Why Ambiguity is Your Friend
By Mike Carlton

They run to ambiguity, not away from it
“Thank you. You made me think.”

In Search of Answers

For a number of years I was an instructor at professional growth seminars for young agency folks. Bright, energetic, enthusiastic people. I personally got enormous satisfaction working with this next generation of agency talent.

Typically these two day seminars were attended by people who had been in the agency business for two to five years. While most had junior account service responsibilities each class usually included a few representatives from other functions like planning, creative, digital, social, PR, production and media.

Several weeks in advance of each seminar we would survey the enrollees to discover what they believed their greatest work challenges were and what they expected to get from the seminar. Interestingly, their challenges and expectations seldom varied.


The overriding theme from their pre-meeting input was that their work life was not as orderly as they would have liked it to be. It was not what they expected. Many had studied advertising, communications and marketing in college. And they were disappointed to find that their real-life work experience seldom followed the “book.”

In essence, things on the client side and within the agency weren’t what they had been led to believe. They didn’t like this. It complicated things.

They were confronted each day with messiness and ambiguity when they had anticipated tidiness and clarity. This disconnect led to ongoing frustrations.

A Magic Formula

Against this backdrop of disarray they were hoping that magically the seminar would reveal to them processes that would suddenly make their work life better and easier. Kind of a step-by-step recipe that they could follow. Perhaps a check list. A process that would unfailingly maximize their productivity and minimize hassle.

A magic formula that would eliminate ambiguity and wipe away their frustrations. A magic formula that would bring order and ease to their work life. A magic formula that would, in effect, have the qualities of an auto-pilot. A magic formula that would make them successful without a lot of mental exercise.

Thinking Can Be Hard Work

They knew that dealing with ambiguity is not easy. Sorting through confusing situations requires serious thinking. Finding solutions and clarity is not simple.

And like all of us they know that thinking can be hard work. They also have the very natural human tendency to avoid hard work whenever possible.

So, ambiguity was sort of an unwelcome visitor. And the hope persisted that somehow it could be eliminated, or if not that, at least minimized. They felt that without ambiguity their lives would be better. And they would be a lot happier.

It Just Ain’t So

Thus, our first order of business in the seminar was to help them face up to reality. That there is no magic formula. That the ambiguity and intellectual tumult of agency work is a natural precursor to successful client solutions. Solutions that come from creative ideas usually born of conflicting information and confusion.

That innovative ideas, ones that solve business problems for clients, don’t spring naturally from routine processes. They take more mental work than that.

This, of course, is not what the students wanted to hear. But it set the stage as we moved on with how thoughtful agency people don’t shun ambiguity. They joyfully embrace it and turn it into a positive contributor to their career success.

Questions vs. Answers

As an aside, it is important to remember that there is a big difference between questions and answers. And a list of questions has a very different purpose than a list of answers. Questions can open thinking. Answers can do the opposite.

Many agencies have developed work processes that establish a comprehensive check-list. Many of these processes are quite helpful. They are often proprietary, allowing individual agencies to better differentiate themselves.

They help assure that important issues are not overlooked. They create a disciplined course of inquiry.

But these processes can actually get in the way. Sometimes the best questions might never be anticipated in advance. Thus, answers likely emerge in a mosaic that is often ambiguous. Answers that are frequently unrelated that seldom come to light without some serious innovative thinking.

Some Definitions

At this point it might be well to define ambiguity. Dictionary.com has this to say;

“Ambiguity is doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention, an unclear, indefinite, or equivocal word, expression or meaning, etc.”

While defining ambiguity it is important to also understand what ambiguity is not. It is not organizational chaos. Nor is it a lack of agency vision and values. These are different from ambiguity. Clarity in the areas of the agency’s belief system and the way it approaches its challenges are crucial for agency success.

Now, while we still have Dictionary.com open, let’s take a look at creativity;

“Creativity is the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.”

When you look at these two definitions side by side, it is easy to get a sense that they are somehow linked. That there is some kind of connection between ambiguity and creativity.

Could it be that ambiguity is a necessary prerequisite to creative thinking?

Digging a Little Deeper

In discussing the human impact of ambiguity, Wikipedia provides these thoughts:

“In sociology and social psychology an increasing amount of research is concentrating on how people react and respond to ambiguous situations. Much of this focus is on ambiguity tolerance.

A number of correlations have been found between an individual’s reaction and tolerance to ambiguity and a range of factors.

For example, researchers have found that people who have a low tolerance for ambiguity demonstrate a strong correlation with such attributes and factors like a greater preference for safe as opposed to risk-based sports, a preference for endurance-type activities as opposed to explosive activities, a more organized and less casual lifestyle, greater care and precision in descriptions, a sensitivity to emotional and unpleasant words and a less acute sense of humor.”

This makes folks that have a low tolerance for ambiguity sound somewhat staid. And probably less likely to embrace new ideas. Much less develop them.

Of course the opposite of these attributes are some characteristics of the kind of innovative minds that are so highly valued by advertising agencies.

So the question is; could there be a psychological connection between a tolerance for ambiguity and creativity? A link that many agencies have not yet consciously explored?

Ambiguity Tolerance

The notion of ambiguity tolerance is intriguing. I realize now that over the years I have been intuitively attracted to people who thrive on ambiguity. They always seemed to have the most interesting ideas. And were more fun. Yet I never comprehended why. Or made a connection with ambiguity tolerance. It was just something I never thought about.

Now in retrospect, some of the most effective people I know in the agency business are not only ambiguity tolerant, but they actively seek and embrace ambiguity. It seems that they are drawn to it almost like a magnet. They love the thrill of mentally wrestling through ambiguous issues and developing innovative ways to deal with them. It is a sport to them. Not a nettlesome burden.

They run to ambiguity, not away from it. Perhaps this is their secret of success.

A Cultural Bias

Running to ambiguity rather than away from it somehow seems counterintuitive. It is certainly not a thought that has popular currency.

Going back to our young agency seminar participants it is easy to see why they naturally shunned ambiguity. Their entire upbringing, education and early work experience appears to have a subtle but pervasive bias against ambiguity.

Schools, at all levels, seem to be increasingly focused on teaching facts and processes. Things that are clear and measurable. Scores and grades are the metric. The emphasis appears to be on how to do things, not on why they should be done in the first place.

Have we, in fact, built a system in which knowing facts trumps thinking?

Universities do an excellent job of training students in the craft of advertising. Their programs prepare students well for how to do things. Yet are we adequately questioning why? Are we placing appropriate emphasis on challenging the students to think? Or providing encouragement for the ones who genuinely enjoy ambiguity? And thinking?

Once employed in the agency business the newbie is usually confronted with a comprehensive job description. It often lists step-by-step tasks of what the new employee is to do. Sometimes in excruciating detail.

Then most periodic personnel reviews go through a detailed grading system on performance against that list of to dos. Often with little regard for the outcomes that individual has achieved. Or his thinking ability. Or her future possibilities.

No wonder our seminar students were questing for a simple process. A magic formula. Isn’t that what their experience had taught them to expect?

Strategic vs. Tactical

A by-product of having young agency people focus so intently on tasks and processes is that it encourages, even rewards, a tactical mindset. Sure, stuff has got to be created, produced and placed. That’s how most agencies get paid. And young agency folks are the foot soldiers who need to do this work.

But they also need to embrace the role they play in the bigger picture.

We need to reaffirm to them what the agency business is all about. Very simply, clients hire agencies for one reason only – to solve their marketing business problems. With solutions that stimulate behavioral changes of people in the marketplace.

Making ads and websites and news releases and social media programs are only the means to the end, not the end itself. Changing behaviors in the marketplace is the ultimate goal of everything an agency does for its clients.

That’s it pure and simple. Successful agencies, and successful agency people, are effective at changing the human behavior of client customers. Behavioral change that benefits the consumer, the client and society as a whole.

Behavioral change that likely had its ideation origins in a cauldron of ambiguity.

A Look in the Mirror

So if we ever feel that young agency talent lacks the necessary intensity, focus and passion for their work or somehow doesn’t measure up to our expectations perhaps we need only to look in the mirror. Are they just fulfilling tasks that we have laid out for them? While what we really want from them are thoughtful solutions to important client marketplace problems?

Could it be that as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Are we the ones who have created a culture that values the orderliness of facts and processes and metrics over the messiness and uncertainty of ambiguity and unusual ideas? Have we let doing become more important than thinking?

And in the process, have we allowed mental laziness to flourish?

Celebrating Ambiguity

The premise here is that ambiguity stimulates thinking which in turn stimulates creativity. And that it is worth celebrating.

If you believe that a bit more ambiguity might benefit your agency then here are a few questions you might ask yourself:

1. A Culture of Ideas
First, and most important, is the agency’s culture. Is it a culture in which ambiguity is viewed as good, not bad? Are ideas celebrated joyfully? And are ideas welcome from everyone - from the receptionist to senior leadership? Are ideas, not status, the most important currency? And, do all the folks have fun?

2. Focused Recruiting
Are people with a high tolerance for ambiguity actively recruited? The kind of folks whose adrenalin pumps when they are confronted with a challenging situation? Do they see it as sport? Does their psychic satisfaction come from solving difficult problems? Do they run to ambiguity, not away from it?

3. Expect Thinking
Is there a fundamental expectation that everyone within the agency think deeply about their work? Are they constantly trying to find ways to improve their output, regardless of their job? Is there an understanding that thinking and creative ideas come from everyone, not just the Creative Department?

4. Reward Innovation
Whether it’s a new way of tracking client sales or a new way of trafficking an agency job is that innovation valued and rewarded? Do people understand that there is always a better way of communicating the client’s message or doing internal agency work? And that they will be rewarded individually and collectively for their innovations?

5. Tolerate Messiness
Is there recognition that ambiguity fosters messiness? That conflicting information can spawn conflicting ideas? Ideas that can tumble around in unpredictable ways? Is there an acceptance of a lack of tidiness and control? Is there an acceptance that recognizes that messiness can be the price of a great idea?

The celebration of ambiguity can lead to a more effective agency with better, happier, more committed talent. An agency that is more powerful in its marketplace.

A Rewarding Moment

Many of the students arrived at our seminars feeling a bit discouraged and even slightly cynical about their agency career choice. But it was not uncommon for them to leave with a quite different mindset. Often charged-up and enthusiastically embracing their opportunities and their future.

Watching that transformation during the two days was personally inspirational.

At the end of a particularly eye-opening seminar one of the students came up to me. Quietly she said, “Thank you. You made me think.”

Wow! What a delightful outcome.

© Carlton Associates Inc.

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