Marketers Debate Meaning Of 'IMC,' Begins To Sound Like Communications Planning

Two decades after Northwestern University marketing professor Don Schultz sent marketers and agencies scurrying in search of a new Holy Grail dubbed integrated marketing communications, they are still struggling to define it. And judging by the definitions floated by advertisers and ad agency executives Wednesday during the Association of National Advertisers' annual Agency Relations Forum in New York, the highly touted marketing practice is beginning to sound like another being popularized by media agencies: communications planning.

"Media needs to be defined in the broadest context to include all points of customer contact," Dwight Shelton, founding partner of marketing consultancy Blueprint Communications and moderator of the session, said in opening the panel discussion.

"It's about understanding your consumer and when he or she is most receptive to your brand message," concurred Jane Hilk, vice president-integrated marketing & growth channels at Kraft Foods, adding: "It can be multiple touch points."



If that sounds like the burgeoning practice of communications planning that has begun transforming the way media agencies plan and buy media--and other marketing platforms--for their clients, that's because integrated marketing communications, or IMC, appears to be morphing into other popular marketing rhetoric like communications planning and its second cousin, consumer engagement. And much of it is being driven by changes in "communications channels," especially the trend toward greater consumer control over media, said Howard Draft, chairman-CEO of Interpublic's Draft FCB Group.

"From my perspective, it's letting the consumer be in control," said Draft, adding: "It's not getting a bunch of agencies to make the brand look alike."

The latter reference was an allusion to the first incarnation of IMC, which many agencies and marketers interpreted as an attempt to unify their creative message across all their marketing platforms, including advertising. That approach has since been discredited by Schultz, who recently updated his vision of IMC and said much of the industry misinterpreted his initial work.

However IMC is defined, both advertiser and agency executives agreed that the nature of the relationship and the basis of the business structure between marketers and agencies can have a profound impact on how successfully they integrate their marketing efforts.

Toward that end, Draft said Draft FCB would unveil a plan within 10 days that would transform the traditional business relationship between agencies and their clients. "We are going to flip all of that over the head," said Draft referring to recent attempts to create "agency-led models." Draft did not spell out the agency's new approach, but he alluded to the fact that "you've got to have a client led model," and said it would also be a system that creates incentives for the agency to staff appropriately for a client's business and to recommend the right communications channels, regardless of which ones are normally most profitable for an agency to handle. "The P&L doesn't change," he said.

From there the conversation dived into a discussion of agency compensation arrangements to the point that when Richard Costello, principal of marketing consultancy MagicEcho and the moderator of the succeeding panel, which was about agency compensation, quipped, "The last panel was nothing about integrated marketing communications. It was all about agency compensation."

Both panels concurred that the way agencies are compensated by their clients has a significant impact on the quality of service and the types of recommendations agencies make for their clients.

And even though the vast majority of marketers have moved away from media commission-based methods that supposedly created biases in favor of big volume media like network TV and consumer magazines toward fees, the experts indicated that fee structures are generating their own biases. Among them is the fact that so-called cost-plus profit fee structures encourage agencies to add staff and take more time to finish projects than they might otherwise need to, just to generate more money.

"How good is that for you," Carl Johnson, co-founder of ultra hot creative boutique Anomaly told the roomful of marketing executives, noting, "There are mechanisms that will cost an agency to make the right decision."

Johnson said Anomaly for one is true to its name and never "sells time," which he implied creates less than honest decisions by agencies.

"There has to be a financial structure that allows you to tell the client the truth," he said.

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