best marketing books

29 November 2015

Read ‘Em And Reap: The Best Books For Marketers And Entrepreneurs

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 college courses, I understand the need to fly solo. So I compiled this business reading list to educate, enlighten, even entertain.

Academic vs Commercial

Most of these books are light enough for beach reading — indeed, I’ve included some business satire and fiction to whet your appetite.

Now, my colleagues in academia might sneer at these “commercial” titles, but 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, 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 Atomic Tango gets a cut of anything you buy. But rest assured: I would never recommend dreck no matter the sales potential — that’s why you won’t find Seth Godin here. Plus, 100% of the proceeds fund our martini research, and if that’s not a worthy cause, what is?

So here’s your reading assignment, listed alphabetically by subject category…

Advertising + Other Promotions

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

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!

Ogilvy On Advertising, by David Ogilvy

The late great 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

Selling The Wheel: Choosing The Best Way To Sell For You Your Company Your Customers, by Jeff Cox & Howard Stevens

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

Digital Media

The Beginner’s Guide To SEO, by Moz

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 up 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

eMarketing: The Essential Guide To Marketing In The Digital World (6th Edition), by Rob Stokes and the Minds of Quirk

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

Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing, by Karen Nelson-Field

Easily the smartest book about social media in publication, “Viral Marketing” is based on painstaking research. No “thought leader” nonsense here. This book is pretty 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”


Let My People Go Surfing: The Education Of A Reluctant Businessman, by Yvon Chouinard

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 levity
  • Expertise: based entirely on an entrepreneur’s experience
  • Practicality: not much you can do based on this, but it may inspire your visions

The MouseDriver Chronicles, by John Lusk & Kyle Harrison

This amusing true story by a couple of Wharton MBA’s 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 be wondering, “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

Humor + Fiction

The Dilbert Principle: A Cubicle’s-Eye View of Bosses, Meetings, Management Fads & Other Workplace Afflictions, by Scott Adams

This masterpiece of piercing satire contains more truth about business than most academic journals. Read it when you’re frustrated just to know you’re not alone.

  • Readability: 100% entertainment
  • Expertise: drawn from the author’s own work experience
  • Practicality: no tips, but it might help adjust your attitude in a challenging business situation

Syrup, by Max Barry

This is truly a work of fiction — and I’m not talking about something written by a “social media guru.” Rather, “Syrup” is a smart romantic comedy set in the world of marketing. (Warning: avoid the movie based on this book at all costs.) It’s the perfect antidote to some of the drier works on this page. (Note: Max Barry spells his first name with only one X, but his marketers made him spell it with two for his first novel. In other words, marketing villains aren’t just limited to the pages in his book.)

  • Readability: page-turning fun
  • Expertise: none – it’s entirely made-up
  • Practicality: none – it’s simply an escape


Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders, by Adam Morgan

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

How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know, by Byron Sharp

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

Marketing Warfare: 20th Anniversary Edition, by Al Ries & Jack Trout

Decades ago, the duo of Ries & Trout pumped out several best-selling business books based on little more than their own observations. And sometimes they erred, like saying that no successful brand has ever been named after a region. (Uh, hello, Southwest Airlines, anyone?) That said, R&T successfully compelled marketers to seriously think about their brands and market positions — indeed, they’re considered the godfathers of positioning. Now, R&T’s classics are “The 22 Immutable Laws Of Marketing” and “Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind,” but I found those too basic for my tastes. I prefer “Marketing Warfare.” The war metaphor is contrived and overwrought and may upset those who think business should be kinder and gentler (a cute but naive notion). Those subjective shortcomings aside, this book nails the importance of focusing on competitors, not on fickle and amorphous customers. Some of the ideas were later copied by other bestsellers, including “Blue Ocean Strategy.” And “Marketing Warfare” is far more readable than anything by Michael “What We Have Here Is A Failure To Communicate” Porter.

  • Readability: a bit overwrought, but still readable
  • Expertise: based on two industry guys sitting around talking
  • Practicality: strategies you can put to work now

The Strategy And Tactics of Pricing: A Guide To Growing More Profitably, by Thomas Nagle, John Hogan & Joseph Zale

For you marketers whose quant scores dwarfed your verbal scores, pricing is your ticket to stardom. On the downside, this textbook is so dry, you could use it as a dehumidifier. But who knew pricing was so fascinating? You’ll discover many strategies here, with a surprising amount of gamesmanship and psychology involved. Granted, it might take you days to finish (don’t try to consume more than one chapter at a time), but you’ll never look at a price the same way again.

  • Readability: full Sahara dry
  • Expertise: purely academic
  • Practicality: absolutely – like an instruction manual

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.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

4 Responses

  1. I’ve missed quite a few of these, and I shall start chasing ’em down immediately– many thanks!

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