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A Communications Idea itself and not how it is transmitted is what powers communication, influence and decision making.

Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 book put forward the idea that in media it is the medium that has most influence and not the message itself.  That – for example – when communication is on TV, it is TV as a media rather than the idea behind the message that has the most influence.

We disagree.

We believe that the message – or to be more precise the Idea that the message is based upon – is what is most important in all communication, influence and decision making.  The medium is in fact, execution.  The power of a clear, distinctive, compelling and interesting Idea is what good, effective communication is fundamentally about.  Ideas are the essence of communication and influence.

As the book was written in 1964 it is interesting to note that todays focus on digital communications and social media over and above Ideas is in fact nothing new.  That this is not a new concept is worrying gin another sense; if this thinking has been around for so long who are we to change it?  We will of course continue to try.

Here are two examples of where the Idea has been the initial primary focus of a campaign and vice versa.

Good example: Idea; ‘Hermes scarves are as beautiful as the beauty that nature has to offer’.  This example is a print ad but the idea is powerful enough to work anywhere and in all media.

Hermes Buterfly print

Bad example: Idea: ‘the medium is the message’/ Ideas are not important in a social media world where “we can test everything and let consumer decide”.

We recently worked with a digital service that were about to start a social media campaign.  Their response to the suggestion that the campaign would be more powerful and effective if it was based on an idea was dismissed in favour of testing everything and anything in real time in order to identify what works.  In effect throwing muck against a wall to see what sticks.  The result inevitably was that – without any coherent Idea – none of it stuck.  The consumer did decide …. with silence.

It is true that McLuhan’s book is oft quoted but rarely read* and that is part of the problem.  The line ‘the Medium is the Message’ is used as a convenience by media sales people – we most recently heard it from a Facebook salesman – for whom it would be convenient if it were true.

It can also be said to be true when the medium is very new like in the early days of TV (when the book was written) or social media but that doesn’t apply today.  McLuhan does acknowledge this in saying the effect is true in the “not-so-long run”.  However he then went on to talk about lightbulbs as a medium and to be honest I don’t have a relevant response to that.

Ideas are what effective communication is about.  The excitement around new media should not distract from that.  There are ample opportunities to enhance good Ideas through excellent execution but – of course- only once that the primary import of an Idea is acknowledged.


*No, we haven’t read it and no we don’t intent to.  But we might carry it around along with that other oft-quoted-but-never-read book; John Beger’s Ways of Seeing.

March ’16 – Here‘s a counter point from Andrew Smith in the Guardian.  To paraphrase – the Medium is the Message and Twitter has us all becoming computers.