Most marketing books are crap, and broadly speaking, most business books suck too. These books are mostly written by people selling consulting, or worse, some productized service. While I’m critical of most business books, I’m focusing this beating on marketing books only.
Out of a sampling of books on marketing; it’s common to see a 180-page book, spending 30 pages sharing the qualifications of the authors, and 150 pages of generic or recycled concepts, perhaps with some rebranding. Most of these books tell you how major companies over the last 50 years, became major companies, using the tactics the book’s author just happens to be an expert on.
I’m not saying Ogilvy on Advertising isn’t worth reading, because David Ogilvy founded an ad agency. His expertise is what makes the book worth the time to read it, but if you read his book, you can probably skip most of the clones.
Marketing books are typically written for three audiences
Most marketing books are written with three audiences in mind. The first two are people who work at large brands and large agencies, with well-funded clients who hire consultants. Basically the type of companies that make up most examples in any marketing book.
The third audience segment is dumb people, who think their startup idea follows the same rules as a spattering of carefully selected examples. Dumb people may never buy consulting, but they can buy books, and attend conferences. Dumb people also don’t ask for context, like, what players were in the market if the strategy failed for other companies, or how the overall economy was doing at the time a strategy worked.
Once in my photographer days, a marketing person hired me for an event, let’s call it a graduation. They asked me to take photos with my phone; Why? Because they heard the head of social at Chili’s Grill & Bar say photos taken on a phone at restaurants received more engagement on Instagram than studio images. Either, those scenarios are identical; or some dumb folks are buying marketing books and attending conferences.
History is written by the winners, same with marketing books
The strategies in marketing books work almost 100% of the time, on paper. That’s because no one writes about the failures. I’ve spent my working life at agencies and martech companies, and you know what every client I’ve worked with has in common? First, they don’t let you write about their worst failures. Second, nothing is a failure if you toss a pile of money at it and put on rose-colored glasses.
Are five million impressions on social media worth anything? No, but if you spend about $500,000 you can get five million impressions. Take the impressions, some screenshots showing positive comments (negative comments are ignored), a few charts, something showing industry trends, a pulled quote from a Gartner Analyst and boom! That is a nice looking case study!
If you take 30 thin case studies like the one above, cherry pick the ones that have a similar thread, put them together with some snark, and a little analysis and bam. You have a marketing book, it may not be a bestseller, but maybe it will get you a consulting or speaking gig!
Some of the best marketing books aren’t about marketing
I’m not saying all marketing books are bad, and I started an ad agency, so it should be clear, I’m not attacking marketing consultants. But many of the best marketing books aren’t written about marketing. Any book covering flaws in an industry, or highlighting innate human behavior can be a marketing book.
Manufacturing Consent by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky is not about marketing, it is an exposé highlighting many of the flaws in media outlets. The kind of flaws in the design of news that could be a savvy PR person’s dream. Ryan Holiday, a one-time savvy PR person highlights the exploitation of those and more modern problems in his book Trust Me, I’m Lying.
How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie is about being a good human. Social Engineering by Christopher Hadnagy is an entertaining book about how not to be a victim of social engineering. Neither of these are about marketing, and both will teach you more about marketing than most books that advertise themselves to be on the topic.
I could probably keep naming books, but you get the point. There are a lot of bad marketing books and a lot of good marketing books not about marketing. If you’re looking for marketing books my fellow SiliconANGLE alum, Brandon Mendelson, listed his favorites a few years ago.
Why do bad marketing books sell?
From what I’ve gathered most people who read marketing books aren’t well-versed marketers, they are trying to learn, often quickly about, marketing. I jokingly called them “dumb people” before, but they are self-educators, so am I, that’s awesome, That said, in the very early stages of self-education you don’t have the information to understand what is good or bad advice.
When I see a book that says you have to invent “…a whole new game-defining a new market category, developing it, and dominating it over time.” I think well darn; this is going to be an irritating read, I’ve probably read this before, will this just waste my time.
However, if one of the first marketing books you read, says the key to success is defining an entirely new product category; like Facebook, Google, SalesForce, Netflix, Uber, and many more. Why would you question it? Bing, is a failure for Microsoft because it’s not a category-defining company.
You want your start up’s marketing to be a success, defining a new category that the world has never seen before. You don’t want to be a flop like Bing, a company that in 2017 earned 3.2 Billion in revenue (1.3 billion in profit) holding 18% of the search market share in the US. Your startups must succeed, and that means you must define a category.