A critical discussion of the concept of Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) from an advertising strategy and planning perspective.

Today’s marketing world is considered to be the age of ‘hyper-competition’ with the advent of the vast landscape of businesses that have saturated the markets. Consumers are having to make more choices with which brand they pick and therefore businesses need to cut through the noise to make sure customers purchase their products. The examination of integrated campaigns to create one brand voice, to dispel confusion in the consumer’s mind, has been debated amongst academics and practitioners alike. This paper will go some way to evaluating the concept of IMC and in particular from a strategy and planning perspective.

What is IMC?

Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) was first defined by Shultz, Tannenbaum and Lauterborn (1993) as a “concept of marketing communications planning that recognises the added value of comprehensive plan that evaluates the strategies role of a variety of communication disciplines (such as advertising, direct response, sales promotion, etc.) and combines them to provide clarity.” (Fill,2013)

The exploration of IMC has spurned an academic and practitioner desire to delve deeper into the issues surrounding it. Kliatchko (2008) elaborated and questioned the earlier defined Shultz et al as he moved to identify that IMC was essential to manage stakeholders through an audience-driven approach. 
 
 Kliatchko derived that the process of IMC must centre around the audience (customer) and with advent of technological rises this goes someway to explaining now the power shift from brands to the consumer. Consumer insight and customer journey tracking mechanisms have enabled this shift as the business become ‘outside in orientated’. Kitchen et al (2008) place onus on the consumer as they state “panning that starts with receivers not senders”.

These three defining pioneers, as such, painted a picture and model that comes to the aide of the marketing industry in a turn where advertisers increasingly demand more return for their investment. Duncan and Moriarty (1997) added to the definition to make it clearer for marketers by placing onus on the ‘cross-functional process for creating and nourishing profitable relationships with customers and other stakeholders by strategically controlling or influencing all messages sent to these groups and encouraging purposeful dialogue’.

Keller (2001) Involves the development, implementation, and evaluation of marketing communication programs using multiple communication options where the design and execution of any communication option reflects the nature and content of other communication options that also make up the communication program.

The implementation of IMC is argued to be one of the biggest drawbacks due to the amount of roadblocks and difficulties a marketer must overcome. The ramifications of IMC can be felt across an organisation and its board levels. At the top, within the corporate pillars of an organisation, it is regarded that this is where IMC is felt the most (Holm, 2006). However, the largest argument here is that this can grow far beyond marketing at this board level as it has the capabilities to establish brand values and a cohesive strategy for a brand moving forward.

UK Agencies View

Kitchen et al (2004) discovered, through their examination, that 80% of advertising and PR consultants in the UK had worked on IMC campaigns for their clients. Kitchen et al noted that practitioners regarded IMC as a tactic rather than a strategic tool to implement and not “a way to organise the business or firm” as academics may argue.

There is evidence that pushes beyond Kitchen et al (2004) studies and work on the subject of IMC. Through essays published, in Campaign Magazine (3rd December 2010), we are given a snapshot of qualitative research into how ten London based agencies view IMC. It was noted that only three of the ten agencies paint IMC as the alignment of corporate goals. One London based agency notes that IMC is “about moving marketing out of a department and into the fabric of an organisation”. A key take away from the agency insights is that there is a large body of focus towards ‘interactivity’ and ‘integration with consumers’.

IMC is argued that it is largely an internal strategic tool that looks to enhance and the brand from within. London based agencies don’t fully acknowledge this viewpoint. As the agencies see their role as being far more pivotal than the IMC model predicts. They reject the idea of internal brand builders as they believe that they are “a diverse network of creative and strategic minds and craft skills, dedicated to producing the most powerful brand ideas”.

What are the benefits of IMC?

Although there are perceived downfalls and difficulties in implementing an IMC communications plan. Unintegrated databases cause many problems within an organisation as they don’t allow for a single picture of customer to be understood. IMC is also argued that it gives the ever wanted single customer experience. The protection of the customer aides to brand building and ultimately bottom line sales. This is done through encouraging customers and non-customers to collaborate and create a better system with the brand.

Client-lead ownership of the campaign for the business allows for the brand value and image to not waiver from their vision. Kitchen and Schultz (1999) looked to understand the agency relationship with IMC and their clients. They discovered that “Agencies, no matter how skilled or capable, simply can’t integrate a client’s marketing communication program unless the client leads the way”. Gould, Lerman and Grein (1999) state that IMC “should originate with client generalists who see the big picture” and those that understand their “overall marketing strategies”. (Swain, 2004)

Iddiols (2000) sees the benefits of IMC being a larger player in the eye of the consumer. He identifies that integration represents a coherent approach as it is both a value driver, proposition driver and mnemonic driver. By implementing an integrated approach at the strategic level he argues it “provides short-cuts to understand what the brand stands for. It adds depth and amplification to a particular message or set of brand values. It demonstrates professionalism on the part of the brand owner”. Iddiols develops his two method approach by elaborating that values creates a consistent set of messages to create the strongest approach. The proposition he argues is vitally important as it establishes a brands identity. Lastly, he uses the mnemonic approach deployment means that brands can have an identity through gaining the consumer consciousness.

IMC from the perspective of planning and strategy

The IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) believe that when a client is briefing an agency it is the agency job to produce “one idea that works across disciplines”. However, it is dually noted that this “creates tensions between disciplines when one agency takes the lead role”. The IPA notes that there are four models for IMC to work effectively across campaigns.
 The Client-Led Model. This model is where the client does the strategic thinking themselves and conducts all internal research to get to their strategic idea. The client in this situation must fully grasp and understand their product and markets. 
 The Lead Agency Model. This where a client uses an AOR (agency of record) or similar format to be responsible for creating the communication strategy for the campaign. After this planning and strategy is in place the other agencies would follow suit.

The All Agency Model. Utilising creative and strategic expertise across an agency roster to cherry pick or ‘Pick n Mix’ the types of capabilities they require for the output. 
 The One-Stop-Shop Model: This model is harnessed through an overarching agency network, such as WPP or Publicis, that have acquired multiple disciplined agencies into their umbrella. (Pringle, 2011).
 
 David Magliano, Director of Commercial and Marketing at England 2018, notes that picking the right model “is about assembling the best in class talent you have available to be in the room at the same time, each area of expertise having respect for one another and all members of the client and agency being completely open and honest” (Pringle, 2011).

With a structured and regimental brief, the creative output can be quickly and easily defined with little room for ambiguity or lack of reasoning. With efficiency levels of communications constantly under the microscope an IMC brief is able to create creative that is “the product of a brief” (Griffiths, 2002).

It is noted that at the deliverance of an integrated brief the assigned specialists from different disciplines respond in one of three ways. Thematic thinking is the first way where several sub-briefs are created and devised per the discipline to work towards the overarching campaign brief. This thematic approach is argued that it gives a large realm of autonomy to each discipline to create the work they believe will cut through. The second approach is Visual Linking and this where there is a centralised art direction that is given to the campaign and adhered to. This is a top line idea that is pioneered through advertising. It is argued that although the campaign looks integrated, and in unison across touch points, these may “lack the selling power” as well as being merely “window-dressers”. The last way a brief can be assembled is through association of the varying disciplines. The analogy of a dog on a leash is used to describe this one. You give the dog a retractable 3m leash so it thinks it is free. But, when you need to reign the dog in you can with ease. This approach is the point where disciplines are encouraged to create linkages and given full autonomy but must fit the brief. (Griffiths, 2002).

The downfall of IMC

Implementation and executional elements of IMC are increasingly difficult to overcome for firms and businesses that wish to model the IMC structure. The organizational structure is one of the remits for the argument against IMC as it is widely argued that the ‘dysfunctional client of agency structures have caused implementation problems (Shultz and Kitchen. 1997; Kitchen and Schultz, 1998; Eagle et al., 1999; Kitchen and Bulmer, 2007). The argument here is that the current leadership and centralized nature of agencies and client businesses mean that the control of a brand or work is determined by a small team of decision makers. This pyramid approach to marketing and decision making in IMC provides a barrier to entry with the need for validation at each step minimising the output of work.

Kitchen and Shultz (1999) study outline eight key barriers to implementation of IMC across agencies and clients. They noted that IMC requires internal staff to be more generalist across their job spectrum. Integrated agencies do not have the talent available to carry out and deliver the MARCOMS objectives as they can be centralised or lack of working relationship. They found that both internal and external campaign staff have to learn new skills to conform to the brief and this also uncovered that IMC has the realm to give individuals too much control. The current client organisational structures constrain the breath available for IMC development and this can be further evidenced through centralization difficulties.

Implementation of integrated campaigns can only fully happen at the strategic process as there “isn’t enough time or budget to ensure that integration happens consistently all the way through the implementation”. (Griffiths, 2002). Griffiths notes that the because of the planning of IMC happens at the board room level that the strategy is created within “client meetings, not with the development team”. He further criticizes the formulaic way the campaign brief is honed as it derives from the agency away-day, without further planning, and then is placed upon the account planner to keep the brief on track. Griffiths believes that IMC briefs are delivered on “tablets of stone” with very little room for adaption.

Marketing is increasingly difficult to measure the return on budget allocation costs and what element of an integrated campaign has done well and what hasn’t. Shultz and Kitchen (2000) note that “IMC’s progression as a concept and discipline is entirely appropriate and in accordance with scientific theory”. This paints the picture the current IMC measurement model is currently one of pay per activity creation. However, there is a legitimate argument that agency compensation can be changed to rectify this and unify IMC by holding it to a higher standard. (Swain, 2004)

IMC campaigns don’t have the same realm or sense of freedom that non-integrated approaches have when creating a campaign. “Through softer measures of business success such as brand awareness, fame, differentiation or strengthening brand values, it can be seen that integration does not have significant additive benefits over a non-integrated approach” (Cox et al, 2011). The lack of cut through creative work and autonomy to fully develop an idea further creates several implications in overall campaign impact.

David Ogilvy (1993) argues that “everything a company does, communicates, then notion of IMC should realistically embrace every dimension of company activity”. This he argues is a top line internal boar room planning tool and not one that agencies can fix. Gould et al (1999) clarifies this by stating that the “responsibility of actually managing IMC as an inter-organized process” lies at the brand/organisation’s helm.

Kitchen (2005) found that the biggest underlying problem with the implementation of IMC across the industry is the lack of willingness to invest in marketing resources. Through this lack of investment, it is argued that IMC is only seen as a tactical element and not a strategic tool.

IMC in 2017 and beyond

IMC is an increasingly important facet of the practice in marketing communications as it can be seen by an increasing number of companies and agencies looking to achieve deep and better integration. Shultz and Jones (1999) earlier defined IMC by placing the onus on planning and that it primarily “attempts to co-ordinate, consolidate and bring together all the communication messages”. However, this thought and reasoning only talks about IMC from the client-agency perspective and lacks to delve deeper into what this means for the brand in the eyes of the consumer. With the rise of new technologies, platforms, brands and ways of communicating it is important that brands now understand who their customer is. An IMC campaign would have to contain a great deal of autonomous freedom to succeed fully in 2017 and beyond. Consumers are receptive to messaging all the time throughout their day. But, it is the brands that create the fame and impact element do consumers remember and share. This fame, under the current IMC models, is increasingly difficult to attain through a centralized brand voice. “The search for integration should not be taken to infer creative uniformity”. (Baker and Hart, 2007)

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