The medium is the message - truer today than when McLuhan said it
A view from Sue Unerman

The medium is the message - truer today than when McLuhan said it

Many of the senior people whom I work with started in the planning game when there were not that many media to plan. TV, print, radio, outdoor, cinema.

A staple chart from those days used in way too many presentations – and which I hated, but was made to include more often than I would have liked – had a tick box to drive media choice by understanding the role of media. Is it intrusive? Is it visual (not so great for radio, that one)? Is it empathetic? Does it have standout? I can’t actually remember all the questions people used to ask, but I know why it annoyed me.

The answer was usually really not a tick or cross but "well, actually, it depends on exactly, precisely, how you’re using it and what you’re using it for". So, yes, print can be intrusive if you use it intrusively. And outdoor can fail to have standout if you fail to make it stand out. How many ads stood out for you the last time you walked round the block?

The catch-all planning grid did not take into account how real media insight could drive great communications. Although it won many creative awards, the brilliance of Wonderbra's "hello boys" truly lay in the media selection. If it had been planned on the basis of efficient reach of bra-buyers, it might have run exclusively in women’s magazines. Placing it at roadside drove fame and visibility and gave full scope to the impact of the creative work.

Now, you can no longer list all the candidate media on the fingers of one hand. Nor do most people apply cretinous catch-all questions to their selection. But I wonder if we are always really taking into consideration that each medium is a medium in its own right, and using its unique characteristics to fuel effective insight?

Cinema isn’t cinema – it’s a different medium depending on the type of movie, the time of day and, of course, technology. The Women’s Aid 3D ad that ran in cinema last year came from an insight about how 3D technology works (one eye sees a different image from the other) and the planner then made the leap into what happens if you "turn a blind eye" to violence against women.

Analysis of Twitter patterns during TV ad breaks has proved and quantified what we have long instinctively believed: that an ad in Homeland isn’t the same as an ad broadcast in The X Factor as far as viewer behaviour is concerned. Video on demand isn’t the same medium as TV. Vine isn’t Facebook video, and that isn’t TV sponsorship credits. Does anyone really want to watch ads on YouTube or is it a medium for sharing and peer recommendations? An ad in online newspapers isn’t the same medium as the printed paper.

When there are new technologies fuelling innovation in media, we don’t really see the benefit necessarily at first. The applications on the second screen as an immediate point-of-sale have been talked about for a lot longer than they have been apparent. There is more to the second screen than selling pizzas on Saturday night. The latest in digital out-of-home won't come of age until we really understand the differentiated consumer insight it delivers.

Marshall McLuhan, a communications guru of early advertising, famously said that the medium is the message. He has been proved true time and again. Now, more than ever, we must be precise in the briefing of the role of each medium and work with creative developers who genuinely "get" the medium.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom