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Ambiguity Rocks in Marketing - so says Doug Kessler

Tracey James - Monday, November 18, 2019

Doug Kessler says: Ambiguity Rocks in Marketing

Creative Confidence in Disguise?

I’ve long admired Doug Kessler, an ex-Madison Avenue advertising man of wit, style and originality. He’s written some great resources and blog posts on marketing at Velocity Partners, and he’s never afraid to call a spade a bloody shovel. As a rule Doug writes with great clarity and cuts to the chase, but this post had me scratching my head.

‘This started out as an apology,’ writes Doug. ‘I wanted to say sorry to the many clients and colleagues I’ve annoyed over the years because of my indecisiveness. I do sympathize. I know it pisses you off. I know you came to me for a simple answer to a simple question. I know that people and processes are waiting for an answer. But I just don’t want to decide yet. If possible, I’d like to delay my decision for as long as possible.’

Indecision, Procrastination or Ambiguity?

I’m confused because Doug can’t seem to find the right word for his reluctance to make decisions. Hang on, Doug Kessler lost for words? Never happened before. Adding a twist to this story, ambiguity has two connotations: one describes words that are unclear, vague, and open to interpretation; the other describes words with double meanings

Comedians use the latter to great effect. In one of his movies, Groucho Marx says, ‘I shot an elephant in my pyjamas,’ which makes us wonder how the elephant got into Groucho’s pyjamas - or did Groucho go big game hunting in his pyjamas?

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Ambiguity in Marketing?

So is Doug being ambiguous in order to be funny? I doubt it; he’s talking about his reluctance to make a decision until he’s sure, which is uncertainty and procrastination to the best of my knowledge. Just to make sure,I reach for the Thesaurus. Here’s what Merriam Webster says:

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Most marketers would agree that the crucial element of messaging is clarity. Nebulous, obscure or arcane words, whether on landing pages or advertising billboards, in email headers or blog posts, will chase your audience away faster than you can turn off the light.

Now I’m wondering if Doug got his words mixed up. Does he mean ambiguous or ambivalent?

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Learning from Your Users

Ambivalence is much closer to the mark. Doug uses the example of making a video to promote a product that users love, and capture their enthusiasm by going out and interviewing some of them. He’s convinced that good things will happen in the process, and that good options will pop up to make the best way forward clearer.

‘And I trust that we’ll make good decisions along the way,’ he says. ‘Decisions that will be way better because we didn’t try to make them too early. We waited and listened, keeping the end goal in mind and pivoting to get there.’

OK, I get it. We go out and talk to a client’s users, we capture their enthusiasm, we learn what they love about the product, and that feeds back into the marketing messages we create. That’s the first thing we do at Technoledge, after the initial workshop with a new client: we speak to some of the client’s customers.

We ask them why they bought the client’s product or service, not a competitor’s. We ask them what they love about the product, what problems it solves for them, and we ask them what it helps them do that they couldn’t do before. Our clients are often surprised by the nuggets we dig up, nuggets they missed or had forgotten.

Reading the Wind

‘Interestingly, even though indecision looks like pessimism,’ Doug adds, ‘this kind [of approach] is actually grounded in a deep optimism. That good things are around the corner even if we’re not sure which corner yet. I’m not a sailor but I like the word ‘tacking’ for this. It’s a kind of zigzagging to get where we want to go, based on our reading of the wind.’ Will you make up your mind, Doug? Are you pivoting or zigzagging?

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‘In short, all that annoying, dithering indecisiveness might just be creative confidence in disguise. (Mixed with some plain, old, dithering indecision),’ says Doug. His post ends with ‘The Ambiguiphile’s Pledge,’ and once again I’m wondering if he’s got his wires crossed. Hang on, Doug is an experienced advertising man – above all else, he must know the meaning of words.

I run a couple more checks on Google, just in case I missed something, and it turns out I did: a phenomenon known as the ‘Ambiguity Effect’. Many of us tend to avoid choices that involve uncertainty, and sometimes we discard options because we don’t have enough information about them. That can lead to poor decisions when we opt for an inferior choice simply because the information we have is incomplete.

Ambiguity vs Precision

We’re back where we started, aren’t we? The Ambiguity Effect defines ambiguity as uncertainty, yet they’re not the same. I’m not a purist, but I value precision in the use of words because precision is essential for clear messaging and great storytelling (the crucial fundamentals of marketing). Without precision and specificity, we end up with top-of-head expressions like these: ‘How was the movie? Awsome. Did you enjoy the concert? It was amazing. How was that new restaurant? Fantastic.’

If Doug Kessler is muddying the waters of marketing just for fun, it doesn’t work. Yet the marketing message is valid: do your hands-on research, and keep an open mind while you’re doing it. You’ll get a better, more complete result that way. Phew, clarity at last.

So why does a man of Doug’s skill write such a confusing, circuitous, befuddled post? The sailing example Dough uses gives us a hint: it looks like he’s at sea without a compass. I hope he hasn’t lost it, because the world of content marketing would be much poorer.

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Image Source: A walk in the WoRds

The Ambiguiphile’s Pledge, by Doug Kessler

I’ll try to share with you my fundamental confidence in the general direction I’m advocating.

I’ll take that confidence into meetings with stakeholders, to help you make the “just trust us” appeal. I won’t ask you to do this alone.

When I’m not all that confident about the general direction, I’ll either hide that fact (praying it all works out), or let you in on it, so we can decide together whether to bluff or confess. Some stakeholders are cool with experiments.

When I can make a decision without closing too many of my precious doors, I will try my best to do so. Especially if we agree it’s reversible. Just kidding. (Not).

If a particular pivot will blow out the schedule or budget, I will warn everyone and wait for approval, offering a prudent Plan B in case of rejection. Finally, I’ll stop apologizing for my indecision, knowing that you understand.


Tracey James
Chief Executive

I used to be a Biotech researcher but got sick of acid holes in my clothing. After switching to selling the equipment I'd used in the lab, I discovered marketing and loved it. I've been marketing technologies ever since. I still love it.


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