by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Marketing Professor; photo by Manuel Cacciatore via Wikimedia Commons…
So you’d like to learn more about business but can’t take a class right now. Or maybe the idea of school gives you nightmares about forgetting class until the final exam. (Been there, dreamed that.) No problem. While I teach university courses, I understand the need to learn on your own. So I compiled this business reading list to enlighten, inspire, even entertain.
Academic vs Commercial
Most of these books are light enough for beach reading. While some of my colleagues in academia might sneer at these “commercial” titles, if more marketing professors would learn to write — and far too many “communications experts” struggle to communicate — then we wouldn’t need the popular press.
In addition, these commercial books are based on real-world experience, so they’re more accurate than many academic publications. (I’m talking to you, Harvard Business Review.)
I do include some “ivory tower” publications here, and you may need a full pot of extra-caffeinated grind just to power through their prefaces alone, but you’ll find value in their points. Except where noted, they do hold up to real-world experience.
To help you pick your reading, I rate each book on three criteria:
- Readability: what is the writing quality and tone?
- Expertise: is it based on professional experience or academic research?
- Practicality: can you apply it now or is this just a thought exercise?
One final note: some of the links below are affiliate links, which means buying through them will support Atomic Tango’s martini research,. But rest assured: I would never recommend dreck no matter the sales potential — that’s why you won’t find Seth Godin or Gary Vee here.
So here’s your reading assignment, listed alphabetically by subject category…
Advertising + Other Promotions
Light enough for sunbathing at the beach — you’ll be halfway done when you’re, well, halfway “done” — yet everyone who works with words should read it. That’s why I assign it to both writing and social media students. In particular, the Heath brothers (one professor, one executive) hammer home the necessity of writing in specific, sensory terms. While they do dip into some clichés — storytelling and emotion — their refreshers on those topics won’t hurt you en route to learning more.
- Readability: easy, even enjoyable
- Expertise: mix of professional and academic
- Practicality: put it to work now!
The late great David Ogilvy ruled the advertising roost back when print ads actually contained a lot of, well, print. His ads were smartly text-driven instead of vacantly image-driven. Today, the rise of digital media has made Ogilvy more relevant than ever, since content marketing is still mostly text driven. Regardless of the era or the medium, much of his advice is timeless, such as the need to research, and to make sure ads sell. What you’ll love about Ogilvy is he’s quotable — try these around a conference table: “You can’t bore people into buying your product”; “Nobody has ever built a brand by imitating somebody else”; and to clients who meddle with creative work, “Don’t keep a dog and bark yourself.”
- Readability: moderate – not as compelling as you’d think from an ad man
- Expertise: completely professional, though Ogilvy loved research
- Practicality: don’t create another ad until you read this
Sales make up 90% of my business, whether I’m pitching new accounts, or trying to convince a client to accept one of my recommendations. Yet guess what skill was not taught to me in business school? I wish I had this book when I first started out, since it goes beyond generic strategies to segmenting sales down to the type of technology, the type of customer, and the type of salesperson. (Yes, there are several types — did you know you could destroy your business by hiring an amazing salesperson with an amazing sales record who’s simply the wrong fit?) Most compellingly, this book is written as a work of business fiction: it’s set in ancient Egypt, with the guy who invents the wheel and can’t get anyone to buy in. So it’s a fun read, as long as you don’t let the ethnic stereotypes or corny situations phase you.
- Readability: it’s a fairy tale – what’s not to love?
- Expertise: based on years of sales
- Practicality: good in helping you define your situation
When it comes to Search Engine Optimization, there’s no such thing as an “up to date” book, since Google alters its algorithm almost continuously. But the wizards of Moz are as updated on Google (and other search engines) as you can get. Like mad scientists, they regularly experiment with SEO, then publish their results in easy to digest fashion, keeping tech speak to a minimum. This free Beginner’s Guide (online and downloadable) is mandatory reading for anyone with a website… which is practically everyone in business.
- Readability: clear and easy, but not much fun
- Expertise: based on extensive experimentation
- Practicality: full of tips to use now
This online textbook by the Quirk agency of South Africa provides a solid, hype-free intro to new media. It’s no page turner — it packs all the reading appeal of an encyclopedia. But it tells you what you need to know to get started, the digital version is free, and it serves as a handy reference that’s updated every few years.
- Readability: it’s a textbook — readable but dry
- Expertise: based on an agency’s experience
- Practicality: keep it at your desk for on-call help
Easily the smartest book about social media in publication, “Viral Marketing” is based on painstaking research. No “thought leader” nonsense here. This book is rather thin and could have been distilled into a magazine article — which can be said about most business books. On the positive side, that means it’s refreshingly filler free, unlike the comparable “Contagious” by Jonah Berger, which contains so much fluff it would make a good pillow. So if you’re planning to do the YouTube thing, “Viral Marketing” should be your first investment.
- Readability: pure academia — not a smooth read
- Expertise: pure academia — based on hardcore research
- Practicality: can keep you from wasting money on “viral experts”
The founder of Patagonia describes how he created the environmentally-responsible brand of outdoor wear. Although he never acknowledges that Patagonia is simply a niche business (a successful one, but nonetheless niche), the book provides a great case study in integrated marketing: making all the pieces fit to serve a single brand and goal.
- Readability: engaging narrative — could use some levity
- Expertise: based entirely on one entrepreneur’s experience
- Practicality: not much you can do based on this, but it might inspire your visions
This amusing true story by a couple of Wharton MBA grads reveals many critical tactics not taught in business schools. For example, the phone book (or, these days, any online directory) will help you find experts more readily than your alumni network. The context is a bit dated — younger readers may wonder, “what’s a mouse?” — but the entrepreneurial experience will ring true for anyone who’s ever tried to start a business on a credit card and a prayer.
- Readability: like reading an adventure story, filled with ups and downs, failures and successes
- Expertise: entirely real-world — indeed, it points out the shortcomings of academic lessons
- Practicality: some good tips, but mostly a case study
Morgan is an ad exec who understands the challenges of competing without a giant budget. Even better, his feasible strategies for small companies don’t involve drooling over social media. Unfortunately, he chunked up the second edition with unnecessary words and some bad writing, so if you can find the first edition, buy it. In addition, Morgan’s evidence is primarily anecdotal — he’s even a bit sloppy with data — but those quibbles aside, you won’t find better strategic advice for cash-strapped companies.
- Readability: some rough passages, but better than most academic books
- Expertise: drawn from pro experience and case studies
- Practicality: clear points for developing a strategy
Professor Sharp applies the hard rules of science to marketing — consider him the anti-Seth Godin — which means he throws most popular beliefs out the window. For example, you know the Pareto Principle, which states that 80% of sales come from 20% of customers? Well, sorry, that’s completely wrong. And all those loyalty cards? A waste of time and wallet space. Now, this book isn’t exactly page turning — it’s as stiff as a prehistoric ivory tower. And Sharp doesn’t really understand segmentation, so you can skip those parts of his book. But when it comes to issues of advertising and customer retention, he offers the most-educated insights on the market.
- Readability: dense and dull at times — for hardcore marketers only
- Expertise: top-notch academic research, could use some real-world experience
- Practicality: good advice on advertising
This list will likely grow as I read more. At the same time, some books may drop out because they were replaced by better ones or they became antiquated. So keep checking back. Even better, tell me about your favorites, so I can add them to my ever growing “to read” pile.