Marshall McLuhan, the mentor marketers mustn’t forget

AMA Toronto recognizes a pioneering intellectual at its Marketing Hall of Legends

In his opening remarks hosting AMA Toronto’s Marketing Hall of Legends event a few nights ago, Ben Mulroney tried to sum up his best qualities. “To be successful in TV,” he said, “you need to have great hair and great teeth.”

Once you reach the C-suite, presumably, it’s your turn to play the sage. McLuhan, however, has proven himself a mentor for the ages

He then struck a cheerful, jaunty pose with a wide smile and flip of his forelocks that proved he had both. Of course he was joking, but you can imagine many people wondering if there was some truth in it. In fact, I can tell you from hosting similar events myself that it can be extremely difficult to keep presenters and winners moving along, to improvise responses to a previous speaker’s remarks and to do it all without breaking a sweat. It shouldn’t take a Marshall McLuhan to recognize that kind of talent, but the fact the late theorist was among the inductees to the Marketing Hall of Legends was a good reminder that we sometimes need to look past appearances.

As this year’s honouree in the “Mentor” category, McLuhan’s award was accepted by his son Michael, who spoke eloquently about what it was like to grow up in the household of such a great mind. Although he noted his father’s achievements were already decades old, there was something appropriate about being recognized specifically by the American Marketing Association.

“He was in many ways a construct of the marketing industry,” Michael McLuhan said, referring to the way in which Understanding Media became a discussion topic on TV talk shows and industry conferences. “But he was also one of the first people who really applied some intellect to take marketing really seriously.”

That doesn’t mean he’ll be the last, of course, but as the CMO’s job becomes more complex and shaped by information technology, we may need more people to see that success in branding and demand generation is more than the marketing industry’s equivalent of great hair and great teeth. We should also probably spend more time with McLuhan’s work than merely reducing the whole of his contribution to “the medium is the message.”

Some CMOs may be surprised, for example, to know how highly McLuhan regarded the best in marketing. “Advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century,” is one of the less-cited quotes, while the following sounds like it could just as easily have come from an IT market research analyst working today:

“Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man — the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society.”

That was from 1964. Did McLuhan really foresee artificial intelligence, the internet and the various channels through which messages could be communicated? Probably not, but chances are looking at what he wrote 52 years ago could offer some unique perspective on what marketing leaders are going through now.

We tend to think of mentors as those who help us early in our careers. Once you reach the C-suite, presumably, it’s your turn to play the sage. McLuhan, however, has proven himself a mentor for the ages, and Understanding Media the best owner’s manual they might get for the marketing machine they need to run today.

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