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The Drum

How Omnicom’s The Integer Group has evolved to keep up with digital demands

The Integer Group, part of Omnicom, recently helped Kellogg's create a VR game

When The Integer Group was founded nearly 25 years ago, the retail landscape looked drastically different than it does today. The internet was still in its nascent stages, companies like eBay and Amazon didn’t exist yet, and social media was still years away from catching on.

The massive shift to digital that has taken place since then has forced the Denver-based promotional, retail and shopper marketing agency to evolve its capabilities to keep up with both the rise of e-commerce and smartphone-obsessed consumers. Back when Integer was founded in the early ‘90s, the agency’s bread and butter was its in-store promotions and activities for brands. Fast forward to 2017, and the global shop now has more than 1,000 staffers working on everything from user experience (UX) to social and content development for clients.

Morgan McAlenney, executive vice president of digital at Integer, manages a team of people who work on various digital specialties for the agency’s clients, which include Kellogg’s, Starbucks and Wrigley. While McAlenney jokes that Integer was largely working on the "win a trip to Mars" type of promotions that were common in the shopper marketing space when he joined the shop nearly 18 years ago, he says that the agency now has its hands in everything from virtual reality "focus groups of the future" that help clients better understand shopping behaviors to the creation of an in-house social content maker studio.

“We’re doing more digital work than ever, but I think that goes for probably all agencies,” he said.

Last year, Integer made a number of executive appointments in the digital sphere. The agency hired Todd Brandes from DigitasLBi to serve as senior vice president of integrated commerce, an appointment that the agency said was part of its plan to place “a significant focus on digital talent and structure in support of its mission to lead the evolution of shopper marketing.”

Integer also promoted Terry Logan to vice president-head of venture and experience design of its Retail Arts Lab. According to McAlenney, the agency’s Retail Arts Lab – which is housed in its Dallas office - is where staffers prototype and develop “bleeding edge environments and technologies” for clients.

Mike Sweeney, CEO of Integer Group, described the Retail Arts Lab as a “play environment” where clients can tinker with digital and discuss their objectives.

“It’s all about inventing stuff,” he said. “We have a lot of different ways that we can inspire our clients with what’s possible digitally.”

Sweeney said that the agency’s investments in digital all point to the fact that the shopper marketing landscape has become significantly more complicated than it used to be.

“I think what has changed the most is how many different mediums and how many different opportunities there are to connect with the shopper beyond just at the point of sale,” he said. “That last three feet of a purchase is obviously incredibly important, or if you’re online, that last click is obviously incredibly important, but there are so many touch points along the way throughout that journey that if you haven’t connected in the right place with the right message, you may not even get the opportunity of that last three feet of the sale or that last click.”

Evolving the work

Despite having strong roots in the brick-and-mortar space, many of the agency’s more recent campaigns have been digitally led efforts that cater to online shoppers rather than foot traffic.

For example, in 2015, Integer created an Instagram campaign for PepsiCo’s sparkling juice brand Izze called 'Spark Your Own Friendsgiving Adventure.' The campaign featured a quiz that fans of the brand could take on the photo-sharing platform by tapping on different photos, each of which led users to a new Instagram account with a different set of images. The quiz ultimately determined which kind of 'Friendsgiving' celebration one should have, whether it be a 'Home away from home-cooked' theme or a 'Throwback Thanksgiving' one.

The campaign also had a strong e-commerce tie-in – those who completed the Instagram quiz were prompted to click on a link where they could purchase Izze drinks directly from Amazon or check out cocktail recipes on the brand’s site.

Aside from digitally-focused efforts, Integer has also been working to help brands bridge the gap between in-store and online sales through campaigns that work on both levels. For example, Integer recently helped Mars sell more of its candy before Halloween through the creation of a campaign called “Let the Boo’ing Begin” that lived both on Walmart’s site and in its stores. The idea for the campaign was inspired by the fairly new trend of “booing,” a pre-Halloween game that involves leaving surprise buckets of treats on your neighbors’ doorsteps for them to discover in the morning.

To encourage people to “boo” their neighbors with Snickers, M&M’s, Skittles and other Mars candy, Integer promoted the campaign within Walmart stores via in-store end caps, signage and demo events. Online, a hub on Walmart’s site gave people the option to send premade Halloween “booing” bundles filled with Mars candy to friends and family across the country. To promote the campaign on social, Integer worked with influencers to spread the “#BooItForward” message on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

According to the Path to Purchase Institute, which is hosting a panel on “Let the Boo’ing Begin” at its Shopper Marketing Summit this March, the integrated campaign “became a monstrously successful integrated program that drove candy sales and engagement on and offline, and led to record breaking sales at Walmart.”

Last year, Integer dipped its toes into the burgeoning virtual reality space via a tie-up with Marvel. To leverage the buzz around the release of 'Captain America: Civil War,' Integer teamed up with game design studio Bully Entertainment to create a VR app for Kellogg’s that featured a game starring the film’s superheroes. Fans of the movie could download the game on their phones for free, but the shopper marketing tie-in came in the form of VR headsets: shoppers who bought three Kellogg’s products received a custom Captain America or Iron Man viewer.

Redefining the agency role

Despite the agency’s various digital efforts, Sweeney said that Integer’s “core competency still lives in the promotional retail space.” Even so, Sweeney acknowledged that clients are increasingly coming to Integer asking for ideas that translate well beyond the walls of brick and mortar, especially as they look for ways to take advantage of the many touch points that today’s shoppers encounter before ultimately making a purchase.

And as marketers try to keep up with a rapidly changing landscape where new platforms and technologies seem to pop up everyday, agencies like Integer end up taking on more and more projects that don’t necessarily fall under their area of expertise – but Sweeney said he thinks this is a trend that’s likely happening across the board as brands look to trusted partners to help them grow their businesses.

“I think the line has blurred in a lot of places,” he said. “I think there are traditional agencies that are trying to get more in the shopper space. I think there are digital agencies that see that maybe being pure-play digital isn’t necessarily all that they want to do and they have an opportunity to help their clients do different things as well. In the shopper space, same thing. Many of our clients are asking us to do more than they used to ask. That includes digital. That includes even branding. So I think it really comes down to the relationship that the agency has with their client.”

An eye on the future

Like most agencies, Integer is constantly working to strike a balance between staying up-to-date on the latest trends and technologies while ensuring that it is as prepared as possible for whatever the future has to hold.

“We always have to have an eye on the future,” Sweeney said. “We have to have people who know what’s coming. Because if it shows up today and you don’t know anything about it, by the time you figure it out and try to get it in front of clients, then you may have missed the opportunity.”

For Integer, having an eye on the future means ensuring that the agency stays one step ahead of consumer behaviors when it comes to their shopping habits. With e-commerce hitting a tipping point – last year, a ComScore survey of more than 5,000 online shoppers found that, for the first time ever, shoppers now make more than half (51%) of their purchases online – agencies and brands who haven’t seriously about their e-commerce strategies risk being left in the dust.

Sweeney said the Walmart’s recent acquisition of points to just how important e-commerce is going to be in the coming years. According to Sweeney, the buy signals that the retail giant is serious about what the future of shopping entails.

“The world’s largest retailer buying a very progressive and reasonably new e-commerce site like Jet says they’ve got an eye on their future too,” Sweeney said. “They know what the future is and they’re trying to accelerate their abilities to deliver against it when making an acquisition like that. My guess is what they’re buying is not only what Jet is but the mass e-commerce experience that these founders bring to the table.”

Yet even with e-commerce growing at a fast clip, many of the brands that Integer works with are consumer packaged goods (CPG) clients, a category that tends to post significantly lower online sales than other categories like electronics and clothing. A 2016 study done by Walker Sands Communications found that 86% of people purchase CPG products in-store, a percentage that was “much higher than for other categories on the list, including apparel, household goods, books and electronics.”

Even so, McAlenney said that brands who might not be experiencing stellar sales online still need to take their e-commerce efforts seriously before it’s too late. Echoing Sweeney’s comments about the future, McAlenney said that brands that don’t prepare for what he dubbed the “Amazon Prime effect” will end up losing out.

“Now is the time to be in e-environments, from to to, etc. to figure out how to take advantage of the coming tsunami of sales that will happen in those environments,” McAlenney stressed. “If you’re a brand that doesn’t think you sell a lot online now, that doesn’t mean people aren’t looking at you online before they buy you offline. It’s important not to be conspicuous by your absence in environments like Amazon, even if you’re not driving a ton of your sales from that environment.”