The Nature of Certainty


There is uncertainty all around us. You don’t always feel it, and that’s a relief. If you did it would make you paranoid and nobody really wants to live that way.

The uncertainly I feel around me comes from being a little too much with the world. Writers tend to be that way. They pay too much attention to the world because they are always looking for a story. Always trying to see a road through the madness. As a result, they learn a lot, and the sad part about the world today is that the more you learn, the more there is to feel uncertain about.

I used to be certain about a lot of things. Especially when I worked in the advertising agency business. You would work your ass off developing ideas that you were certain about, and then you had to sit down in front of clients who were pretty much uncertain about everything and convince them that it was OK to share your certainty.

More often than not, they would go along with me. When they didn’t, well that didn’t always end well. Now I’m not saying that I was any sort of creative advertising genius. But I knew how to create ideas that executed a strategy, which is something that a surprising number of people in advertising they days can’t really do all that well.

And I wasn’t alone. A lot of my advertising buds, were pretty certain too.

The reason we were so certain about what we did was that we were the second generation of advertising people that came along after the real geniuses like David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach, Mary Wells, and Helmut Crone, and others laid the foundations. We were the apprentices of their students. We challenged ourselves every day. Not just because we were all obsessive-compulsive types, but because it was fun to have a job that really stretched your mind.

We were never uncertain because the world we were living in at the time was exploding with ideas. Great movies. Great Music. Great progressive thinking.

Back in the 1970s, the creative world I lived in was firing on all cylinders. All the friends I had at that time were in the business, so it carried over seamlessly into our social life.

We smoked a lot of weed back then and weren’t afraid to stretch our minds. We felt like we were part of a movement.

Moving the merch. Persuading the consumer. Influencing the culture in our own small way. Keeping the wheels of commerce turning. I didn’t know anyone who felt uncertain about what was going on and where it could all lead.

And we rode that beast for 20 years until the recession of the early 1990s, and almost all of my peers who opted to stay away from management roles started to drift away from that world. But even then, there was never a lot of uncertainty. We were trained professional gunslingers with two decades of experience and enough savvy to talk our way into just about anything. Which is exactly what we did.

Some of us went to strategic marketing companies and turned them, by reason of our very presence, into full-tilt ad agencies. Some of us formed our own groups and hired bush beaters to scare up business. Still others, like me, broadened our skills to include strategic development, art direction, and production in addition to writing and became one-man bands and worked with smaller developing clients who didn’t have big budgets and appreciated the economies of scale that I could offer.

And over the course of the next decade, we changed the face of advertising in Canada. New boutique agencies got most of the really creative pieces of business and won the lion’s share of the awards. They hired their friends, and they attacked business with the same certainly they had in the big agencies they all came from.

While life was good under the big agency roof, many of us found that it was even better under our own. We had control. We made good money. And most of all, we had time which many of us used to try other things.

I got into lyric writing with local bands and screenplay writing. Some of my friends became commercial directors. Still, others became marketing directors in the new tech companies that were springing up all over.

I consider myself truly fortunate to have gotten into the advertising business right in the middle of the creative revolution and to have had almost 50 good years playing that game.

I don’t do much advertising work these days. Mainly because I moved away from the Canadian centre of things in Toronto. And because those years were good, I didn’t really have to work.

It’s a different advertising world these days. There are way fewer opportunities to be genuinely creative. And that’s changed quite a bit of things.

The Internet was really the kiss of death for the advertising industry as I used to know it. And now, it is filled with uncertainly. Consumers no longer really know who to trust anymore. So many promises are made and broken by advertisers these days that it has cast a pall over the industry.

Oh sure, there is still some good creative advertising out there, but for the most part, it’s descended into a kind of show and tell mediocrity, where advertisers feel the need to build a community of users and so they spend millions trying to keep a conversation going about something that maybe isn’t all that important to most people.

I can’t imagine how stultifying dull it must be for someone who is genuinely creative to work in the content factories that call themselves agencies these days. Cranking out endless reams of drivel that hardly anybody reads. But it keeps on coming because the people at the top of that industry have convinced a good chunk of the business community that this is the way of the future.

If I were these clients, I would be developing a little healthy skepticism and, yes, uncertainty about that, and a lot of other things as we move into the future.

Because right now, there’s more to be uncertain about than ever. But that’s a story for another time. Maybe even next week.


Jim Murray
Jim Murray
I have been a writer since the age of 14. I started writing short stories and poetry. From there I graduated to writing lyrics for various bands and composers and feature-length screenplays, two of which have been produced. I had a  20-year career in senior positions in Canadian and multi-national agencies and a second career, which began in 1989, (Onwords & Upwords Inc), as a strategic and creative resource. Early in 2020, I closed Onwords & Upwords and effectively retired. I am now actively engaged, through blogging and memes, in showcasing businesses that are part of the green revolution. I am also writing short stories which I will be marketing to film production companies. I live with my wife, Heather, in the beautiful Niagara Region of southern Ontario, after migrating from Toronto, where I spent most of my adult life.

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