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Are Medium and Message Inseparable?
By Mike Carlton

What we say and where we say it are inexorably intertwined
Context counts

Five Decades Ago

In the summer of 1964, Marshall McLuhan, an obscure professor of English literature at the University of Toronto, published a small book. It was titled; Understanding Media – The Extensions of Man.

Almost immediately his thesis that "the Medium is the Message” swept not only the advertising community but our entire popular culture. The buzz was incredible. McLuhan was on all the talk shows. Everyone was quoting him. No meeting of advertising people was complete without a discussion of his ideas. The press proclaimed McLuhan “The most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Pavlov.”

Say What?

Like any good young agency guy, I rushed out and bought a copy. I read it. But, it’s not easy reading. Or easy to understand. So, I reread it. Then I reread it again. McLuhan’s thought processes were very complex. At least to me.

But I had a basic takeaway. It was simplistically this;

The way people perceive a message is heavily influenced by the medium from which they receive that message.

I know there was a lot more there. Concepts like Hot Media, Cold Media, Global Village, Narcissus as Narcosis, The Social Hormone, and a lot, lot more. But, much of that stuff didn’t really resonate with me. More importantly, I didn’t understand how to apply these concepts in practical ways.

Yet McLuhan’s thinking continued to dominate ad group conversations.

Then it dawned on me. Many other advertising people who were talking about it didn’t really know how to apply much of it either. Sure they could parrot the catch phrases. We all could. It all sounded good. And cool. And smart.

But, to many of us, it was mostly just high-level theory. We knew there were important ideas there, but we did not grasp how to put them into practical use.

Vietnam, Etc.

Overshadowed by an ugly war, assassinations and growing public discontent, talk of McLuhan faded from the advertising scene almost as quickly as it had come. Kind of like a flash fad, McLuhan’s 15 minutes in the limelight passed. Media attention shifted to Vietnam, civil unrest, LSD, pot and flower power.

While McLuhan’s ideas continued to have traction with intellectuals and academia, the advertising agency community happily went back to creating and placing ads. That was a lot easier. More rewarding. And more fun, too.

Advertising’s Age of Aquarius

The next few decades were wonderful. Agencies made ads. They worked. Clients’ brands prospered. And so did everyone involved. It was a golden age.

In advertising, content became king. Creative giants like David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach opened our minds to making advertising content incredibly powerful. What was said, and how it was said, was prime. Where it was said took back seat.

Agency professionals fixated on the content. That was their primary currency. Agencies were organized around making ads and commercials. Everything else became just supportive.

Creative competitions flourished. They became the standard by which an agency was measured. An agency was judged by its “work.” And, “work” was defined as ads and commercials. An agency’s book and reel became its credentials. Life was good. And, everyone was happy.

McLuhan’s thesis that the medium is the message became yesterday’s news

A Gross Rating Point is a Gross Rating Point

The belief was simple. How you reach a person in the target audience is not as important as what you say, and how you say it.

Thus, the objective was to achieve the maximum number of target audience impressions at minimum cost. It was all about efficiency. The context in which the message was carried mattered little. What was important was the cost of the points.

In the agency, media planning and buying drifted away from the mainstream. It became more and more quantitative. Newer and better media planning and buying computer systems emerged. Soon everyone was using the same data and systems. And getting the same kind of results. And all this data slowly overwhelmed intuitive media judgments.

While the right-brainers ruled in the creative side of the agency, left-brainers took charge of media. And as you know, right-brainers and left-brainers often have difficulty communicating with each other.

All the while, TV blossomed. It was a wonderful medium in which to showcase creative content. It also delivered the audience. And, it did it efficiently. Program sponsorship declined as spot buying soared. And, nobody cared very much about what appeared around the spot as long as it wasn’t a competitor’s commercial.

This model worked. And, it worked quite well.

The Holding Companies

The separation of medium and message was further validated as the holding companies consolidated their media buying clout within new media units separate from their traditional agencies. And stand-alone media buying increasingly became another option for clients.

All the while the gulf between medium and message grew.

But, it was organizationally very tidy. And quite profitable.

Like All Good Things

But slowly, broadcast TV’s audience began to shrink. Viewers shifted to cable. Then satellite. The Internet burst onto the scene and almost immediately captured an important part of the consumer’s time. And along came TiVo and a flock of other DVRs. Not to mention search and social media.

This put the prevailing advertising model under stress. It became harder to achieve the marketer’s goals using traditional methods. Nothing seemed to work quite as effectively as it used to.

To make matters worse, the consumer became more demanding. While they were continually spending more to achieve their personal desires, they were becoming more difficult to communicate with.

They began to feel advertising was intrusive in their lives. What they wanted was to receive commercial information on their invitation only. And, they wanted increased personal relevance in any message they chose to receive. Or act upon.

Was the sun setting on the golden age?

The Importance of Context

Intuitively we all know that the context in which information is received has a lot to do with how we perceive and process that information. What we say and where we say it are inexorably intertwined. On the personal level, we practice this every day. At home. At work. With all the people we care about. We intuitively know that what we say and where we say it must be in harmony.

And from a professional standpoint, we know that the same ad read by the same person is received differently depending on the context of that ad. The perception of the same ad by the same person is likely to be different if it is seen in The Wall Street Journal vs. seeing it in National Enquirer. Context counts. A whole lot more than our old model recognizes. We ignore this truism at our peril.

And there, on the wisdom of McLuhan, rests a great opportunity for agencies.

Renaissance at Disney World

About 10 years ago a 4As conference in Florida was titled, “Account Planning Integrated into The Media Function.” It was like an epiphany. As if they had never met before, leaders from agency account planning and media departments talked of the wonderful opportunities in working together. And described some remarkable success stories where this was tried.

The benefits of integrating message and medium seemed so apparent.

Yet, it was readily admitted that few agencies were very good at it. And not very many were aggressively moving in that direction. One comment was typical, “How can we do that when we are so busy now doing all our routine stuff?”

It was obvious that this was a terrific idea. But, was anybody driving it? And without that, could it go anywhere? Would this new thinking survive? Much less flourish?

A Return to the Silos

So, following that brief glimpse of what could be, many agencies returned to their once happy world of making TV spots, websites and colorful ads. Most account planners went back to only working with account service and creative. And, of course, down the hall (or across town in the case of the holding companies) they had a media unit which would place that content after they were done.

It was the traditional and tidy thing to do.

And all the while, the disconnect between the marketer and the consumer continued growing.

Blinding Flash of the Obvious

No one doubts that the consumer has changed.

She wants commercial information that is personally relevant to her individual needs. And, she wants it in a context that fits her life style. She does not watch as much broadcast TV as she used to. And she will probably watch even less in the future. But most importantly, she is prepared to continue spending increasingly more money to acquire what she commercially desires.

If agencies are to remain relevant to this consumer, they too must change. And quickly. Or they risk going the way of the dinosaurs.

Time for Rebirth

The clock is ticking. It is unquestionably time for advertising agency rebirth. Here are five thoughts that may be helpful in achieving that:

1. Become Consumer Centric

Being consumer centric means always putting the consumer first. Always!

It does not mean being brand centric. Or client centric. Or creative centric. Or data centric, Or business centric. Or full service centric. Or positioning centric. Or metric centric. Or any of the other recently popular agency mantras.

It means being the true advocate of the consumer, in all of his manifestations.

Nobody understands the mind of the consumer better than agencies. And how to influence his behavior to the benefit of the consumer, the client and society. This is the magic dust that has propelled successful agencies throughout history. This is what makes agencies unique. This is what makes agencies powerful. What makes them great, too.

This is not the expertise of clients. They are too close to themselves, and too influenced by their internal corporate interests. And it is not the expertise of the media or specialized communications providers. Their job is to provide communications vehicles. And, they are more focused on what they do than on the consumer.

Only agencies through their insights, their courage and their independence can occupy this pivotal position.

But, being consumer centric must be holistic. It is not just limited to what message content will influence consumer behavior. It is much broader than that. It requires both left-brain and right-brain thinking. It requires planning strategists, media strategists, data strategists and creative strategist working harmoniously in real time.

Consumer centricity must equally recognize the context in which any message is received as well as the content of that message.

Anything less is inadequate.

2. Embrace Inseparability

What is said and where it is said are inseparable. Period.

Yet, many agencies persist in giving more emphasis to content over context. Doing this says, “We are in the business of making great TV spots” not, “We are in the business of changing consumer behavior.” Big, big difference!

Clients hire agencies for only one reason, to change (or reinforce) behavior among consumers.

Thus, the agency’s fundamental role is to solve client business problems. Making great TV spots, websites and colorful ads are only a part of the needed holistic solutions.

So, embracing the inseparability of content and context is critical to moving above just being a creative provider to becoming the creator of client business solutions. This may require repurposing existing talent, adding new talent or engaging outside resources. And assuring that they work in harmony. Whatever is required to achieve holism.

This is a giant step. But absolutely essential for an agency intent on occupying the high ground.

3. Break Down the Barriers

Account planners that just focus on content are underutilized. The consumer insights that can be used to create the message can be equally powerful in identifying the right context for the reception of that message.

And that context may well be beyond the scope of traditional media. Any avenue to the consumer, no matter how unorthodox, must be considered.

Many agencies already have the account planning talent to do this. However, typical agency organizational and turf issues can easily prevent the account planners from looking at content and context holistically from the perspective of the consumer. Thus, opportunities are repeatedly lost because of agency organizational structure. This is a terrible waste.

Look at your internal barriers. If responsibility for content and context are in separate silos, perhaps it’s time to tear those silos down. This can be messy and a bit painful, but well worth the effort.

And, if you use outside media planning and buying resources be sure to integrate them fully with your planning and creative folks. To not take maximum advantage of their media experience, knowledge, insights and strategic capabilities before developing the creative solution would be just plain foolish.

4. Train (and Retrain) Your People

Recently, I heard a very bright young agency account person say she had entered the business only because she loved making TV spots. I winced when I heard that. Yet, I suspect that many people find that the most satisfying part of their agency job.

Unfortunately, people who think that way are missing the most important part. The agency’s responsibility is to solve difficult client problems by changing consumer behavior. Great creative work is part of that. But only part of it.

Good agency people see themselves as architects. Architects who can bring together the wide range of resources needed to solve client business problems. Holistic solutions that go way beyond the traditional. Solutions that engage the consumer in ways that change their behavior.

And in so doing, solve the client’s business problems.

That’s the business good agencies are in. And that is the way agency people should view their calling. It is certainly the way smart clients view their agency.

So, getting your agency people to understand that while great creativity and inspiring content is vital, it is only a means to the end, not the end itself. And from the consumer’s standpoint recognize that context is just as important as content.

Until there is clear understanding of that, agency people will continue to actively marginalize what the agency is all about. And diminish themselves in the process.

5. Reexamine Your Business Model

In many agencies, a significant portion of their gross income comes from time spent creating individual ads, websites and commercials. If you are in that situation, it’s probably a good time to reexamine your business model.

This is a tough challenge. Particularly in light of growing pricing pressures from clients and their procurement departments. But, if the context of an ad is as important as the ad itself, the agency must be adequately compensated for the value this balance brings in achieving the client’s desired outcome.

This will take a whole new way of thinking about agency compensation. It must be value driven, not just cost of time driven. And it will probably incorporate accomplishment incentives. It will require a new level of business creativity and innovation. A lot of thoughtful attention is needed here.

A changed business model probably won’t come quickly or easily. But come it must, if there is to be an agency rebirth.

McLuhan was Right

McLuhan was the master at helping us understand how humankind and media interact. And he did that by thinking in revolutionary ways. Exciting thoughts. Thoughts that are not necessarily easy to understand. Or to apply. However, they are thoughts that are timeless.

In today’s changing environment, agency leaders are being called upon for major innovation in how agencies think. How they see themselves. How they serve consumers. How they serve clients. And, how they serve society.

Understanding the inseparability of the medium and the message can be an important key. A key that can help lead to the rebirth of the agency itself.


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