The best books on Marketing

The best books on Marketing

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Before we get to the books, let me ask: what does good marketing do?

Thank you for the ‘good’ part. Because bad marketing is what most people think of when they think of the selfish spam, the narcissistic narratives, the high-pressure—but that’s not marketing: that’s simply bullying.

Good marketing is the act of changing things for the better by telling true stories to the right people. Good marketers make promises and keep them. Good marketing is responsible for the culture we live in and the lives we live.

You’ve been writing books about and speaking about marketing for many years. How has marketing changed over this period—and have the core values stayed constant?

Marketing went through a sea change between 1980 and 2000. Those two decades marked the end of advertising as the perfect marketing tool. For the 50 years before that, all you had to do was run some ads. More ads were better than fewer ads. Well-done ads were better than lousy ones. But ads were all that mattered.

In this century, of course, ads don’t build business or culture any longer. The enormous shift is more than simply tactical: it means that what we make and how we make has changed as well. Before now, it was about efficient mass. Average stuff for average people, we’ll buy shelf space and attention, thanks very much.

Now, the product or the service or the story about it is what spreads. Now, the most important marketing ideas are a connection ratchet, things that work better when we engage with others, instead of alone.

You have been inducted into the Marketing Hall of Fame—plus the Guerrilla Marketing Hall of Fame, and the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame. Might you explain what these sub-fields comprise, and when they are appropriate?

Direct marketing is action marketing. It is measured. Direct marketing is what happens when an advertiser buys a Google ad or runs a coupon and, if it clearly pays for itself, buys another one. Google and Facebook have revolutionized advertising by turning most marketers into direct marketers, because the internet is easy to measure.

Guerrilla marketing, on the other hand, is marketing without much money. It’s asymmetrical marketing, David and Goliath, the cheeky effort to be specific not average. Guerrilla marketers use direct marketing all the time, which is why the internet has been such a boon to them.

And marketing (here differentiated as ‘brand marketing’) is what happens when you take a longer cycle, when you do things that can’t easily be measured, when you choose to stand for something as you work to change the culture.

I worked with Lester Wunderman, who coined the phrase ‘direct marketing’, and with Jay Levinson, who did the same for ‘guerrilla marketing.’ I never knew most of the great brand marketing pioneers of the 1950s, but I’m thrilled—and sort of amazed—to be the only person in all three groups!

Wonderful! Let’s discuss the marketing books you’d like to recommend. I’m intrigued by your first choice: Syrup by Maxx Barry. It’s a novel. What might we learn from this book?

First, it’s funny. Funny even if you’ve never worked in an office, but even funnier if you have. Barry gives us an insightful look into what big company marketers in an ad-driven world actually do all day.

Just as Soul of a New Machine did for computers, Syrup helps an outsider see the pressures, the thrills and the absurdity of it all.

What are the pressures that a big company marketer comes under? Are we talking about a Mad Men situation?

Well, like Syrup, Mad Men is fictional—but the pressure of measurement and survival and affiliation is real. Marketers create change, and we do it out of nothing much more than a desire for forward motion and the confidence to act ‘as if’. Multiply that by the corporate rate race and you’re likely to see bad behavior along the way.

Perhaps that prompts me to ask—do you see advertising as a subdivision of marketing, or a separate field?

Marketers use advertising, but it’s very much a specialization, in that all great advertisers are advertisers first. They might also be good at marketing, but they have a sense of voice, a confidence and a bias for buying attention that is special.

Book two has a fabulous title. This is Marketing: A Love Story, by Bernadette Jiwa. Why do you recommend it?

Bernadette helped modern marketers see that stories are a choice. That’s a huge leap. Of course it’s true, but it means that we have to spend as much time and energy building and living a story as we do creating the products and services that match that story.

Jiwa describes what she does as “helping people to tell stories that set them and their companies apart.” I thought that was an interesting way of characterising what marketing does. Do you agree with her?

If you fit in, you’re invisible. That’s what camouflage is for. There are many ways to stand apart, of course, and what Jiwa is arguing for is not simply standing out, but standing out in a way that resonates. Because people are busy. They are unlikely to care enough about your product to talk about it. But they’re certainly interested in themselves, and if you can resonate with who I am and more important, who I seek to be, then I’m on your team, and vice versa.

Can you think of a company that has done this—standing out through storytelling—well?

Every single company that you can think of has done this! That’s why you can think of them.

Lots of people sell sneakers. But if I ask you to name a sneaker company, you’ll name one that told a story well—or spectacularly poorly, which is almost a version of well.

Maybe this brings us to the third book, which is your own latest, This is Marketing. What did you set out to do with this new work?

Nobody had written the definitive book of the post-advertising age. It needed to be able to explain everything from Airbnb to Trump to the success of Instagram. If there’s going to be a coherent, unified theory of marketing, it will not only explain what we see, but also give us the tools to create our own change in the world.

I know that marketing is powerful. I refuse to let people off the hook, simply because they’re following orders or want to make some money. If we’re going to do marketing, we’re going to make change. I want us to see what we’re doing and invest the emotional labor to do the right thing, because it matters.

That term ’emotional labor’ is a phrase I’ve often seen in the context of feminism—to describe the unpaid work of administrating to a social and family life. Originally I think it was used to refer the pleasantries required in certain lines of work. What does emotional labor mean in a marketing context?

Arlie Hochschild most famously used the term in the 1980s; it has been used to describe dumping a certain kind of work on a certain kind of worker—in her case, she was writing about flight attendants.

“If we’re going to do marketing, we’re going to make change”

I view it in a broader sense, though, and see it as a privilege, not a misogynistic trap. The alternative—physical labor—is not something I’d be good at, and it’s not something I’d find rewarding either.

But showing up as a professional to bring emotion and guts and insight to bear—to solve a problem and to help someone move forward—I view that as an opportunity to do real work.

A short section leapt out at me: “Marketers make change. We change people from one emotional state to another.” I think that’s a fascinating goal. But this also feeds into why some people think of marketing as a sort of black magic. Do you think people are more suspicious of marketing than they need to be?

People aren’t nearly suspicious enough of marketing. Marketing that manipulates can prey on our fears and our dreams and our prejudices to persuade us to do things we’ll regret.

On the other hand, marketing creates a bottle of wine we love, an outfit that’s our favorite and a cause we’d die for. Let’s see it for what it is.

Talk of ‘preying on fears’ reminds me of an article I read recently that claimed that halitosis was invented, or reinvented using a Latin word, by Listerine in the 1920s. I find that almost impossible to believe, given the amount of time I have spent during my lifetime fretting over the possibility of bad breath. Is that the sort of thing you mean? Could you give any other examples?

You find it impossible to believe that halitosis was invented? Have you noticed how some cultures go to enormous lengths not to show a stranger their teeth, hiding behind hands whenever they eat or even laugh? Or the amount of time and money people in some culture spend grooming their hair? Or the attention paid to body distance between strangers in various locales? It’s all invented! To imagine that some of it is invented by a profit-seeking marketer isn’t that hard.

“People aren’t nearly suspicious enough of marketing”

Happy Hour was invented. Bumming a cigarette was invented, as was tapping the ends of the pack . . . Google it. And yes, the Vietnam War was invented too. It’s what humans do. We tell stories that change others, and sometimes we do it for selfish reasons.

I love the concept behind your next book choice: The Republic of Tea. It presents the correspondence between Mel Ziegler and Patricia Ziegler, husband and wife co-founders of Banana Republic, and their partner Bill Rosenzweig.

Back when the fax was a new technology, a young entrepreneur set out to create a new brand. And, 30 years later, that brand is still around. The book consists of a series of faxes back and forth with his investors, followed by a breakneck narrative of what it took to build a brand from scratch.

“The technology is ancient, but the story is timeless. This book changed my life”

Even though the technology is ancient, the story is timeless. This book changed my life all those years ago.

I love that they provide the actual original business plan they used to raise money for the venture. What struck you as particularly notable from a marketing perspective?

Will is the real deal. His narrative isn’t tacked on because he thought he could make money. Instead, he’s seeking to make enough money to have his narrative come true.

That brings us to Kevin Kelly’s New Rules for the New Economy. Tell me about it.

Imagine if a time-traveler wrote a book about our future in 1999. And imagine that he gave it away to anyone who wanted to read it, and that even after 20 years, it’s still a road map to the future.

Kevin Kelly might or might not be from the future, but this is that book. Every once in a while, when I need a new and original breakthrough idea, I just open Kevin’s book from 20 years ago!

Amazing. I see the origins of the book were in a 1997 article. 1997! It talks about the economics of the digital world. Why is Kevin’s vision useful to marketers?

Because marketing is what we do! Not the ads we run. Marketing is the ratchets, the viralities, the side effects and effects. Marketing is the system we build. And Kevin’s book is the map to the system of the future.

Finally: some people seem to have a great natural instinct for marketing. I fear I don’t count among them. Is there hope? Can people like me learn marketing from books?

Sometimes I hang out with babies. These are little kids who can’t walk or talk. Amazingly, every one of them is a great marketer. Every one of them knows how to get their parents to love them, to hear them and to help them grow up.

We never lose these magical skills. Instead, we’re brainwashed into believing we don’t have a voice. Of course we do. You don’t have to give a TED talk to be a marketer. In fact, you already are one.

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at

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