The rise of Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) can be attributed to the evolution of marketing in the 20th century. IMC as a concept was originally introduced in the 1980’s and fast became a reputable planning tool among advertising strategists. According to many academics, marketing methods practiced in the mid-twentieth century have become somewhat obsolete due to dynamic changes in the marketplace. It is suggested that marketing methods today should focus on consumer relationships rather than driving direct sales and that the integration of various media channels has led to a reformed media mix, further paving the way for IMC as a concept.
IMC is commonly defined as “the integration of specialised communication functions that previously operated with varying degrees of autonomy. It is seamless, through-the-line communication”. While in this blog I will discuss how the understanding of IMC varies significantly within the UK, the practice is commonly characterised into four components; Coherence, Connectivity, Consistency and Continuity. The four key pillars infer a common understanding of IMC as a promotional planning tool whereby various media channels conveying dissimilar messaging can be logically connected through synergy, without the presence of contradiction.
The philosophy of IMC from the advertising and planning perspective has changed considerably since its origins in the 1980’s. IMC was initially a way for clients to align their marketing communications through an agency as they began investing in direct and digital marketing. However, through the increase in capabilities of advertising platforms allowing for in depth data analysis and digital measurability, the concept has developed into an important planning process led by the advertising strategist.
Further analysis of modern evolution implies that IMC in the 21st century requires more from the advertising strategist. Now, the advertising strategist’s job is no longer the integration of several media platforms to transmit one message. Clients now demand practitioners to plan around the needs of both the consumer and market and choose a media channel that will successfully be engaged with. Although this is an efficient technique when building a relationship with a consumer, it also suggests that It is possible for advertising strategist to implement an IMC plan with only one media channel present, as IMC is now a planning process, not a mass sales tactic. This observation challenges the outdated understanding of IMC as integration through multiple channels. The evolution however, suggests that if an advertising strategist chooses a media channel through a strategic communication planning process, and he or she believes that the channel will meet the brands marketing objectives, it is considered a successful IMC plan regardless of how many channels are used.
With the evolution of IMC in mind, there is no dispute that IMC can be an efficient way for advertising strategists to plan and create a successful campaign. When used as a planning tool, IMC allows an advertising practitioner to take the traditional communication mix and apply it on an integrated level. It is suggested that by integrating the communications mix, important relationships can be formed with consumers by reinforcing a consistent message. In addition, better technology has led to innovative advertising methods and consumer databases, resulting in through-the-line communication methods intended for a particular audience. More targeted advertising leads to better engagement and stronger relationships. The importance of relationship-marketing communications expresses that the long-term benefits of IMC lay in its ability to build relationships.
The use of IMC as a planning tool also allows advertising strategists to understand the consumer that they are trying to engage with. IMC has evolved into a two-way model where customers are expected to communicate directly with the brand through the media channel. This provides advertising strategists with an understanding of the customer and the content that they will engage with best. The same literature expresses that the nature of IMC has also evolved from an outbound push of promotional material, to an inbound pull of consumer data. This means that advertising and planning professionals can gain insights from their campaigns through sophisticated econometric analysis, increasing measurability and resulting in constant development of their IMC strategy.
When exploring the practice of IMC specifically within the UK, it is apparent that clients have more control in the implementation of IMC programmes, than the agency. While the presence of IMC has not fully emerged within all firms, agencies allocate 42% of a client’s budget on IMC programs; therefore it is regarded highly by senior level executives in advertising agencies across the UK. With IMC controlled by the client, it is suggested that IMC has become difficult to implement within the UK. It is thought that no single agency has the skills necessary to carry out an IMC campaign, and also that the concept of IMC gives the agency too much control.
While IMC is incredibly advantageous to both agencies and their clients, many doubt the legitimacy and usefulness of IMC due to its loose foundations. It can be argued that this doubt is caused by the confusion of IMC as a concept, leading to the miss-interpretation among all stakeholders involved in the creation of an IMC campaign. According to Cornelissen and Lock, “The difference in opinion about the historical context and emergence of IMC hangs closely together with the lack of a definition of the concept.”. Different definitions of IMC can be seen regularly amongst academics. For example, many believe that IMC is a strategic planning tool rather than the practice of multi-media communication through more than one platform. It is argued that the execution of all types of marketing within an IMC strategy is needed in order to satisfy a common set of objectives, a method of delivering a message with a consistent look and feel. This understanding is opposed with the understanding that IMC is simply understood as a way of communicating a message to consumers to drive interaction via multiple media channels.
The disparity has led to great confusion as to what IMC is actually is, resulting in many problems for the modern advertising strategist. As a planning tool, no set definition of IMC can be problematic as there are no defined processes, and therefore both the agency and the client are unclear of their responsibilities. For example, is it strategic communications planning process or is it simply the use of multiple methods of advertising? Considering its loose foundations and ability to be interpreted differently, it is understood why many businesses are reluctant to invest heavily in IMC. Not only may this result in barriers to implementation, but also how effective it is when implemented.
Although IMC’s lack of clarity is problematic, the problem lies primarily within its implementation, and the relationship with the agency. According to their study, agencies believe that an IMC campaign should be the owned by one agency as this will speed up decision making, allow for better integration and also make it easier for their clients to control budgets. However, clients disagree and believe in the use of multiple agencies to maintain as much control over their marketing campaign as possible. Clearly, there is a discrepancy in understanding of where the power lies when implementing an IMC strategy, and this is something that needs to be commonly understood when implementing an IMC strategy by both the client and the agency.
Certainly, the same confusion has led to other problems. While many advertising strategists are aware of IMC’s evolution into a planning tool, many still see IMC as a means to deliver a consistent message through multiple media platforms. Northwestern University consider this to be disparity in practise that has resulted in the incapacity to operate a consumer first approach, in contrast to a sales first approach. This is a problem as a consumer first approach is essential when creating relationships, the newfound purpose of an IMC campaign. Northwestern’s research outline that advertising and planning professionals need to analyse consumer data, understand their clients marketing objectives and understand their customer in order to create an engaging campaign. This led to the development of ‘SIVA’, an IMC planning process consisting of Solutions, Information, Value and Access. The process was intended to solidify the universal understanding of modern IMC and reiterate the importance of a consumer first approach, not sales first.
An important point to consider when discussing the effectiveness of IMC is the relationship between the agency and the client, as they are the two major driving forces in IMC practice. Many marketing departments consider IMC to be a luxury, something that is not necessarily needed. Again, this seems to be an issue stemming from the confusion of what IMC is. Many marketers will only implement IMC only when it can be afforded, and those responsible for IMC in a firm often occupy low level positions. Academics point out that miscommunication can occur between the agency and client when one regards IMC as more important than the other. When a client thinks that IMC is insignificant in their overall marketing strategy, they are not prepared to spend time and money aligning with advertising strategists to form an affective IMC plan. This makes the job of an advertising strategist more difficult as they have less of an input from their client, and the input that they have is generally from someone who has no authority in the validation process of a campaign.
Further research suggests ‘integration’ is a key component in a successful IMC strategy. It is imperative therefore, that it is commonly recognised among practitioners, particularly in the realm of marketing communications. According to Schultz, Patti and Kim (2016), there is some discrepancy in the understanding of integration. Historically, advertising strategists would consider integration as the cooperation between the advertising and sales team. Of course, this is understandable given that the aim of a marketing strategy in the mid 20th century was to increase direct sales. However, the modern understanding of integration is the unification of the traditional marketing mix, and the most common from the client is that integration is the combination of media channels to maximise return on promotion. Not only is the confusion a result of business evolution, the vagueness of the term ‘integration’ also results in great confusion between stakeholders in the marketing communications process. The way in which integration is interpreted has a direct effect on the advertising strategist. An example would be Nike, the brand has effectively implemented an IMC strategy, and they perceive ‘integration’ as the connectivity of all elements of the marketing mix. Not only does this suggest that they view IMC as a planning tool, it also requires an agency that understands IMC as a planning process, rather than just the combination of media channels.
When examining the future of IMC, interactive advertising is believed to play an important role in its evolution into a valid planning tool. New advertising methods will allow advertising practitioners to establish relationships as new forms of advertising methods arise which can be easily measured. Thus, allowing practitioners to evaluate the success of their campaign. As well as technological advancements, research suggests that IMC as a strategy is growing in importance. Integration is becoming a fundamental component of all campaigns with the development of customer databases to accommodate the client’s desire to know more about their consumers, and interact with them. In addition, agencies are investing 25% of their time making sure that their campaigns are integrated and planned accordingly through the concept of IMC (Kitchen and Schultz, 1997). The growth in perception may contribute to its validity over time.
The increase in capabilities on an agency side does not, however, fix the confusion of IMC as a concept. While the revamped philosophy of IMC supports modern marketing objectives such as CRM, it is suggested that it is not yet a reliable theory or practice, and it will not be for quite some time. Regardless of the time that agencies are investing in integration, for IMC it to evolve into a valid concept, academics suggest that the concept needs to be understood collectively across an organization and top level management need to be involved when implementing IMC as a strategy.
To conclude, it appears as though the loose foundations of IMC has led to distrust among firms as a fundamental planning tool. Although there are a number of reasons as to why a business should implement IMC, its evolution has led to many barriers to implementation due to the lack of communication between the agency and the client, the miss-interpretation of the concept, and the unclear role of the advertising strategist. Nonetheless, integration is thought to be vital in the digital era, which has paved the way for firms to implement IMC whether they like it or not. Although IMC has struggled defining itself due to it’s lack of validity, the importance of relationship marketing has helped improve its universal understanding due to the important customer relationship tool that it is. Clients can no longer count IMC out as they need it to keep up with the demands of the digital era, however, the relationship between the agency and the client needs to improve before it is respected as a common marketing concept.
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