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Essential Reading for Marketers

August 1, 2011

Too busy to pursue an MBA, Steve McKee turned to business books to educate himself on branding, marketing, and advertising. Here are his top picks

By Steve McKee

I began my career in advertising as a field marketing manager on the Pizza Hut (YUM) account, which basically meant I got to travel from restaurant to restaurant, work with the managers on their local marketing efforts, and eat all the free pizza and breadsticks I could (not a bad gig when you’re 22, newly married, and broke).

I operated out of my home, and when I wasn’t traveling I had a fair amount of downtime that needed to be filled. Unable to pursue an MBA at the time (those were pre-Internet days), I decided to do the next best thing: read all I could about my chosen field.

That began a career-long love affair with business books. King Solomon himself said, “The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails.” I wanted to be a “well-driven nail”—sure, steady, and able to piece things together no matter what marketing challenges I would come to face.

Since that time I’ve occasionally been asked to recommend the branding, marketing, and advertising books that have had the biggest impact on me. It’s impossible to choose just one, so below I’ve listed a handful of my favorites. I’ve structured the list based on how they’ve contributed to my own marketing education: prerequisites, concentration, and application. This isn’t necessarily the order in which I recommend you read them, and depending on your goals, you certainly don’t need to read them all. But you can’t go wrong with any of them.


Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy, by Thomas Sowell

The front flap of Basic Economics says it brings its topic to light in a way that is “easy to absorb and hard to forget.” That’s certainly true. Sowell presents practical concepts about how incentives, trade-offs, and other dimensions of the economy really work. More interesting (and more relevant) than the economics course you may have suffered through in college, this book is for people who get paid for results rather than for effort, pontification, or simply showing up. (For extra credit, read Sowell’s follow up, Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One.)

The Marketing Imagination, by Theodore Levitt

Levitt, who died in 2006, was a professor at the Harvard Business School and former editor of the Harvard Business Review. The Marketing Imagination was one of the first books I read that made the concepts of marketing and “why people buy” come alive for me. Since the book was first published in 1983, some of the examples in it are dated, but reading them with the benefit of hindsight offers a unique Monday-morning-quarterback dimension that imparts another layer of education.

Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors, by Michael E. Porter

This is the heftiest tome of the group, and I’m far from the first to recommend the current guru of the Harvard Business School. You don’t so much read Competitive Strategy as gnaw on it, and it takes a long time to digest. But there’s no better presentation of the multivariate dimensions (how’s that for an academic term?) of competition, and the book’s principles can be applied to any and every industry. I’ve found myself referring back to it time and time again as I work with clients on their own competitive strategies. (Extra credit: Kellogg on Marketing, a collection of thought-provoking essays from the faculty of the business school at Northwestern University.)


Positioning: The Battle for your Mind, by Jack Trout and Al Ries

When Positioning was first released in 1981, it revolutionized how marketers conceived of the branding proposition. Or so I’ve been told (I was still in high school).

What is inarguable is the simplicity with which Trout and Ries explain how branding isn’t about products and services, it’s about how people think about products and services. The best compliment I could give the authors is that they made the complex topic of branding simple. If only they could now make it easy, we could all go home.

Profit from the Core: Growth Strategy in an Era of Turbulence, by Chris Zook and James Allen

This one won’t make most marketers’ top books lists, and that’s a shame. Zook and Allen base their thesis on a 10-year study of 2,000 companies, expounding on the reasons why all companies seek sustained, profitable growth but only a fraction of them actually achieve it. I’ve always been fascinated by the principle of entropy, the tendency of all things in the universe towards disarray. This book demonstrates that the way to overcome entropy in business is by biting off no more than you can chew. Companies grow big by focusing narrowly.

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, by Jack Trout and Al Ries

Trout and Ries get two spots on the list, for good reason. Building on the concepts they presented in Positioning, the 22 Laws is an easy, breezy read that proffers simple branding facts you don’t need a Ph.D. to appreciate. In fact, people who have too much education sometimes characterize Trout’s and Ries’ simplicity as simplistic, but if you’re facing a real-world competitive environment, their advice is well-taken. You don’t have to buy their opinions hook, line, and sinker to appreciate them or profit from their application. (Extra credit: Marketing Warfare from—you guessed it—Trout and Ries.)


Hitting the Sweet Spot: How Consumer Insights Can Inspire Better Marketing and Advertising, by Lisa Fortini-Campbell

If you’re not in the advertising industry, you’ve probably never heard of this book, but it’s the single best resource I’ve found that explains the mystical process our industry calls “account planning.” Fortini-Campbell presents practical, straightforward advice about how to understand your customers and prospects and translate what you learn into actionable marketing and message strategies. Along the way she shows how you can put your own consumer experiences, insights, and hunches to work. Following the disciplines in this book can lead to truly groundbreaking marketing and advertising efforts.

A Technique for Producing Ideas, by James Webb Young

Just because you can read a book in 10 minutes doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. In fact, this little booklet is an invaluable aid to generating ideas of any kind. Originally developed in the 1930s for students at the University of Chicago, the advice in A Technique for Producing Ideas is as helpful as it is quaint. The booklet presents in plain terms how the process of creativity works and provides practical steps for developing innovative products, services, and ideas. Mr. Young—who died in 1973—likely never appreciated the impact his contribution has made.

Feeding the Media Beast, by Mark Mathis

I’ve always worked on the advertising side of the business, and in the early part of my career the realm of public relations completely intimidated me. The thought of taking a call from a reporter, let alone pitching a story or (gasp) appearing on network television was simply terrifying. Until I read Feeding the Media Beast. A former journalist, Mark Mathis explains how the news business works, the pressures journalists face, and the predicaments in which they often find themselves. He demonstrates how, by following 12 “Media Rules,” your relationship with the press can go from fearful to friendly. I can personally attest that this stuff works.

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

I can hear you now: “Really? A stylebook? I left that stuff behind in English class.” Yep, and that’s the problem. We may live in an increasingly video-dominated world, but the written word still drives business. No matter how brilliant your ideas may be, if you don’t craft them properly they can actually set you back. I keep this handbook handy and refer to it often to maintain a mannerly manner of writing. If recommending Strunk & White does nothing more than keep you from using exclamation points in your advertising (Chapter III, page 34 of my well-worn copy), I’ll be content.

Some of these books are easier to find than others, but now that we’re in the Internet era, all of them can be turned up. There are dozens of others I could recommend, but if you can work your way through these, you’ll know more about branding than 90% of business people in America (and 100% of your competition).

Of course, if your company still runs into a problem, there’s a book I can recommend about what to do when growth stalls. But I can’t claim objectivity on that one.

Steve McKee is president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland Advertising and author of the book When Growth Stalls: How It Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What to Do About It. Find him on Twitter @WhenGrowthStall and LinkedIn.


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