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Marketing manuals and metaphors
A reading list for strategists
I’m fairly sure that I’ve shared some version of this in the past, but I like to keep this up to date when I find “new” books that I recommend.
This list started out of a Q&A following one of my many hand-wavey lectures about strategy. One of the more sensible students asked me for reading recommendations. As well as the household names ("Ogilvy!"), I also added in a few, slightly more tangential, guides.
I tend to value “strategy” more as a mindset than a discipline. Strategy is about curiosity: the desire to learn and keep learning. And it is about creativity: the ability to draw connections between and across those points of learning, and apply those connections to the task at hand.
Given that the subject matters being “strategised” can vary project by project or hour by hour, I’ve always - personally - valued the power of metaphor. People that can apply frameworks or lessons learned from other fields, not to directly answer the question, but as a way of reaching an answer. (I think, for example, the best talk on ‘how to do strategy’ I’ve ever heard was from a colleague who spoke about the strategic skills he learned as a hip-hop MC.)
Accordingly, about half the books I recommend are, at best, marketing-adjacent. They are metaphors: ways of thinking about and approaching problems. For some people, strategy-as-curation may be utterly useless. For others, it is the perspective that leads to clarity.
I also don’t want to discount the actual foundational rules and processes of strategy. The mindset is essential, but there is stuff that strategists should know: statistics, psychology, evaluation, sales and marketing principles - but these are learnable. The other half of the list focuses on good guides to these topics.
Since the Mad Men days, the industry has gone through peaks and troughs of fragmentation: trendy waves of integration vs specialisation. For a strategist, at least, I err towards the holistic view. There are excellent books within individual disciplines, but, for this list at least, I'm more concerned about broader principles - and often that means older works.
Culture and Environment (1933) F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson
Leavis and Thompson hate advertising. Hate it with a fiery passion. This slim book (a portion of which is spent eulogising wheelwrights) is about developing ‘critical awareness’: a heightened paranoia, necessary with modernity, that people are trying to influence you. (Spoilers: they’re right.) Leavis is a literary critic by trade, and the book brings that same sense of interrogation to more commonplace interactions. ‘Critical awareness’ is a fantastic phrase. The authors not only build the bedrock for modern consumer ‘savviness’, but also a robust plea the for media literacy that we desparately need during the recent spate of mis- and disinformation.
How to Lie with Statistics (1954) by Darrell Huff
Top of the list for stuff strategist should know: statistics. Huff's book remains the best primer to the subject and, more importantly, how statistics underpin communications. It explains what all the common terms mean, how they're used and, best of all, how they're misused. Immensely useful for deciphering the chicanery of advertising, media and, in general, anything that appears in Powerpoint slides presented by a 'guru'.
The Engineering of Consent (1955) by Edward Bernays
I also occasionally give lectures on this dude. He’s fascinating! He’s the ‘father’ of PR (says him), the OG of propaganda, the emperor of self-promotion, and the darling of conspiracy theorists. My Bernays talk is my favourite talk to talk. (Available for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.)
Engineering is virtually impossible to find, but the original 1947 essay is out there in the digital ether. The essay is a statement of intent. Bernays sets out the problem (too many people; the degeneration of common purpose) and the solution (mass media). It is a build on his work with Propaganda, but with shamelessly commercial underpinnings. The book is less manifesto and more handbook. Bernays taps up his friends and colleagues and sets out end-to-end instructions on how to design, deliver, and measure a mass media campaign. The tactics within may feel a little dated, but that's because they are essentially derived from first principles and captured here for the first (?) time.
Persuasion for Profit (1957) by Nicholas Samstag
Probably the best part of the above is the chapter on strategy, written by Nicholas Samstag. Samstag was the promotions director of Time for almost two decades, and wrote numerous books and articles about publicity, marketing and strategy. All of which were snarky. Including a novel. Also snarky.
Samstag is definitelyfrom a different era, for better and for worse. He's not particularly concerned about the morality of persuasion tactics, notably pointing out that "a 'strategy' is an instrument for winning". With that set out in the open, his book then coldly delineates all the tricks of the trade; how and why they work.
Samstag's holistic view of marketing is also in vogue again: his is one of the few practical guides that approach PR, marketing and sales promotion as part of a single discipline. Like Huff, this is an excellent 'plain English' primer that contains a lot of common sense. Like Bernays, this is someone rigourously writing out the fundamentals of mass persuasion from scratch.
Mythologies (1957) by Roland Barthes
Oh, you’re interested in advertising? You should definitely read more Barthes. Imagine that said in the most pretentious way possible, because that is, in fact, the most pretentious statement possible. The irony being: this is a book worth reading because it is anti-pretention. Mythologies is a weird sequence of short essays about completely commonplace things, from professional wrestling to cars. What Barthes does is examine each in isolation, often laterally, always poetically. It is the ultimate exercise in finding the special and the meaningful in the mundane and everyday: incredible leaps to find significance. That is - SPOILER - what a planner does. (Barthes just does it better.) (You know who else was really good at this? Roger Ebert. Strategists should read more Ebert.)
The Medium is the Massage (1967) by Marshall McLuhan
What strikes me most about McLuhan's book is that his media insight - now fifty years old - is still applicable today. Understanding Media is also a ‘must-read’. McLuhan’s understanding of we use, consume, and are dependent upon media is far better than what you find on most blogs, LinkedIn posts or TED talks. As well as being a world-class wordsmith, he has excellent insight into role of channels, how the media acts as a biased messenger, and how we process (or don’t) the information given to us. All handy stuff.
Massage is also beautifully presented by Quentin Fiore, if you're just looking for chic inspiration for a presentation. [I absolutely ripped it off once for a STUNNING Powerpoint deck that nobody appreciated as much as they should’ve.]
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (1984) by Robert Cialdini
Cialdini's seminal study of what makes people tick is about as important as a marketing book can be. Cialdini spent years watching persuasion in practice by working at used car dealerships, telemarketers and charity fund-raisers. He took his (admittedly anecdotal, but highly compelling) insight, layered in some behavioural science, and wham - wrote probably the best book on selling stuff.
The resulting book combines the best of theory with some amazing, and revelatory, nitty-gritty detail. Cialdini's principles are memorable and transferrable, and can help you both understand and implement the techniques of effective marketing.
Watching the English (2004) by Kate Fox
Not only delightfully readable, but also a great reminder that best practice in strategic planning should, at some point, involve actual human beings. Fox’s charming ethnography us that data isn't the only way - or the best way - of understanding an audience. Immersion now feels delightfully old school, but actually talking to - and listening to - an audience remains the most valuable skill, and Fox demonstrates how to do it.
Bit Literacy (2007) by Mark Hurst
Usability is another one of those important knowledge areas for strategists. Bit Literacy is essentially a lifestyle guide: if you’re not a believer in ‘inbox zero’ before reading this book, you will be when you finish. More importantly, it is also an introduction to how we process information. Hurst's guide to the flood of 'bits' we face in the digital age is fifteen years old and somehow grows less dated every year. Be prepared to hate your inbox, and really hate social media.
I'll Have What She's Having: Mapping Social Behavior (2011) by Alex Bentley and Mark Earls
I appreciate these books are getting increasingly distant from the "101 ways to make your ad copy gooder” style of marketing guide.
Bentley and Earls' short and amusing text explains where trends come from - how they get started, how they continue, and how they fade away. While Thaler (below) and Cialdini (above) are more focused on the process of persuading individuals. I'll Have What She's Having works on larger scale - building on Bernays (above) to unpick the science of mass persuasion. Like the other books on this list, it is both educational and accessible. (I find there's something inherently untrustworthy about books about communications that aren't well-communicated.)
The Art of the Publisher (2013) by Roberto Calasso
We're often told to 'act like a publisher'. But what does that actually mean? Calasso's book includes some - rather aspirational - approaches to publishing as a type of art. A commercial one, at that. Calasso's book also serves as a guide to branding, and how to think holistically about what a brand means. Calasso’s discussion of ‘form’ is my personal go-to metaphor for thinking about how outputs comprise a ‘campaign’, and more importantly, how ‘campaigns’ comprise a brand. Calasso is also quick to point out that ‘form’ is more than what you say, it is also in how you act. Every aspect of the process, of the company, of the brand, should be led by it.
Ways of Curating (2014) by Hans Ulrich Obrist
If we’re not ‘acting like a publisher’, we’re ‘curating’. What’s that mean?! Obrist, the rock star 'supercurator', explains how he began studying curation, how he approaches it, and how he sees it changing going forwards. Obrist is, of course, talking about the Vienna Biennale and not your ‘X’ feed, but this is packed with philosophies and principles that apply across both. Also worth checking out David Balzer's charmingly snarky Curationism (also 2014), which is a much-needed response to the 'cult of the curator'.
Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics (2015) by Richard Thaler
You may remember Richard Thaler from his cameo in The Big Short. He was the one that wasn’t in a bathtub. He also gives the occasional Reddit AMA. Nudge is, of course, well worth reading, as it is a concept both frequently cited and misunderstood. Consider that a bonus recommendation. (As is Cass Sunstein’s How to Humble a Wingnut.)
Behavioural Economics is, again, one of those Things that strategists need to know about. I suggest Misbehaving, as it provides an engaging view of the field - warts and all. The book covers the rise of this new(-ish) field, includes engaging demonstrations and examples, and also talks through some of the criticisms. It is worth noting that Misbehaving is a step removed from being a marketing guide, as it is more concerned with the greater scope of behaviour change. However, it does review the role of communications, just alongside sales, policy, management and, well, everything.
The Book of Human Emotions (2015) by Tiffany Watt-Smith
Emotion is more persuasive than reason, making this book an indispensible reference. Each entry expresses a single emotion: expressed as a feeling, a philosophy, an approach to life, or a sentiment. It is the ultimate guide for that pesky 'tone and voice' box on every brief, and a brilliant way of thinking about the atmosphere that you want your communications to create. The ‘feel’ of your work. Another one in this category is the delightful Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.
The Idiot Brain (2016) by Dean Burnett
We've gone from ideology and instinct to the science of behaviour change. Following that arc, it was inevitable that neuroscience - the science of the science of behaviour change - would get roped in. Burnett's book is a crash course in demystifying neuroscience, and explaining what it means in practice. It is still very tactical, as to how applying neuroscience can help campaigns, but, more importantly, this book will help your confidence when everyone else is bandying the term around (incorrectly).
On Grand Strategy (2018) by John Lewis Gaddis
Let’s not forgot that strategy is, ultimately, a military term. I am naturally reticent to pursue a military metaphor in marketing, because - well, that’s macho and silly. But Gaddis, a phenomenal historian, walks through a history of the discipline in an enjoyable and informative way. The metaphor that Gaddis uses is, to come full circle, literary criticism - linking his ideas on agility, ambition and capability using a framing device of Isaiah Berlin’s criticism of Tolstoy. If that sounds extremely lateral, well, it is. Great strategy (and grand strategy) needs that sort of leap.
I’m always happy to recommend more conventional guides. But where’s the fun in that?
I often go for the self-imposed, Pyrrhic challenge of reading the random books left behind in holiday cottages. Three from my recent vacation:
John Grisham’s The Associate. I have not read a Grisham for a long, long time, and - wow - this is not what I remembered. This was not the dense, technical book I remembered. It was short, ‘sexy’ (in a leery middle aged man kinda way), ‘action’ (in a daydreamy middle-aged man kinda way) thriller. It didn’t help that the plot was basically that of The Firm, but just sort of… abridged. James Patterson’s Bookshots present… The Firm!
Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. I mean, this is a post-Potter MG book: a Chosen One, some misfit friends, a bloodline-based ‘sorting’ process, and a magic school that would give Health & Safety conniptions. It is extremely American (as Potter is English), something that infuses every aspect of the book. Unlike Harry, Percy is ready to embrace his fate. Unlike the insular, Hogwarts-based nature of Potter, Percy hits the road and goes rambling. I found it really good fun, and really enjoyable. Would happily read more.
Barbara Vine’s The Birthday Present. So I figured I’d like Percy Jackson, I did not expect The Birthday Present to be so good. The cover looked like absolute trash, and the blurb ‘Tory MP sex shenanigans lead to MURDER!!!!’ was delightfully awful. I thought it’d be lurid, shallow and full of typos. Instead, this was proper noir - if in the the unexpected context of the Thatcher parliament. Tense and slow-burning, with that growing sense of claustrophobia. I also didn’t realise Vine = Ruth Rendall, and am delighted to have ‘discovered’ a new author with such a huge backlist to plunder.
The local football x William Morris collab you’ve been waiting for. (Thanks, Andrew. And yes, I bought one.)
Grind wind up Laurence Fox. I’m not sure this does anyone good in the long run - conceptually, it just furthers the divide and gives everyone a ‘side’ to pick. In practice, however: ha ha.
So the Seattle Kraken (ice hockey team) leaned in to the fact that romance readers really like ice hockey players, the social media team got excited, an influencer got involved and things got… messy. Lessons were learned. Maybe.
Twitter is a truly, horribly vile place. The safeguarding is off the rails, there’s literally no way to report disinformation, racism flourishes, and the infrastructure is now actually set up to reward being a bigoted troll. I have serious questions about spending advertising money on the platform. If your billboard supplier behaved half as badly, erratically or immorally as Twitter, you’d yank your ads down in a heartbeat. I don’t see why this platform is an exception.
This re-revelation came from when my lovely publisher offered to put my social media accounts on the back of The Big Book of Cyberpunk. I thought this was very kind, and then realised that a) if the platform exists in September then b) I won’t be on it anyway. Which then prompted: why am I still on it now?! (Sadly, the answer is ‘for work'. The one value the platform provides is that journalists are still on it, looking for stories/drama. As long as they’re looking, I need to keep an eye on it too.) Anyway, I’ve removed the app and gone to lurk-only mode. I look forward to deactivating my account, hopefully sometime soon.
So where am I? I have a locked IG that’s pictures of cats. I have an open Threads account that is also pictures of cats. I’m on LinkedIn (no cat pictures). Reddit’s my time-killer of choice. And Discord is where I chat with my mates.
I loved Twitter, and have been on it since its inception. Losing it will make a hole in my life. I keep thinking about Mastodon and BlueSky and and and… and it fills me with a sense of utter exhaustion. Instead, I’m going to try taking a bit of advice from Bit Literacy (qv) and get better at carving out time for personal email. Whenever I do, I really enjoy it. Sadly, the fun bits are the ones that always sink to the bottom.