’s Cannes!

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