According to Marshall McLuhan’s phrase – the medium is the message – each media channel embeds itself in the message, and a message only goes as far as the medium allows. This phrase was introduced in 1964 when the biggest distinction that could be made, media-wise, was between Television and Radio. Would McLuhan still agree with his own quote if he was still alive today?

Between email, watching videos on Youtube, listening music on Spotify, reading news, following blogs, going to Facebook, watching Netflix, not much time is left away from a screen. Some people are trying to change this trend and spend more time offline, but this ever-going switch from one device to another, or from an app to another, has become part of our daily life.

Time cover never offline

People spend more than 490 minutes of their day with some sort of media and this number is expected to grow, driven by internet consumption. For brands, this represents an opportunity to be more present in their customers’ lives, talk to them and engage in different ways.

However, the online world brought new challenges and opportunities to the communication industry, and brands and agencies went through an adaptation phase.Some brands are now doing a very good job at integrating all the channels and are truly omnichannel (like John Lewis for example), but some are still struggling.

Engagement, influencers, native advertising, inbound marketing, content, online reputation, viral, these are all terms that we’re now familiar with, and that are largely associated with digital marketing. The options are so many, and sometimes they look so easy to implement that is tempting to be everywhere, or in as many places as possible.

But consistency and relevance are very important brand assets, and it’s easy to under-perform there if a brand doesn’t have an holistic and strategic view of its presence (online and offline).

Needs and expectations

Technology brought us a world full of new possibilities, but have things changed that much? Maybe they didn’t and the “old” school of advertising still applies nowadays to any piece of communication – online or not. Technology changed the way we do a lot of things, but our needs, what genuinely matters to us, probably hasn’t changed that much. I read in this Trend Watching report that ‘humans have limits, their expectations do not’, and I highly agree with that. Human needs are the same, but how we expect to meet them has changed, to some extent, with technology. The need to belong or to self-express ourselves has always been part of the human behaviour, but technology allows us to fulfil them in different ways, what has changed is how we meet our needs.

Taking pictures of ourselves is not new at all, the first known selfie dates back to 1839, but a mixture of new gadgets and social media made this behaviour more feasible and more acceptable socially. It’s all about understanding the motivations behind a behaviour, and what needs people are trying to fulfil. No brand will relate to every human need and aspiration, so the first step is always to be clear on the human needs a brand can relate to and what expectations people have/can have in fulfilling those. This is what determines where and when to speak, and what to say, and how a brand should use communication and medium to engage with people.

How people engage with media

Going back to the initial question, if the medium is still the message, I’ll try to answer it discussing three points.

Media is a way to an end

This has been an ongoing debate. Creating an online campaign (whether if it’s a film for Youtube or a new blog post) is easier than creating, let’s say, a TV film, so what I find is that sometimes there’s too much focus on the what (let’s create a new piece of content) instead of the why (what exactly are we trying to achieve and who are we talking to). Going viral or getting an impressive number of shares shouldn’t be goals per se, if they touch people in some way and impact them, this will be a natural consequence. Creating something that people find meaningful in some way (entertaining, useful, helpful, etc) should be the goal, and this is more easily achieved when a brand is clear on:

  • What the long term strategy is;
  • What is the goal for that particular campaign;
  • Who its customers are;
  • What are the best opportunities to communicate with them.

People don’t see the world through technology, they see it through their needs and use technology to fulfil those needs. A way of defining which media to go with and what to say, is going a few steps back and analyse the way people behave:

Is the medium the message-

To provoke the expected reaction, a brand must know where they customers are and how it can make their life better. There shouldn’t be a preferred channel by default, all of them have their own public, offer different opportunities and require a different language/symbols, it’s all about understanding what channel better suits a brand’s goal at a particular moment in time.

Any piece of communication aims to make an effect

A good client brief always comes with a clear objective (launch a new product, reinforce top of mind, increase sales, etc), and a good solution to that brief is one that helps the brand to meet those goals. This seems obvious, but it doesn’t happen unless we’re able to impact people so they stop whatever they’re doing and give full attention to what we’re telling them. “Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.” (Howard Gossage).

Going back to Marshall McLuhan, he also said that “the advertiser sets out to create an effect, he sets a trap to catch somebody’s attention”. I believe this applies to any channel, and knowing how we plan to impact people should act as a reference point for:

  1. Being clear on what effect we want to make;
  2. Explore the human truths that will allow us to achieve that goal;
  3. Match them creatively and wisely.

I think there’s a lot to be learned from the traditional advertising world when it comes to make people stop and listen to what we’re saying. Brand Republic has been asking advertising people about 3 great ads they had nothing to do with. What I love about this is that we get to see loads of brilliant campaigns that aimed to solve a business problem in a creative and significant way.

If I had to pick 3 great ads, I would go with Meet the Superhumans for Channel 4 because it helped changed mentalities (a huge goal); The Long Wait from John Lewis because it looked at something we’re all familiar with from a different angle; and The Pony from Three because it’s completely spot on about how people use Internet (and because it always makes me dance…). What they have in common is a strong consumer insight on its core, and this is why they are effective and entertain at the same time (some of these have more than 11 million views on Youtube).

three commercial

We all know that people don’t care about brands, they care about what makes them feel something or perceive themselves in a certain way, and that can come in the shape of a brand or not. It’s up to us, people who work in communication, to make that our goal for every single campaign.

What motivates us hasn’t changed

I’ve touched this point before with the selfie example, behind all the technology, it’s what defines us as human beings. Our needs, our expectations, our dreams, our frustrations, our motivations. People have always self-portrayed themselves,

we’ve always used symbols to communicate our sense of identity, twitter allowed us to report our typical day but didn’t change it.

We create a sense of identity and social belonging through the choices we make. The things we own it’s like how we tell stories about ourselves to other people, how we express our sense of identity. Brands can become an extension of what a person is (some Apple products owner would never buy a PC, for example), if they have a clear mission in mind and everything they do points there.

Above all, a good brand gives people a direction to go, makes things easier for them. And one of the roles of communication is to pass this message on to people. This is why is important to know what a brand is/aims to be but also who their customers are and what’s the best way of talking to them.


Going back to the question “is the medium the message”?, I would say it partially is, yes. Not completely, but partially.

A brand must have a long term vision, a strategy, and go from there to decide what the smaller steps are, the tactics. This tactics will have different starting points in different moments of time, and the answer will come by analysing where and how to impact. People use different media channels to achieve different goals, and it’s important for a brand to be aware of that when is communicating, whether if paid or owned media.

Like Craig Borowski says here, “for months now, a regional deli I frequent has been asking me to answer an online survey. With every meal I purchase, the cashier highlights on the receipt the web address they’d like me to visit to complete the survey. But my customer journey with this sandwich shop never had any digital components. Why would they expect me to go online and complete their survey now?”.

A brand that provides a positive and meaningful experience, tailors its message to its DNA and to how people use each channel. This is done by being agile, having a long term vision and genuinely understanding your customers and why they go to you. That’s the only way of creating impact in a sustainable way.


As a side note, I highly recommend watching the video that inspired me to write this blog. So many pearls of wisdom from Mr McLuhan.

Ana Verissimo

Ana Verissimo

Ana's degree in psychology and love of chess led her to a strategic planning role with BBDO in 2008. She has worked in advertising and marketing ever since and is now the brand custodian for our clients, ensuring projects are resonant, on brand and on message.

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