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The Origins of Integrated Marketing Communications

Mar 23, 2023
Integrated marketing communication is written in marker on a notebook, with the other words team and strategy

In our technology-rich time, it can be valuable to consider how we did certain things before we could rely on powerful handheld computers. How did we get to new places without GPS, choose hotels or restaurants without apps, or keep track of peoples’ contact information without smartphones?

Similarly, how did the advertising industry find out what people wanted? If ads yielded strong results or poor ones, who knew why? How could advertisers identify the strongest approach to employ, and how could they be confident that their choices were the best use of their funding?

The global shift to today’s data-driven marketing industry began at Medill, with the origins of Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC). Read on to explore the history that made it possible and the future that it empowers.

Strong Foundations Enable Important Changes

Consider the early background of marketing education at Northwestern University.1

1909: Instruction in advertising was offered in the School of Commerce, which was the predecessor to the Kellogg School of Management.

1921: With funding from the Chicago Tribune and backing from its publisher Robert R. McCormick, Northwestern established the Joseph Medill School of Journalism, initially a unit in the School of Commerce.

1931: George Gallup, a pioneer in the field of public opinion polling, served as the advertising faculty at Medill.

1930’s: A course in Radio Advertising Copy was added to the Medill curriculum.

1967: The university added a master’s degree program in advertising to its degree options.

Marketing in the Digital Age

Beginning around 1970, with the development of computer technology and the widespread increase in computer use, marketing entered the digital age. Computers enable marketing firms to gather information from diverse sources on what tactics work and why, so they can strategize and adapt their approaches accordingly.

Developments of recent decades have made enormous amounts of data available to marketers. The ongoing evolution of marketing operations that began with the advent of the internet, and continued with the rise of online analytics, social media, and customer tracking, accelerated with the rapid deployment of artificial intelligence (AI). Each of these developments has moved marketing closer to the goal of customer-centricity that drives Integrated Marketing Communications.

Examining the Practice and Shifting the Paradigm

The IMC approach to marketing, once dismissed as a passing fad, was named and codified by Don Schultz, who joined the Medill faculty in 1977 and later became department chair and associate dean.

In 1991, working with the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Schultz and his colleagues began the first empirical investigative study into how practitioners were using integrated marketing communications.2 It centered on understanding the concept and the importance of IMC and analyzing the extent to which all major American advertising agencies utilized it.

Replicas of this study around the world3 demonstrated that IMC, far from being a "short-lived managerial fad," was "a very clear reaction by advertising agencies and their clients as they are affected by a multitude of factors such as new forms of information technology including development and usage of databases, media fragmentation, client desires for interaction/synergy, and global and regional coordination."4

In 1993, Schultz and his team published Integrated Marketing Communications: Putting It Together and Making It Work, the first textbook dedicated to IMC.5 It described IMC as an entirely new approach: one that looks at the whole of marketing communications, rather than concentrating on each of the parts separately. In that same year, Schultz and the Medill School changed the curriculum, adapting the earlier, advertising-centered program to include a focus on integrated marketing communications.6

Leading Principles of Integrated Marketing Communications

Aimed at creating the most effective and efficient marketing initiatives possible, directives of the IMC approach include these:

Be customer-centric.
This highly democratic, demand-side economics viewpoint says that customer needs should drive the marketing business, not the other way around. As a marketer, your job is to interact with customers where they want, when they want, through a customer decision loop rather than a funnel.

Understand the customer decision loop.
When you reach out to customers when they are ready, your marketing will be more effective. Use data to learn where customers are in their decision journey:

  1. Consumers consider an initial set of brands based on brand perceptions and recent touch points.
  2. They add or subtract brands as they evaluate what they want.
  3. They select a brand at the moment of purchase.
  4. After purchasing a product or service, customers build expectations, based on experience, to inform their next decision journey.7

Let the data lead you.
Data is the key to understanding a) your customer's needs, preferences and intentions, and b) how to create and optimize your marketing strategy and tactics. Your actions should always be informed by data, especially that gathered from your customers. In the digital age, customers can tell you exactly what they do and don’t want. Let data inform your decisions, and then respond accordingly.

Your brand also belongs to your customers.
The rise of social media and user-generated content has given customers—who always played a part in creating brands—a much more prominent role in the co-creation of brand, brand image and brand value. Maintain and be responsive to open communication with your customers.

Learn to love AI.
AI applications are becoming ubiquitous in business and marketing as they prove their undeniable benefits in speed and scale. Not only can they be used to manage and mine data, but they write copy and music, create images, develop strategy, and evolve at a seemingly exponential pace. Keeping up with the developing capabilities of artificial intelligence—and keeping a firm grip on the attendant legal and ethical implications of AI use—is required for modern marketers.

The Growing Role of IMC at Medill

Since Don Schultz’s arrival at Northwestern, and particularly since his groundbreaking study in 1991, Medill’s commitment to IMC has continued to expand, with heightened focus on students who are already working professionals.

1989: Former Boston Globe editor Michael Janeway became dean. He established Medill’s degrees in Integrated Marketing Communications.

1990: The first Journal of Integrated Marketing Communications was published.


  • Medill began the first-ever research study conducted on integrated marketing communications
  • The IMC master’s degree program—combining advertising, sales promotion, direct marketing and public relations—was launched

2000: By launching the IMC Part-Time master's program, Medill revived its master’s program designed for working professionals.

2005: IMC started offering the Global Perspectives course. Set in a different city each year, it enables students to visit top companies in the area to learn how they engage consumers locally and around the world.

2009: The undergraduate IMC certificate program was launched, offering courses in IMC to undergraduates from all Northwestern schools.

2011: Medill changed its name to the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

2012: The IMC online program began, allowing working professionals all over the world to earn the IMC master’s degree.

2016: Medill opened a new, state-of-the-art space in Chicago’s Loop, overlooking the Chicago River and Navy Pier. It is home to professional integrated marketing communications master's students.

2020: Medill combined the IMC Part-Time and IMC Online master's programs into the IMC Professional program, designed to serve working marketers' career development needs.

Medill continues to evolve with the industry and the times. Courses using industry-standard software like R and Salesforce for analytics, customer relationship management, and other marketing functions offer a blend of timeless frameworks and up-to-the-minute technology. Our emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion aligns with growing cultural awareness of the critical social and business benefits of inclusive, equitable practices.

Master Integrated Marketing Communications

Dive into the IMC way of thinking—focusing on understanding consumers and balancing qualitative and quantitative data to build strong brands. In the IMC Professional program, you will study with a faculty of innovators and successful marketing executives, in a hybrid format that fits with your full-time commitments. To learn more about our immersive curriculum and application process, contact one of our Admissions Advisors today.

  1. Retrieved on March 23, 2023, from 100.medill.northwestern.edu/our-past/
  2. Schultz, D. and Kitchen, P. "Integrated Marketing Communications in US Advertising Agencies: An Exploratory Study." Journal of Advertising Research Vol. 37, No. 5: (1997), pp.7-17.
  3. Kliatchko, J.G. "Towards a New Definition of Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC)." International Journal of Advertising Vol. 24, No. 1: (2005), pp. 8-9; Ichul, L., Han, D. and Schultz, D. "Understanding the Diffusion of Integrated Marketing Communications." Journal of Advertising Research Vol. 44, No. 1: (2004), pp. 31-45.
  4. Kitchen, P.J. and Schultz, D.E. "A Multi-Country Comparison of the Drive for IMC." Journal of Advertising Research Vol. 39, No. 1: (1999), p. 21; Shimp, T.A. Advertising Promotion and Other Aspects of Integrated Marketing Communications. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2008.
  5. Schultz, D. E., Tannenbaum, S.I. and Lauterborn, R.F. Integrated Marketing Communications: Putting It Together and Making It Work. Lincolnwood: NTC Business Books, 1993.
  6. Percy, L. Strategic Integrated Marketing Communication. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2008.
  7. Retrieved on March 23, 2023, from mckinsey.com/business-functions/marketing-and-sales/our-insights/the-consumer-decision-journey