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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Are You Still Media Agnostic?

In the past few weeks the Roman Catholic Church elected a new pope. He is Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina. As the first Latin American and first non-European pope in hundreds of years plus being the first Jesuit to be named Bishop of Rome he has generated tremendous interest. News accounts continue to track his every move and talk radio has not been out of the loop. A panel of “experts” discussed the new pope on a popular program last week and wondered how Catholics around the world would respond to Pope Francis as everything he says is infallible.

At the time I was driving on an interstate so I grabbed the steering wheel a bit harder than normal and tried to focus on my driving. A few minutes later a caller got through who sounded off on the ignorance of the panel. The host cut him off and that was that. Why were the caller and I so heated? The pope is only considered infallible when he speaks ex cathedra which means “from the chair.” Only eight times in the 2000 year history of Christianity has a pope spoken ex cathedra meaning that the statement is a formal belief of the church (the last time was 1950 and the doctrine of infallibility was not clearly defined until 1870 at the First Vatican Council). It is highly unlikely that Pope Francis will ever deliver a ruling that will be considered infallible. So while whatever the pope says should be weighed seriously no practicing Catholic is under any obligation to agree with his statements on a wide variety of subjects.

Why do I bring this up now? Well, with the gaffes about infallibility rampant, I thought that it was time to address a misrepresentation that has popped up repeatedly in media departments and by agency principals when pitching business over the last several years. When talking about their approach to media mix or communications strategy many people will say,“we are MEDIA AGNOSTIC.”

I see and hear people do this and it really grates on me. Do you know what an agnostic is? The term was coined as best as I can tell by British biologist Thomas Huxley in 1869. His basic premise was that the existence of a deity or god is unknown and cannot be proven. Others have refined it to say that we humans simply do not possess the knowledge to provide sufficient rational proof that a supreme being exists.

Back when I was a student at a New England Catholic college, we were required to take a semester of theology and one of philosophy each year. Some of it was interesting and it was a usually an easy A or B. I never will forget how near the end of the term a student told the priest that he resented the theology requirement as he was a nonbeliever. The priest asked “are you an atheist or an agnostic?”  “Agnostic”, replied the young man. The normally genial priest got very red in the face and said something along these lines--"If you are an atheist, I could respect you. It takes courage to face the end of your life and say this is the end. There is no afterlife. When you call yourself an agnostic, you are saying there may be a god and maybe there is an afterlife, but I am too damn lazy to think it through.”  That certainly grabbed our attention and the young lad was a lot quieter going forward.

So, do you really want to say that you or your firm is media agnostic? Using the classic definition, it connotes that you do not have sufficient knowledge to make a clearcut media recommendation. Using the angry Irish priest’s definition you are saying that you are too lazy to sort it out.

In conversations with people I often say that I try hard to be lukewarm about media selection going in to a project. That is impossible as we all have certain track records especially with traditional media and, once you have some years behind you, there are a bagful of tactics that tend to be proven winners as well. Also, only say lukewarm. If you write it, the term looks dreadful on the page and comes off as indifferent.

So what should you do? Try the time honored zero based planning approach. Start with the proverbial blank sheet of paper and don’t allocate 75% of your budget before you start. Get back to the target and see where they are spending their time. What should you call this? Some like “media impartial” or “channel neutral” and I have heard “target preferred media.” Use whatever you want or invent your own term. Remember, of course, that strategy comes first and then the media allocation.

Please, my friends, do one thing. Give the term “Media Agnostic” the death that it deserves.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com


  1. From your mouth to God's ear...when one Googles "media agnostic" here is the top search result:


    Spoiler alert! The blogger (me) agrees with your point of view. Great post, Don!


  2. Steve--thank you. I just read your post and really enjoyed it.