Don Schultz may be gone but we can’t let integrated marketing die with him

Don Schultz may be gone but we can’t let integrated marketing die with him

Marketers must heed the great Northwestern University professor’s principles of integrated marketing communications, or risk the loss of effectiveness that comes with focusing on individual channels.

The great Don Schultz died a few days ago. Professor Schultz, who was 86 years old, spent more than 40 years teaching at Northwestern University’s Medill School. A big, affable presence at many marketing and advertising conferences, he always had time for junior academics and awed PhD students.

Behind the big smile, however, was an even bigger brain, and an ability to span the world of advertising and academia in a manner that still evades most marketing professors. Schultz had a singular impact on my career. To understand why, you have to travel back in time to the strange, precursory world we inhabited back in the late 1980s.

Until then, most advertising budgets had been split between two binary opposite options: above the line (ATL) and below the line (BTL). The line in question was originally found in Procter & Gamble’s budgeting manual. Back in 1954, the consumer goods giant separated its communications investment according to the way it paid the bills. Agencies that took a commission from the media that P&G bought were above, while promotions and other activities that had no commission to pay were kept below.

The influence of P&G across marketing over the rest of the 20th century meant that the ATL and BTL acronyms became common place. And it started to symbolise more than just the manner in which the two systems were remunerated. ATL, with its airy, broadcast connotations, became shorthand for general brand building. BTL, with its more prosaic origins in promotions and mail drops, came to be seen as the more targeted and action-oriented part of the tactical equation. It was common to get a summary slide for each, for example, at the end of a marketing plan.

Loss of clarity

For almost half a century, this ATL and BTL dichotomy was pretty much how big brands approached communications. But as the 1990s began the system began to fall apart as the line grew grey to the point of non-existence. Concepts such as TTL – through the line – started appearing to try and handle the sudden changes that were taking places across the world of marketing communications, but they only served to make things even more confusing. And the advertising options inside the tactical toolbox continued to grow through the 1990s, adding to a growing lack of clarity.

It is always funny to hear marketers talk about the “unprecedented rate of change” now occurring in the world of advertising. If they had experienced the 1990s as a marketer, they would be less keen to commit to that cliché about things changing more now than in the last 50 years.

Most of those changes bubbled up from the BTL world. Direct marketing, which had been steadily developing its ‘scientific’ and testable approach, truly began to come of age. It was increasingly seen as the superior alternative to big broadcast advertising because of its capability to target precisely. Best of all, the ability of direct marketers to test and retest tactics to see which message pulled best enabled rapid improvement in effectiveness and an explicit, usually impressive ROI.

The world of communications has become less and less integrated, and that has made marketers lives harder and less successful.

The once hazy world of sales promotions was also getting its shit together. Marlboro Friday has largely been forgotten by modern marketers, but it was a crucial moment in advertising history. On 2 April 1993 Philip Morris decided to discount 40 cents off the $2 price of a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. The move sparked a general awareness of both the threat from private labels and the power of promotions in fighting back against them. Understanding when to and when not to run sales promotions has become a crucial aspect of marketing tactics ever since, and promotions became a big part of the toolkit as a result.

The public relations industry was also smartening up its act. Its flaky, press-clippings reputation was being replaced with a more systematic and impressive profession that could do lots for brands for relatively little money.

I remember running a ‘share of the pie’ evening for my MBA class in the 1990s and having a leading speaker from each of the main communications industries pitch to my students the power of their respective tools. A 60-year-old woman from the US food manufacturer Pillsbury turned up and told an astonishing tale of how she had used an anniversary and a judicious VNR (video news release – ask your dad) to generate $20m of advertising equivalency for nothing. She destroyed the rest of the room and ended the talk with a clip of President Bill Clinton referencing the brand in question in a speech that week at the White House. PR became another essential element of the marketing mix.

And then there was the World Wide Web. It was just starting to do weird things as the 1990s began. But nascent company websites and email were only beginning to emerge. Someone ordered from a Pizza Hut website in 1994 and it made a small local news story and a massive impact on me at the time. The growth in what would become ‘digital media’ would provide another massive new influence on marketers.

Competing channels

But the problem with all this diversity was that no-one could really handle it. Each tool built its reputation by promoting its superiority over the alternatives, and very quickly the lineal P&G order had been replaced with open warfare and client confusion.

It was within this crucible of change that Don Schultz made his reputation. In 1991 he had worked with the American Association of Advertising Agencies on a research project to examine how companies and agencies were managing to blend the disparate and increasingly distinctive communication tools into harmonious campaigns.

That research became the basis for a 1993 textbook called Integrated Marketing Communications, and was also the impetus behind Schultz’s decision to change Medill’s course content from a predominantly advertising-themed course to one that promoted a multifaceted and integrated approach. To this day, Medill remains the global centre for integrated communications planning.

Schultz’s original definition of integrated marketing communications (IMC) was: “The process of managing all sources of information about a product/service to which a customer or prospect is exposed, which behaviorally moves the customer towards a sale and maintains customer loyalty.”

It was not the most eloquent summary of the concept, nor did it capture the value of Schultz’s overall work. And it was probably one of the reasons that IMC became a core course for marketing students but steadfastly failed to be adopted and adapted into the operations of many clients or agencies.

Integration neglected

Google “integrated marketing communications” today and there are thousands of courses and academic papers on the topic but relatively little commercial traction. It’s also a concept that – again according to Google – is gradually declining in popularity as the years pass.

That remains an enormous shame because, since the mid-90s, the world of communications has become less and less integrated, and that has made marketers lives harder and less successful. The fundamental premise of Don Schultz’s work was that the inherent diversity of tactics and their subsequent integration by a well-trained, objective marketer would always prove superior to pushing one tool out there as ‘better’ than another.

My own take on Schultz work was to use the formula ‘a x b > 2a or 2b’, to explain to MBA students and clients the potency of IMC. Simply put, you will almost always be better off taking a slice of your budget devoted to a single communications tool (whatever tool that may be) and investing it in an alternative.

Lovers of ATL TV advertising should be encouraged to push some of that money into digital media because the synergy of those two together will beat a straight TV campaign. Similarly, the Vaynerchuk-addled, self-trained growth hackers who spend their lives on social media crowing about the superiority of all things digital over the other alternatives would benefit greatly from a dose of Schultz too.

Perhaps that is the legacy of Don Schultz. He laid out a simple but accurate road plan for integration and applied it brilliantly in his own writing and leadership at Medill. But the marketing world did not pay enough attention to the great man and his insights.

In later life he occasionally referred to himself, with typical modesty, as a “failed icon”. Marketers continued to play favourites and allowed the various representatives from the different respective camps to convince us – with their expensive decks and econometric bazookas – that their communications tool really was 46% more effective than the other options.

The fact that effectiveness depends on brand, budget, target and – most importantly – the other tools in the mix was something Don Schultz spent a lifetime patiently and benevolently explaining to all who would listen.
Marketing lost an important voice this month. One that is needed now, more than ever before.