Is The “Medium still the Message”?

Everybody has heard the phrase “the Medium is the Message,” Marshall McLuhan’s famous contribution to the study of communication. It may seem like a complex theory from a philosophical genius, but actually, it’s pretty intuitive. McLuhan is saying the medium through which information is transmitted shapes and influences our perception and understanding of the message itself. That’s all. So, if you watch a commercial on TV, the very fact that it’s a TV ad is going to change how the audience understands it. McLuhan was thinking about this in the 60s just as TV was rising to mass media prominence, reaching tens of millions of people simultaneously. If VW had a commercial at half-time at the Superbowl, we all saw the same thing at the same time, in the same context.

But now, in 2023… People no longer “watch TV” they consume content on their device – they are casting, streaming and binging content free from a set time and place. The proliferation of digital media has transformed the traditional mass communication model into a more personalized and one-to-one communication paradigm, redefining what mass media actually means. Context is now continuously changing. Digital advertising can follow us from browsing, to streaming, to scrolling – constantly shifting mediums. This begs the question: do we still need to consider McLuhan’s thesis? Can’t we, as marketers and advertisers, now just focus on message?

The answer is a resounding no. McLuhan’s insight is more significant than ever, but with one huge difference. Marketers during TV’s reign had to take that medium into account to craft relevant messaging; now we need to actively create relevant context alongside creating messaging.    

TV: The King of Reach

We can’t ignore the fact that McLuhan’s world looked vastly different in the 1960’s, where TV was the silver bullet to achieve reach. The duopoly of Google and Meta collectively could begin to approach something resembling that reach a decade ago, but a multitude of changes (technology, competition, further fragmentation in the digital space) have made it increasingly difficult to achieve true mass reach in any one channel. So, we’re faced with a difficult challenge: with reach being a fundamental predictor of marketing success, it has become increasingly harder to achieve, and is further complicated by challenges that make it difficult to evaluate true reach. Measurement of reach is hindered by the closed ecosystems of the big online giants, limitations around cross-device tracking, ad-blocking and privacy regulations. 

Digital: The King of Precision

TV brought us tremendous reach – but it was a blunt instrument. Scale, yes. Ability to be relevant to specific consumers? Not so much. We can approximate some of the scale with digital, but we now have new tools to deliver messaging with incredible control over the who and the where. As we look to plan campaigns to deliver maximum results, precision vs. scale becomes the biggest question. A broader reach strategy will achieve a broader audience, but at the cost of precision. This broad approach has its place; it is effective for brand awareness, driving household penetration for everyday products and reaching potential customers who may not fit neatly into specific segments. That said, mass is no longer the silver bullet it used to be as today’s consumers expect creative content to be relevant to their needs, interests, and preferences. They want content that addresses their specific pain points, desires, or challenges. We see that McLuhan is still as right as ever, the Medium is the Message, and the medium (and thus the message) is personalized.  

The who and the where are the priorities for effective digital communication. Creating the who and the where now must go hand in hand with creating the messaging, in order for it to be relevant. We know relevant messaging drives engagement and builds stronger brand associations. And in a medium that promises continual personalization, users will become desensitized to generic or repetitive advertising. Relevancy helps combat ad fatigue while delivering results; boosting CTRs, driving higher conversions, and continuing to engage and retain customers.


As today’s media landscape continues to evolve, marketers and advertisers need to strike the right balance of reach and relevance to deliver successful campaigns, resulting in ads that are not only seen by the right people but are also seen in environments where they make sense and resonate with their audience. With relevance comes the seemingly impossible task of achieving scale while delivering Personalised content.

Personalization is a daunting term. In its truest form it involves customizing content and messaging for individual consumers based on their unique preferences, behaviours, and interactions. It is highly granular and relies on extensive data collection and analysis to understand individual customer profiles and behaviours; a task many businesses lack the time, resources, or data to complete with the agility required today. A more approachable and scalable option to drive relevance is segmented targeting, which involves dividing the audience into smaller, well-defined segments based on shared characteristics or behaviors. Messages are then tailored at the segment level, but not customized at the individual level. While Dynamic Content Optimization (DCO) can get us there through its use of data – consumer demographics, behavior, and preferences – it also comes with potential challenges and drawbacks:

  • Data privacy – as data privacy regulations become more stringent, advertisers need to navigate the complexities of compliance, which may limit the extent to which they can use certain types of data. 
  • Creative limitations – some advertisers may find it challenging to maintain a high level of creativity and brand consistency within dynamically generated creatives.
  • Costs – smaller advertisers may find it hard to justify the costs associated with the additional resources needed to produce and activate campaigns of this nature.

McLuhan is as relevant as ever. The medium is speaking as much as the message, and marketers need to listen to what it’s saying: personalization. From strategy to creative, media-buying to execution, agencies need to understand this core truth or risk creating irrelevant ads. Full-service agencies are equipped to bring the right data sets together to ensure an audience-first approach is embraced across the disciplines and across all departments. When the quality of attention you achieve is arguably more important than scale, having a deep understanding of audiences and context is not only a fundamental pillar in marketing, but arguably the starting point for everything. 

About the author

Laura Lewandowski
Executive Vice President, Media