OK, we get it. It's about "conversation," not "control." And advertising alone doesn't do it- a "holistic" approach is required.
As this view becomes the holy grail of communications, clients desperately seek unbiased advice on how to deal with the increasingly difficult environment of the 21st century.
There's plenty of agreement in the communications world about the need for unified strategies that form the foundation for all the elements in the communications mix. But who should lead the development of those strategies? After all, putting together a team with representatives from all the communications disciplines might lead to a strategy "without prejudice," but only if the team leader is truly objective.
Until recently the "golden rule" has applied to leadership of these integrated teams: "He who has the gold rules." On brands where there's $100 million in advertising on the table, along with a public-relations program and some "below-the-line" promotional work, there has been little doubt the advertising person would take the lead on the integration team. If it's a multimillion-dollar Olympic sponsorship, the events managers lead. In a bet-your-business takeover defense, the public-relations team is out in front.
The new reality mandates that we re-examine this default model. We may understand the need for integration, but most communicators haven't even scratched the surface on how to properly build a truly "holistic" program.
Quite often we are starting from the wrong place and using the wrong terminology. "Integration" as a term is itself flawed. The new model needs to ensure that strategic business planning remains in the center, not tools.
The skills required to deal with this complexity are hard to find. The individual disciplines of communications-especially advertising and other "controlled communications disciplines"-don't teach the skills required. Internal corporate-communications departments grow some people with broad enough backgrounds for the job. Strategic planners in all communications disciplines at least start from the right place. And higher-level practitioners in public-relations firms often have the broad view required.
But the communications industry is not doing enough. We must place greater emphasis on:
Diversity in professional experience
The digital age has ushered in a need for transparency for any successful organization. On the one hand, microsegmentation is an option; on the other, all the audiences are interconnected, and you must assume full interaction and transparency among them. Everyone sees everything. Communicators who are trained to communicate with a "bull's-eye" target audience-often called "consumers"-won't cut it. Experience working with multiple constituencies-employees, the community, government and customers, must be a part of the professional DNA. We should hire out of our comfort zone-people who have worked in diverse industries and disciplines.
Comfort with lack of control
In the digital environment, you have to give up control to gain power. The analogy is that a friend who is always telling you what to do won't be your friend for long. The same thing is true of brands. This is a disturbing notion to communications professionals who have grown up in strictly controlled communications disciplines such as advertising or promotions where every word, every comma and every pixel is tightly managed. This should be a natural fit for public-relations professionals, but they need to broaden their views in other ways as well.
A global view
Globalization adds to the complexity, and to the need for a broader view. Communicators need to deal with an environment where global audiences are exposed to each other's messages. Our hiring should place a greater emphasis on professionals with real global work experience. It isn't enough to be a part of a global firm or corporation; we should seek individuals who have participated actively on a multinational account or spent part of their careers in different countries.
Communication without prejudice
As anyone who has tried it knows, producing excellent advertising is a very tough job. Making a 30-second spot that works and selling it through a gauntlet of approvals is enormously challenging. Producing a major event requires special organizational skills and talents. Writing a beautiful speech is something not everyone can do. But these tactical skills don't necessarily grow the broad strategic perspective required of an advice-centric model.
We need to train people in how to deliver on the promise of integrated, holistic communications-using the right tools and the right channels to further our clients' goals and communicate their messages. We need to move beyond ownership and the issue of whether advertising, direct marketing or public relations leads. It is about collectively finding the right solution, implementing it flawlessly and measuring our work.
To be capable of handling higher-level business relationships, communications professionals must have a deeper understanding of the businesses and industries they serve. Strategic counselors at the heart of an advice-centric model are born from people with strong business acumen, an understanding of all aspects of the marketing mix, and an appreciation of the importance of research to measure a program's value and impact.
Change creates opportunity, and today's communications professionals have an opportunity ahead of them to lead the next generation of corporate and marketing activities around the world. Maintaining a broad view, building experience, staying on top of technological change and recruiting the best people with next-generation skills will take the profession where it has the potential to grow.