"The medium is the message." Fifty years after it was first coined, Marshall McLuhan’s revelatory soundbite enjoys an awkward status in our industry. It’s often parroted but less frequently acted upon and in fact pre-dated a period where agencies and brand-owners actively (and perversely) de-coupled message and media. Yet publishers, platforms, brand-owners and agencies alike might all benefit from taking those five words a little more seriously: from reversing the corporate harakiri and re-acquainting message and medium.
You don’t need to wade through the academic weeds and the clumsy prose of McLuhan’s magnum opus, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, to get the gist of his argument. Wikipedia summarises his basic premise simply enough: "the form of a medium embeds itself in any message it would transmit or convey, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived."
By way of example: if you’re reading this column online, it’s likely more disposable (hey, come back!); the same message in print may carry more gravitas.
It’s a simple enough observation, a discriminating lens on media choices you’d think, a template perhaps for agency structures even, but one that is too often forgotten by even the best communication practitioners.
Though we should be collectively chasing campaign symbiosis (for which read superior efficiency and/or superior effectiveness) we fall back too often on media as mere carrier. (Or worse, far worse, plan the buy rather than buying the plan.)
Success and rewards
The rewards when we do remember that the medium is the message are many and varied.
We’re reminded first of all that the decision to advertise is in itself a declaration from a brand: that it is successful enough to do so and intends to be around for a while to reap the rewards of doing so.
We find our way to media choices that match our strategic ambitions rather than just tick boxes. Apple didn’t buy all that famously "wasteful" outdoor just to showcase the high-res quality of images "shot by iPhone" but to implicitly democratise photography: inviting us all to step up beyond the selfie.
We conjure up ideas that cut through precisely because medium and message are hand in glove: think Geico’s pre-rolls, the Deisel [sic] pop-up on New York’s Canal St. or those magnificent Scrabble posters found only at street junctions. Change their media context and they make little or no sense: symbiosis proven.
We co-write the stuff that leaves us scratching our heads over whether it’s a media idea or a creative idea before concluding "Who cares? It’s great." (The Fearless Girls of this world.)
Chaos and change
At a higher level, McLuhan’s line of thinking actually explains much of the chaos and change currently swirling around us. With thanks once again to Wikipedia for the simplification that follows: "McLuhan describes the ‘content’ of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. People tend to focus on the obvious, which is the content.
"But in the process, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. As society's values, norms, and ways of doing things change…it is then we realise the social implications of the medium." Is it just me or is that a pretty accurate, let alone prophetic, telling of the last few years of digital disruption?
But it’s the more prosaic implication of his worldview - that media is creatively transformational - that I think offers brand-owners and agencies the more immediate upside. When message and media (and the agents representing each) work side by side rather than at arm’s length from one another, the advertiser wins… as, often, the audience does too.
It’s not a great T-shirt, I’ll grant you but "Let’s lend our messaging its most symbiotic context!" might not be a bad star to navigate by.
Laurence Green is an executive partner at MullenLowe London