In the past decade there’s been a growth of “branding” companies, firms moving away from traditional forms of advertising on television and in print in favour of social media platforms and other ways to express a company’s particular image. Many firms have fought to defend the value of traditional advertising in response. Which one should you choose? If you’re smart, neither.

Companies touting branding look down on traditional media as if they were horse-and-buggy operations. Print is dead, radio an unflattering wasteland, and the television behemoth is faltering, they argue, but they’re completely misunderstanding the media they are decrying.

Take a look back at the 19th century. If you were to identify the largest companies in the world back then, several would be railroad and steamship companies. Today those industries are relegated mostly to hauling cargo, while airlines whisk passengers around the world.

As the 20th century dawned, the horse-and-buggy operations we now use as a catchphrase for obsolete industries were still plentiful, enjoying a brisk trade that would soon come to an end with the advent of the mass-produced automobile.

These companies weren’t replaced because they were poorly run, inefficient, or not with the times. They didn’t even die out because they were overtaken by better technology. They failed because they defined themselves not by what they did, but how they did it.

A railroad company doesn’t move people because it has train engines and rail cars; it has engines and cars because that’s how it moves people. Its business is moving people, regardless of the method. Those companies should have been starting their own airlines instead of losing that aspect of the business.

Radio networks such as NBC learned this lesson in the 1950s, as they transitioned their popular serials, variety shows, and soap operas from radio to television. They realized they were delivering entertainment, not simply audio programs. It’s a shame they seem to have forgotten it again with the advent of the internet and other digital media.

So when advertising firms and branding agencies compete for primacy, they’re just demonstrating that they don’t understand their own business. It’s not about television ads or Facebook pages; it’s about forming the bond between company and customer.

In a time of flux like this, companies need to be watching their advertising budget closely, and taking advantage of new media while retaining the value of traditional forms. Agencies who will only recommend solutions in a single medium are more interested in their business than yours. The goal is to get the right message to the right audience at the right time; how it arrives is immaterial.