It’s no secret that, as the economy has crawled, many of our peers in the advertising industry have struggled. We all know that marketing is the first place companies look for cuts during bad economic times. We tell them they’re wrong–that they should, if anything, step up their marketing efforts and take advantage of the economic downturn to gain market share from timid competitors. They mostly don’t listen. C’est la vie.

What no one in the advertising industry really wants to talk about, though, is that ad agencies were in sorry shape before the economy started heading south. That’s because most agencies didn’t understand or embrace web marketing. Instead of gearing up for and taking advantage of new media, they mostly ignored them and fought against them. When pressed to the wall, they held their noses and made loose alliances with digital marketing firms. As digital marketing gained power, so did the digital companies–and power doesn’t grow in a vacuum. As their traditional audiences flocked to the Internet, ad agencies started to sputter and shrink.

Here’s the other thing nobody wants to talk about, though: lots of the digital firms could build slick websites and cool smartphone apps. They understood technology. But they didn’t understand marketing.

The situation created a different sort of digital divide. On one side were the marketers who were, at best, late to embrace the most important new marketing platforms since the invention of television. On the other side were technology companies who had a firm grip on a tail they didn’t understand was attached to a tiger.

Today, both sides are still doing a lot of bluffing. Old-school agencies have hired digital marketing specialists–mostly kids who may have some Facebook skills, but don’t have any marketing background. Digital firms are dipping their toes in other media and try to put a marketing spin on the technology they develop–but mostly still don’t understand the basics of reaching the right audience with the right message. The most galling thing we see is that digital firms continue to operate on the “we’ll develop your widget, but you provide the content” plan. In other words, “we’ll make it look pretty and do cool things, but what it actually says is up to you.”

Excuse us? In our minds, this reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of why the widget needs to be built in the first place.

The platform does matter–that’s clear. When, for example, there are more than a million Facebook accounts in the Greater Indianapolis, you’d better figure out how to engage your audience on Facebook. There’s a reason the Indianapolis Star is shrinking to the size of a pamphlet: readership is falling, and if you think your newspaper ad has the same power it had five years ago, you’re just wrong.

But what really matters and will continue to matter now and for the foreseeable future is the message. The story. Your story, and the way it connects with the people you need to engage out there in the world.

The fact is, people are still people, and people still make emotional connections. They may be addicted to their smartphones, perpetually hooked to their notebooks or iPads. But stories are the glue that keeps them connected.

Just as people go to television for stories about detectives and budding pop stars, they search out stories online. Facebook is a story about you and your friends and everything in your world. Pitchfork is a story about the coolest new music on the planet. Slate and Salon and The Daily Beast are filled with stories about culture and politics and life.

Most of the above are web magazines and not corporate sites. But the most basic rule still applies: the stories are what keep the audience coming back. So if you want people to engage with you online, and you want them to come to your site more than once, you’d better make it worth their while.

That means paying attention to the message, first and foremost. In television, print, outdoor, web, mobile–you name the medium–the message is still the most important thing. Marketers can get so enamored of new technology that they neglect their messaging or take it for granted.

Finally, here’s one more thing nobody wants to talk about: stories work differently in different media. Your story on the web may have to be completely different from your story on the radio. Not disconnected or incompatible. Just–different. When ad agencies try to shoehorn old-school messaging into a digital box, it doesn’t fit. When digital firms push the responsibility for messaging back on you, it shows they don’t really understand what they’re doing.

Meanwhile, the economy is still sluggish, and we still think you should take this opportunity to put your marketing house in order by concentrating on your messaging. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.