Message Over Medium: Why Advertisers Must Tune Up on Principles in the Digital Age

Hal Conick
Key Takeaways

What? In Miles Young’s new book, Ogilvy on Advertising in the Digital Age, he reminds advertisers: digital is simply the medium, the message is what matters. 

So what? Young’s book serves as a codicil to David Ogilvy’s “master text” Ogilvy on Advertising, a book Young says advertisers would be wise to reread. 

Now what? Never abandon the fundamentals of marketing, but understand that in a digital-first world, brands must be sure their message is conveyed and consistent on new media.​​​​​

In his new book, Ogilvy on Advertising in the Digital Age, Miles Young implores advertisers to remember the fundamentals of their craft, lest they fall victim to the “tragic and comic plots, sub-plots and counter-plots” of advertising​

It’s 17 degrees in Oxford, England—an unusually cold evening, even for December—and Miles Young is trying to keep warm within the medieval architecture of one of the city’s oldest schools. After years leading Ogilvy & Mather, one of advertising’s most prominent agencies, Young is now the warden (or the head) of the University of Oxford’s New College, a 648-year-old institution many Americans would recognize from the “Harry Potter” films. In 2016, Young left his role as CEO and chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, but his frenetic schedule surely keeps him warm, even if the insulation of the school’s historic buildings leaves something to be desired.

In addition to running one of Oxford’s premier colleges—Young operates New College on the same principle with which he led Ogilvy: “Listen in order to survive”—Young continues to work as a nonexecutive chairman at Ogilvy on an as-needed basis. Most recently, Ogilvy sent Young on a 16-hour flight to Shenzhen, China, to assure a major client that it was in good hands with the agency, that it wasn’t taking a wild risk. It’s no wonder why Ogilvy would send Young; his stately voice, affable smile and years of experience coalesce to ease the anxiety of clients. 

This same sense—we’ve done it before and it isn’t wildly risky—filigrees Young’s newly released book, Ogilvy on Advertising in the Digital Age. The book serves as a codicil to David Ogilvy’s “master text” Ogilvy on Advertising, Young says. His thesis is to get practitioners to reread Ogilvy’s book and get back to basics. “It is still pure, pure gold,” Young writes in the book’s introduction, which he composed in Ogilvy’s retirement estate in the south of France

Young says Ogilvy on Advertising is the “best book ever” because it was written by an advertiser rather than an industry rubberneck. “It is a polemic of its time because David was angry when he saw people becoming too complicated and confusing media,” Young says. “Its message is still as relevant today. That was my objective: to provide a postscript to his book.”

Young didn’t want to frivolously write this postscript; he had noticed a lack of smart writing on digital advertising that carried the weight of case studies, real-world examples and interviews with the industry’s experts. He used the principle of listening to survive and interviewed digital marketing and advertising experts across multiple disciplines, including digital marketer Martin Nisenholtz, digital designer Bob Greenberg and advertising executive Chuck Porter, founder of CP+B.

Marketing News spoke with Young about the digital marketing landscape, why companies that employ a digital marketing director are in trouble and why he believes advertising’s message will always be more important than its medium.

Q: Were the digital specialists you spoke with for the book similar to the advertising and marketing professionals you’ve known over the years?

A: They hold a similar view that I have and people like David Ogilvy would have had: You must never confuse the medium and the message. The medium is only the medium. It may change, and it may be better in many ways. It may be more efficient, it may be more interactive or maybe more user-friendly, but it is the medium, and it’s not the message.

The message is something that you have to frame, go through a process of discovery about in a disciplined way, assess the relevance to your target and then express in a way that gets people to notice and engage with it. Those core principles are unchanging, but an overemphasis or obsession with the medium can devalue the importance of the message. 

A large part o​f the cont​​​ent pushed out onto the internet is never viewed, never listened to and never used, which is highly wasteful. Every one of those individuals I spoke with for the book would profoundly agree with that statement, but in different ways. Bob would probably be inclined to emphasize the importance of design as a component of messaging, and Chuck would probably be inclined to emphasize the role of strategy behind messaging, but the core principles would remain the same.

Q: These are the parts of the message that a classic, 1960s direct marketer would use, too, I’m sure.

A: Yes, absolutely. You measure real results; you don’t measure intermediary results. This is also an issue in a culture that grew up on clicks. You should still try to use those, but also get beyond them and into the relationship with sales and other marketing variables. A lot of bad measurement is done in an unsophisticated way, which can be worse than no measurement at all. In the early stages of the digital revolution, that was what it was like and everyone was measuring by clicks or even by tweets.

Q: Was the digital revolution at Ogilvy initially poorly measured? 

A: Not really. We’ve always believed in getting back to the sales effect, but it is still very difficult because digital has collapsed the different disciplines that existed. You had direct marketing, which is highly quantitative and disciplined. You had advertising, which is slightly less quantitative and slightly less disciplined, and you had public relations, which is much more qualitative and made attempts to measure itself a little bit difficult. The digital revolution encompasses all three, so you may be very happy if you get a surge in retweets if you’ve got a public relations perspective, but it wouldn’t lift many sales in an advertising objective. You’ve got to disentangle your objectives and not confuse them.


 Ogilvy & Mather's worldwide chairman talks about the future of marketing / The Big Rethink US


​​Q: A couple of times in the book, you frame the drive toward digital as a zero-sum game for companies leading the digital revolution. What is the problem with falling into zero-sum games?

A: Both sides fall into those games. It’s very understandable that if you’re selling digital media, you want to convey the impression that any nondigital medium is dead, dying or out of date, … and [that] was the narrative of Google and Facebook—and still is to some extent. The cry was, “TV is dead,” but TV isn’t dead. TV may be transforming. It may be very different. It may be useful only insofar as it is complemented and made digital, but in most parts of the world, TV is very much alive and has not diminished even in share terms. The digital narrative is a false narrative, but it’s designed to create sales. 

If you go to Cannes [Lions] International Festival of Creativity, you’ll find the beaches full of real estate properties owned by digital media professionals who are pushing that message. It’s totally understandable, but it’s not the whole story. TV remains the easiest and quickest way of gaining awareness for a new product among a mass audience. Digital is fundamental, but it’s not fundamental alone. That’s what I was trying to argue against in the book: There’s this false argument that you have one or the other, but you can’t have both. 

Q: TV seems like it’s falling into the same trap that journalism and music fell into, where content is given away for free, and creators are unsure how to stop.

A: You’re right. You need to have self-confidence. The problem with a lot of journalism is that it started to give content away for free, and then it couldn’t afford to pay journalists enough to generate good content. But where media owners invest in content, readers remain. That is the lesson and so far, it’s a decision which you can make, but it’s at your own risk. Magazines like The Economist or Forbes are doing well in their transformed forms, but that’s because the content is good and readable. 

You have to invest in content. It’s like investing in any other product benefit. It’s a confidence issue. In a funny way, I think those zero-sum scare-stories have damaged the confidence of traditional media owners.

Q: How can they rebuild that confidence?

A: Only by recognizing that content is king. Everything is about quality content. In the press media, it’s possible to demonstrate that you can get people to pay for content. There are models in the [Rupert] Murdoch world and Daily Telegraph in the U.K. that seem to be quite successful now. People are getting used to paying for different types of content. In other words, they must accept the relationship between cost and a premium. It will take time, and I’m sure there’s more bottoming out to be done, but if people want content, they’re going to have to pay for it. Good content can’t be given away for free. 

Q: As you said in the book, Google and Facebook are dominating the digital advertising market. What is their role in the digital revolution?

A: They are on very ambitious missions and, at some stage, society is going to have to ask, “Can three huge conglomerates”—I would add Amazon—“really carry on expanding horizontally? Is that in the public interest?” That’s a debate that’s happening more in Europe than in the States​. It reminds me a bit of the debate that was going on before the First World War with the large oil companies. Of course, Theodore Roosevelt did take them on and created antitrust legislation, which to some extent controlled these companies. I don’t think we’re at that point yet, but there comes a point where too much concentration of power in media or anywhere else isn’t in the interests of advertisers or the public. It just needs monitoring at this stage, but it’s an issue that will become more apparent in the next 10 or 20 years.

Q: Is there a way that advertisers could become less reliant on social media giants?

A: Not really, but there might be if, for instance, the Chinese properties started to seriously come into the West. You’ve got WeChat, and you’ve got Chinese search engines like Baidu, and they’re starting to come to developing nations. They’re getting into South Africa, India and Southeast Asia. They’ve cleverly avoided getting into Europe or the States yet, but at some stage, they’ve got deep purses and may decide to compete. To some extent, the platforms are Balkanized in the West. You have one platform for payment, one for entertainment, one for video, one for search, one for messaging and for photographs. But with WeChat, you’ve got all in one, and it’s arguably quite a competitive proposition. I suspect that in the future, there may be competition, which would be a good thing.

Q: How can each of these sides—digital and traditional marketers—be holistic in their approach? 

A: It’s a mindset thing for marketers. The question is, do you have a digital heart? And if the answer is “No,” then it probably means you’re just digital because you have to be. The difference comes when you ask if your marketing starts with the notion that everything today is digital. While there may be choices, you assume that you’re going to be digitally driven, you’re going to have the ability to have two-way interactions with your customers, you’re going to have the ability to collect data and deploy the data and you’re going to have the ability to be transparent. 

The alternative is to carry on behaving as you are, and bring in digital people when the marketing plan is buttoned-up and ready for publication. That is the besetting problem with the marketing mindset—it’s an attitudinal thing. As soon as you hear the words “digital marketing director,” you know there’s a problem, because it means that digital is put into a silo. Everything is digital. I really believe that in 20 years, if we’re having this conversation, we won’t be using the word “digital” because it won’t be necessary.

Q: It just becomes part of the process, you’re saying.

A: It’s been part of the process, exactly. It’s a psychological issue of deep acceptance, and then once that’s there, it all follows easily. Of course, there are things that you can do to make sure your company digitizes. You can set targets, for instance, by saying, “We must spend 40% of ad spend on something digital.” These sorts of things help, but they’re the stick. The carrot should be something that’s about a belief in this way of doing business. 

Q: I often see marketing reports or surveys that suggest companies are far into digitization but haven’t seen return on investment yet, or they’ve had trouble measuring its potency. That seems to indicate a miscommunication within the ranks. 

A: I think that’s right. That’s digital as a gimmick, digital as a religious symbol or digital because everyone else is doing it. Those are the wrong reasons to get into digital. There’s no reason to do digital unless it’s a matter of principle, and that’s the way the world is now. It’s essentially digitized, but you then ask yourself, “What was my marketing objective? What’s my task? What are my best channels? Am I using TV or press or whatever in a digital way? If not, why?” If you go through all the normal disciplines, but you don’t produce an analog media program, and then you say, “Now we need to add to digital,” it’s the wrong way to do it. 

Q: Does this conundrum work the same way for companies with the opposite problem—those that rely too much on digital instead of advertising’s principles?

A: Starbucks did that at one point, moving out of traditional advertising altogether and making a big thing about it. Its brand started to suffer because it wasn’t putting a proper level of investment in communicating what it stood for toward a large enough audience. Starbucks is a mass brand; if you’re a mass brand, you need to communicate to your mass audience, and digital doesn’t have the reach or the scale and isn’t always the best way of communicating an image. Digital is an essential part, but it can’t be the only part. Starbucks stepped back into more traditional advertising and started advertising in newspapers and more traditional outlets, which it had claimed were no longer relevant a few years prior. 

Q: You wrote about how people oversimplify the way generations think and act. Millennials are at the center of this right now. Is this a result of overreliance on analytics or simply a flawed way of thinking?

A: It’s a flawed way of thinking to label too much. Millennials were labeled by people who didn’t like millennials, so they were stigmatized and described as the “me generation” and seen as selfish. It made a great media story; it was front-page news, but it was too simplistic. Certainly people born within certain periods do have some characteristics in common, but when one started looking to millennials, they were far from selfish as they had been labeled. They’re actually quite altruistic and, rather than wanting to selfishly drive big cars down the road, millennials don’t particularly like cars at all. A much more rounded picture emerged of this generation, but the label “millennial” stuck. 

In a way, people have learned. There aren’t so many comments about centennials because there isn’t an identifiable stigma that people have found that relates to them. Stigmatizing millennials was journalism gone a bit mad, to be honest. And then we all became complicit in it and started to have millennial conferences and think tanks. I’m not saying you can’t use the word “millennial,” but it has become a very narrow label and therefore potentially misleading. You have to be careful when you label generations, certainly. 

Q: You wrote that the principles of advertising haven’t changed over the years. Do you think there’s a point when digital may change them, or will it always simply be a medium?

A: E-commerce is probably the biggest point of transformation because it is changing the way in which people buy. It’s not putting shops out of business, but it is dramatically transforming the nature of shopping. E-commerce is the biggest tangible impact of the digital revolution. But in communication terms, it’s a bit like old-fashioned direct marketing. You want to know cost per sale—basically, how much can you invest to sell X? The affordable investment, and therefore digital, has become e-commerce. Digital has become a bit like analog direct marketing or mail order where a company like Sears would know exactly what the allowable cost per insertion was via A/B tests.

Those old-fashioned disciplines are being reinvented now for e-commerce because you want to understand those metrics. But there’s no doubt that this is a very significant behavioral change. I’m sure it will continue and it won’t put bricks-and-mortar retailing out of business altogether, but it’s creating a strong presence in retail and indeed wholesale.

Q: Another big change in the digital world is in customer loyalty and expectation. People aren’t blindly loyal to brands anymore and have high expectations—including for brands to comment on controversial topics. How can marketers and advertisers use industry principles to attack these issues? 

A: Brands, like all institutions, are less trusted than they used to be. The transparency of the digital world can shine a very harsh light on companies and their motives. Companies may or may not survive that, but they seem to be pretty durable. The overall impact is the degrading of people’s respect for brands slowly over time. Now a big question is how alterable is that trend? Can you turn the tide? I think you can, but brands have to demonstrate much more than they [currently] do that they really matter to people. 

They have to have a discourse that ignites the interest of people and they’ve got to demonstrate behavior that gels with the customer. It’s going to be more difficult to do branding well, but if you do it well, loyalty will come back. 


 A conversation about advertising, with David Ogilvy


​​Q: How do you think David Ogilvy would have taken on the digital revolution?

A: He was a bit suspicious at first because he thought it was a lot of geeks talking jargon. He did experience a few presentations of that sort in his later years, but I also think he would have been totally wowed by digital media’s ability to collect data and to measure impact. 

David Ogilvy said, “My first and last love is direct marketing.” When he retired, he moved out of the advertising agency into the direct marketing agency … and his reason was that advertising people were too imprecise and too head-in-the-clouds, while direct marketing was the real nitty-gritty discipline. Well, now digital has brought nitty-gritty back into the picture. And he would love that. 

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Hal Conick
Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @HalConick.