It was more than 40 years ago now that Marshall McLuhan made his famous proclamation that the medium is the message. Since then we've managed to misconstrue his meaning quite successfully. Pretty much everyone these days takes the statement to mean that the value of a media property is just as important for the advertiser as the advertising message that appears within the medium. So, for example, it's just as important for a global investment company to appear in The Wall Street Journal and Barron's as it is for it to say interesting things in those journals.
In fact, McLuhan's point was a little deeper. What fascinated him was the transition from a print culture that to a TV culture. And his simple but profound insight was that in the 500 years of the print society - from the moment the first Bible rolled off Herr Gutenberg's printing press to the mainstream acceptance of TV - our process for learning about the world was, like the printed page, linear and logical. One thing followed another in strict sequence.
But when TV became a mass medium, the generations of children who learned about the world from their interaction with the tube learned in a different way: through sight and sound, absorbing many things simultaneously.
McLuhan's point was that the importance of a new media era wasn't that you got to watch cool TV shows. It was that the process of watching those cool TV shows meant that you engaged with the world in a cool new way. And so the most important message on TV was TV itself. The process was more important than the content. The medium was the message.
There's no doubt that we are in a new era now: the era of the Internet and the database, where everything and everyone is connected. And what's most interesting about this period is the way people engage with each other through the medium. In the time before printing was invented, communication was one to one, unless you had a particularly loud voice. In the Gutenberg era the communication was one to few, and occasionally many - the writer to his or her readers. In the TV era, or what McLuhan called the "electric era," communication was few to very, very many.
In the Internet era, the dynamic has turned on its head. Now many entities - corporations, brands, media properties, individuals, bloggers, buyers, sellers, special interest groups - are trying to communicate to increasingly small audiences. And what's most interesting in this era is that the most effective means of communication is not to try and track down all of those small groups of people but rather to encourage them to find you.
Of course, the only way to encourage people to find you is through the "medium" of really powerful, provocative entertaining ideas. Ideas have currency now in a way they didn't a few years ago. Great ideas have always created an emotional attraction for a brand, but now they can create a physical attraction, too. People will actively seek out a great idea, and once they find it they'll tell their friends.
Which simply means that a great idea can attract a large audience without having to pay to do so. In the communication eras that preceded this one, we had to pay to make our brands visible. We had to buy audiences for our messages. Now we have to create in order to make our brands visible. We have to find and nurture ideas that people want to seek out and engage with.
Those ideas might take the form of particularly entertaining or involving commercial messages - Subservient Chicken or Audi's "Art of the Heist," for example. Or they may be new product ideas like the mass customization of Nike ID. Whatever forms the ideas take, they can create audiences and change businesses.
The stress there is on the word create. Ideas can't be managed or segmented. Ideas can't be bought. And more monkeys on more typewriters will not come up with better ideas. Ideas are fragile. They need to be nurtured carefully by people who understand their needs.
This in turn is spawning a new marketing era in which creativity and innovation and a focus on ordinary people's preferences are trumping money and power and an absolute focus on the bottom line.
It's revolutionary, really. McLuhan would have loved it.
Paul Parton is the brand-planning partner at The Brooklyn Brothers, a creative collective. (firstname.lastname@example.org)