25 March 2010

None of us are "media agnostic"

You’ve heard the word “agnostic” at work, in the trade press or in the marketing classroom, as in “media agnostic” or “channel agnostic”.

These terms refer to communications planning that favors no medium, channel or discipline over another – until a proper analysis or strategic exercise helps determine the best ways to engage the right consumer.

The above definition is a common-sense way to decide your marketing budget, but common sense rarely prevails. It is insane that in the 21st Century marketing budgets are artificially siloed or pre-allocated to trade spending, deal-making, promotion or advertising. None of us wants to be seen as insane so we use terms like “media agnostic” to signal that we would never pre-assign the budget to TV or sales promotion or whatever.

“Agnostic” is the wrong term to use, not only because it’s inaccurate but because it distracts us from an opportunity to stop the insanity described above.

It’s the wrong word

“Agnostic” in modern English usage connotes a doubt or skepticism about the existence of God. This dictionary definition is pretty close to the actual etymology of the word. “Agnostic” was coined in 1860 by English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley to define his own disbelief and disagreement with all things spiritual. This would be counter to the Gnostics, an early 1st Century religious group that to Huxley represented any and all claims to spiritual knowledge. There is a continuing scholarly debate about the Gnostics and their beliefs, but we won’t go into that here.

Simply put, agnosticism is not the opposite of Gnosticism, but the opposite of spiritual belief. The opposite of belief is doubt. Agnosticism is doubt.

So, all you “media agnostics” out there: Do you doubt the existence of media? Of course not, but you may doubt the relevance of my argument so far. Everyone knows what I mean by “agnostic”, so what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that words can lead us astray

This is a practical concern, not an academic pursuit. A vaguely philosophical-sounding term covers up a vital planning discipline. Some may think if their philosophy is “agnostic” then they need not do the strategic heavy lifting to find the right mix of channels for each particular assignment. In other words, if we are open to any and all media, we’ll never find the right one(s) for any given assignment. Thus we sound smarter but we miss the opportunity to describe and do something truly revolutionary.

In the words of Ahmad Islam: “I am definitely not agnostic. I have no doubt that there is a best fit media or media mix to address most client challenges and ensure business objectives are met.”

Try “channel neutral”

So if not “agnostic”, what word would capture the opportunity we have to do something truly revolutionary? My own usual phrase is “channel-neutral” but perhaps you can suggest others.


  1. An agnostic is not just a doubter or skeptic, nor is it a person who who is undecided about or uncommitted to a matter of faith. These are all terms that get bandied about by non-agnostics in attempts to belittle or skoff at us. They are even by atheists who wish to feel superior using their own brand of faith. Slapping a trendy agnostic label on every new product or idea to come along is insulting.

    While your dictionary definition and etymological dissection only scratch the surface of what modern agnostics or Huxley believed I won't dwell on it. (I rant plenty on how offensive the term is to us on my site.) I will say that it is good some non agnostics are seeing the misuse for being inaccurate and inappropriate.

    The word you really want to use instead of agnostic is neutral. It fits every instance that you would misuse agnostic. While not derogatory, degrading, belittling, or trendy it is accurate.

  2. No target is "media agnostic" or "media neutral". Each target has a preferred medium. Think about it: do you consume media equally-billboards, packaging, TV, the internet? Of course not! How about target preferred media? Media strategic to the target? Doesn't that make more sense? Of course it does.

  3. Brad: I agree that "neutral" is a good word to use. While I tend to use "channel neutral", in some cases "media neutral" works just as well. Does anyone have any other terms they like to use?

    Fred: Yes, that was the point of my post. A lot of people use terms like "media agnostic" but never analyze their target to understand what media will engage the right consumer in the right place. My preferred term, "neutral", doesn't mean we use all media equally. It means we choose media based on target analysis, not "what we always do".

  4. I agree with that the term "neutral" is a much better descriptor.

    This is what I read from this:

    Stop selling a medium as a solution and sell a solution that will use a specific medium or mix of media to reach a specific target or group of targets!

    Put in the freaking work and research to understand who you are talking with and where you can best reach them.

  5. It could be argued that being channel/media neutral is not to care that much about the outcome, which denotes an apprarent lack of interest and involvement in the outcome.

    I agree that agnostic is over-used, mis-aligned to what is being intended, but I would say that neutral is not that much better. Taking neutral out and replacing with blaise, kind of says the same thing, although clearly the original intent is not related.

    I personally am looking to identify target connection points and engagement platforms where consumers/shoppers/customers/members meet the brand in their time and spaces. To me, it's about looking for the most relevant places to introduce brands to targets that is less about disruption and more about faciliating a conversation.

    I'm not convinced that we can nor should attempt to state in a single word, but nor should we seek to over-complicate nor develop jargon, we have more than enough of that already.

    Just my thoughts.

  6. “Neutral” sounds like we are coasting; how about “media utilitarian?” I’ve called myself a “media agnostic” for the past 15 years (before that my term was “holistic”) but no more, as a result of reading this post! Back in the day my fight was with the folks who put each variant of print in a separate silo, let alone broadcast and couldn’t see events as a media. Now we have the tiresome true believers of the online world who claim moral superiority for “their” media.

  7. I think "media neutral" is more accurate to express the condition of no media preferences "a priori" or the opposite of media-biased (you name it). Media-channel neutral is even better, but people would rather use media neutral, just because it's shorter.
    Media unbiased or media liberal could work as well, but these terms are less precise!

    Media-neutral not only sounds better, but it is certainly more accurate, mostly because of spiritual and religious connotations of a word „agnostic”.

    However, I must admit that sometimes metaphors really help us to illustrate the concept. And that's why perhaps someone who coined the phrase used the word "agnostic", precisely because of these religious connotations to magnify the issue and refer to media as a "contemporary religion" (some people use this comparison). Nonetheless, "agnostic" is much less accurate than "neutral".

    Media -neutral pros are really driven by objectives, creative --taking inspiration from it, and audience insight. It is all about making decisions that are relevant to a certain campaign/brand. But let’s face it – media neutral pros are probably a minority.

    Also, the media-neutral planning vs. media-biased planning discussion should refer to the stereotypical target audience segmentation. ... Likewise, the current models of compensation might be a huge factor. More about it at http://burstmedia.wordpress.com/2009/03/16/bring-back-15-agency-commission/ ( I am not related to this blog or the authors of the post..just thought it’s relevant and you might be interested).


  8. Steve, as a wordslinger from way back, I love etymology and precise language. Of course, I love a clever turn of phrase as well, but it takes a savvy writer to do that with accuracy.

    I didn't know about the correct usage of agnostic, so I appreciate the explanation. I've used it a few times myself and now realize it probably made me look like a buffoon with clients or made it seem like I was trying to pull one over on them.

    No more!

    Since we're ranting about words here, I'd like to add two others to the list. First, can we all just agree that "learnings" is NOT a word?! The moment I see someone use that in text -- or God forbid! -- say it out loud, my estimation of that person's IQ drops about 15 points.

    The other word I’d like to purge from marketing lingo is ROI. Most have no idea what it means. They just throw it around to make it seem like they care more about the bottom line than their competitors. I already wrote about that on Augi Ray’s Forrester blog, so I won’t go into detail here, but if you’re interested, you can check it out: http://bit.ly/cdU1uQ

    Social Profiles: www.CarriBugbee.com

  9. Steve, thanks for leaving a comment on my slideshare post… amazed you found that I used the term "agnostic."

    I use the term out of frustration that as you pointed out most people (clients) come with a pre-allocated budget or end goal. With little to no true participation research.

    That's why I believe admitting "we don't know what we don't know," will set you free to be truly social media agnostic ;-)

    BTW… You should come to WOMMA School of WOM in Chicago in May.

  10. Thanks Geno...I sympathize greatly with your POV. I will look into the WOMMA event. Thanks again!

  11. Hi Steve, thanks for leaving a comment on my Media Blog. After reading this post, I understand your aversion to 'agnostic'. And I can also understand peoples' concern with 'neutral' (although this works for me). Maybe the definition should be 'Media Impartial'. Here's a case study which hopefully explains the thinking. This was done by my team in Indonesia. We didn't use any media (so it was media impartial), but the idea caught the imagination of journalists and eventually 'infected' the media.


  12. Sorry, that link didn't work. This one should.


  13. Great program, Andy. Here is another great pro bono project, from Brasil, by my friends and colleagues at Giovanni+Draftfcb:

  14. Nice idea. Wonder if they got the PR machine going behind it.

  15. Steve,
    You bring the proper perspective to the use of the term agnostic. A good reminder that we shouldn't be saying we doubt or even that we are neutral about our channel choices.

    We should be choosing the best channels to execute a particular strategy. And that requires that first there is a strategy.

    Channel tactics should reach the target where they are most receptive to our message, and most likely to respond.