Why All The Ambiguity And Why Now?

by Jay Suhr

This is part of a series about how to manage ambiguity for creatives, innovators and problem-solvers. In part one, we introduced the idea. In part two we look at why ambiguous projects are spreading, and we come to grips with the fact that tapping the brakes is not an option.

The easy answer to the question posed in the headline is, “Blame Amazon.” But that’s been the simplistic answer for about 20 years.

And yet, it can be helpful to identify why there’s been this explosion of ambiguous projects that are now dropping on client and agency teams. Where did it all start? I’m not sure there is a ground zero, as much as I see the situation we’re in now as more of a continuum of disruption-causing trends triggered by products, marketing and technology.

Roots: Just Do It and Think Different

Nike and Apple product innovation combined with human-centered branding, advertising and experiences created the initial wave of disruption as brands attempted to become the “Nike of their industry.” That wave has lasted 30 years and there are elements of it in Under Armour, Nest, Fitbit and Tesla.

I’m grounding this with Nike and Apple, because these brands were built and have grown through both product and marketing innovation. The growth of those companies offers a reminder for teams to keep an open mind to potential solutions. It’s shortsighted to be blinded by the very bright light of tech because the change we’re witnessing spans from the Internet and Amazon to the introduction of iPhone, Facebook, Twitter and Watson (all circa 2007), to today’s big trends in IOT, VR/AR and the rapid adoption of cognitive technology.

Every one of these new developments created ambiguity and opportunity. Throughout them all, agencies like T3 have managed to help clients take advantage of the changes. Our “think tank” way of working (and a dive-in and figure-it-out bravado) has helped clients create their first sites, Facebook posts, multichannel social media campaigns, apps, bots, and the prototypes our teams are working on now. That means our entire organization is flexibly structured (and restructured) to adapt to what’s new and what’s next.

The _________ of our industry

Technological developments also trigger reactions inside corporations that are no different than the ones created by Nike and Apple in the 1980s. “Now we want to be the AmazonGoogleFacebookNetflixUberSnap of our industry.” That thinking is mistake number one. Companies lose their way trying to be someone else. Better is to learn from someone else, just as large corporations learn from nimbler startups where “experience is the brand.”

However, the greater mistake—and greatest barrier—for companies to become disrupters themselves, is failing to realign their people, teams, culture, organizations, and agency partners to “think different” and reshape everything—customer experiences, products, services and campaigns. These individual, team and cultural shifts are crucial to both managing ambiguity and shifting to new agile marketing processes, something eMarketer reports that 52 percent of of U.S. marketers are doing at medium levels, but only 21 percent at high levels.

Ambiguity as Wildfire

The velocity of technological change (with extra fuel from the immediacy of social media) means that ambiguity moves like a wildfire. Wildfires spread faster as materials ahead of the flames are preheated and dried, accelerating ignition. Firebrands jump roads and rivers into new areas. In business, ambiguity sparks to life when disruption in one industry suddenly sparks in others. What consumers love from one brand they want from all brands—and they want it now.

American Express sees that. Jim Bush, President of Global Network and International Consumer Services, has been leading a transformation of the brand’s legendary customer service culture around the concept of “customer care.” According to Bush, a driving insight behind this transformation was that it is no longer good enough for a company to be best in its industry; it must be the best in the world.”

This means that teams can’t just myopically focus on category competitors. They are compelled to look more expansively at brands, tools, experiences and technologies that are becoming essential to customers. In doing this, teams also have to expand their perspectives in how other people live, learn, share and adopt and advocate for their brands.

Rewiring Your Thinking

In Thomas Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, he describes two groups of people with opposite reactions to “three nonlinear accelerations” driven by the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law (the pace of technological change).

In a January 2017 interview for Intelligence Squared, Friedman observed: “There are some people who really relish competing in this world of accelerations. They’re able to keep up, to learn, to retool, to re-engineer. There are other people who feel completely overwhelmed by it and unmoored by it and dislocated by it.” (Question at 6:50, quote at 9:29, and worth 90 minutes to watch the full talk.*)

If you follow this logic, which group are you in? The bigger question is what are you doing “to keep up, to learn, to retool, to re-engineer”? We’ll dig into this more in my next post.

*If you like Tom Friedman, here is a related Google Talk video that expands on the larger themes of his book. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nuF2JKeM2CY

Jay Suhr

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