“Media Agnosticism” Must Die: Enter the media-specific era


Today, I have a special treat for you – today’s guest post comes from John Doyle, digital innovator, strategist and all-around brilliant dude. Enjoy!

If you’ve spent any time in the ad industry during the last fifteen years (since the advent of the internet), chances are good that you’ve heard the expression “media agnostic” as in, “our creative ideas are media agnostic”. Maybe you’ve even used the expression yourself. I know I have. “Media agnostic” is a well-meaning phrase meant to indicate that teams don’t approach a business challenge with any specific medium in mind. It would seem to suggest that Creatives enter a trance-like state and ideas, conjoined to the mediums in which they will work best, appear as if from a completely neutral place. Switzerland, perhaps. Or, worse yet, that a “big idea” will work across any medium. All one need do is find the “big idea” and then drop it into the mediums that make sense.

Yes, “media agnostic” is a well-meaning phrase. The problem, though, is that it’s complete bullshit. It’s bullshit in two ways, one more significant than the other:

Bullshit way #1: “Media agnostic” hardly ever is.

The first and less-significant way “media agnostic” is bullshit is that, more often than not, it’s untrue. More often than not, Creatives think in terms of Art and Copy. That’s understandable, especially when most ad agencies still center creative around an Art Director and Copywriter team. And when you think in terms of Art and Copy, the natural tendency is to think in terms of scripts and layouts—or TV and print. You’ll hear, “Once we’ve established the brand voice in TV (or print), then we will blow it out to digital (or PR, or social, or experiential, or what have you).” And that, more often than not, is how you get banners that look like print ads, or tick-the-box “digital” efforts that consist of essentially playing the same :30 spot concepted for TV on Hulu. So, regardless of where the audience may dwell, or what their goals may be, or even how much money the client has to spend, the starting place will (more often than not) be the same: Art and Copy. Hardly media agnostic, this is a “media true-believer.” The key, of course, to killing media true-believers in advertising is to kill the idea of Art Directors and Copywriters as the sole and dominant players in creative teams. True media agnostic creative teams should be equally staffed with people representing diverse practices like technology, user experience, social, experiential, mobile, analytics, behavioral and cultural science, digital, and (maybe most importantly) media. But taking on the decades-old* Art Director/Copywriter paradigm is a topic for another day…

* Yes, Bill Bernbach created this sacred pairing of Art Director and Copywriter only some 50 years ago. Unfortunately, Bernbach died in 1982. If he had lived and worked in the internet era, he certainly would’ve changed the idea of creative team yet again. Think about that.

Bullshit way #2:  “Media agnostic” means boring.

When an idea can work equally well in almost any medium, it’s probably a crap idea. Yet, that’s often what people who use the phrase media agnostic aspire to communicate—that the idea will be so “big” that it can live anywhere and be just as powerful. This type of thinking creates a false foundation for the creative process from the very onset. It suggests that all one need do is find the “big idea” and the rest will take care of itself. This is the type of thinking that leads to those absurd creative reviews where you hear things like, “and here’s how the idea looks in out-of-home, and here’s how it looks in display, and here it is again in point of sale…”.

I get it. Sometimes this approach works. I mean, I think the Geico Gecko is probably on urinal pucks by now. But, ideas like the Geico Gecko rely on the old maxim of frequency and repetition. See Gecko, think Geico. It has no soul, no acknowledgement of what moves people today. And it requires a ton of money to cement into the minds of consumers.

Ok, so who does it right? Let’s look at two examples from maybe the best modern ad agency and brand, Wieden + Kennedy and Nike.

The first example is the jaw-dropping short film, Write the Future. You’ve seen it, you enjoyed it, and unless you are some of the people who helped to create it, you’re jealous of it. No matter whether you first saw this spot online or on TV, there is little doubt that Wieden and Nike approached this campaign from any other starting point other than, “let’s make a killer f’ing film.” That’s it. Was it hosted on a site? Maybe. Doesn’t matter. The medium they specifically concepted for was film. Was it a big idea? Write the Future is probably a bigger idea than any of us will have in our careers. Yet, be that as it may, you couldn’t cram the power of Write the Future into a taxi-topper or the small Captivate screen. So “big idea” doesn’t necessarily mean flexible after all.

The next example, also from Wieden and Nike, is one that really captures the power of thinking for a specific medium—the famous Chalkbot experience. Chalkbot was an idea where the medium affected the idea utterly, for without the medium the idea doesn’t work. The medium in this case was asphalt. Not just any asphalt, the streets of the Tour De France, where hundreds of cyclists, many thousands of local fans, and millions more television viewers would give witness to the user-generated messages of hope sprayed by a pneumatic robot. It’s hard to classify what exactly Chalkbot is. Is it ambient media? Or social media? Or experiential? One thing is certain, it’s a huge idea—maybe one of the biggest in advertising, responsible for winning a Cannes Cyber Lion. But as big as it was, Chalkbot doesn’t work in print.

So, let’s do away with media agnosticism and get specific. Media specific is the way to leverage audience behavior, client dollars, and the power that mediums contribute to the idea to create something big. Big enough to work in select media.


    1. Good to see you here at the blog, Brian! Hope all is well. Let’s assume John is busy drinking Campari on a terrace somewhere overlooking the Ligurian Sea and will check in later…

  1. On my last night in Italy, I now feel as if I’ve missed both the Campari and the Ligurian sea. Swell.

    Thanks for the guest spot, Michael. And thanks Nienhaus for the read. Hope to see you both soon.

  2. In my experience, media agnostic is a term creatives use for themselves, not their ideas. Especially when they feel threatened or made redundant by specialized creatives. For example, when assigned a 3rd “digital” creative to join my team because they “knew digital”, I protested. “Wait,” I said, “I know digital too! I’m media agnostic!”

    So yes, I agree, creative ideas described as media agnostic sounds like BS. But I still think true creative people should strive to be media agnostic. It’s a lot more efficient that way.

    Feel free to poke holes in that. Good article.

    1. I definitely don’t have all the answers on what makes for the perfect creative team, but I do think that sometimes it should expand to include other roles. Knowing you as I do, Andrei, I’d say you definitely do know digital and can concept in that space very well. That said, I think the future favors open, fluid and collaborative “creative” teams that can incorporate all sorts of specialist roles—technologists, user experience, media, etc.—as the creative experience demands. Personally, I look forward to a time where agencies ditch the label “Creative” altogether in recognition that there are multiple roles beyond art and copy that can contribute to a creative experience.

      1. Oh, I agree. And my little story was meant to be self-deprecating. But I still maintain I’ve heard the term “media agnostic” more when referring to people’s skill sets and not their ideas.

        But yeah, seems all the phrase does is cause confusion. Let’s ditch it.

  3. I might have this wrong, but it sounds like you don’t actually know what media agnosticism actually means. In the entry, you say, “‘Media agnostic’ is a well-meaning phrase meant to indicate that teams don’t approach a business challenge with any specific medium in mind.” Well, no. It is specific. It just means that a planning team might not necessarily favor one medium over the next beforehand, but there’s definitely due diligence that gets done before planning a campaign using specific mediums/channels. Then you say, “You’ll hear, ‘Once we’ve established the brand voice in TV (or print), then we will blow it out to digital (or PR, or social, or experiential, or what have you).'” That’s not media agnostic. That’s shitty planning and execution.

    You have it backwards. Being agnostic/neutral means that you don’t blindly put all your eggs into one basket because you’re skeptical of traditional approaches. You look for tangible evidence to find the best options available before moving forward. The ChalkBot and any other experimental/alternative advertising is pretty much the brainchild of media agnosticism because we’re not saying social media or TV or whatever may have you is the end all, be all and savior of advertising. No one is saying that it just takes one big idea spread thin across a campaign to be successful. I don’t know where you pulled that from, but that has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Daniel. After reading and re-reading your post, I’m not sure if you’re disagreeing or actually further supporting my point. So, I’ll confusedly say “thank you?”

      1. I agree with you for the most part. I just think you’ve framed it incorrectly. Being media agnostic (or media neutral, whatever you want to call it) is a good thing. It’s not a one size fit all approach but something specific tailored to a client’s objectives and the end consumer.

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