Colin Lewis: Your marketing reading choices are crucial, so make them wisely

The ancient texts that shape modern culture are well known to most and have survived for centuries, which led me to wonder: which marketing texts will still be around in 400 years?

books readingLet’s face it, almost everything we marketers write is ephemeral: marketing plans, presentations, emails, social posts. Of course, we hope our campaigns will be seen by our target market, and, ideally, will be around for a long time, but the reality is that the majority of our output is seen by just a few people and then discarded.

And it’s not just marketers: even yesterday’s front page news, read by millions, has no readership 24 hours later. There is an ongoing debate in academia about how many academic papers are read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors. How many books released today will still be in print and being purchased 10 years after they first appeared?

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Yet there are texts in the world that are hundreds of years old, which are still widely read today: the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Vita, Confucius’s Analects, Shakespeare’s plays, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Homer’s IIiad and Odyssey, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

Of course, that is a short list. But of all the plays, all the books, all the articles, relatively few are still accessed regularly.

These texts have influenced us a lot more than you would think. They have shaped the way people think, write, speak, and act over the centuries up to and including today. Anyone who writes a book, movie, play or gives a speech has been influenced far more than they know by these texts even if they have never read them – or have read them and disagree with them.

It dawned on me that none of the marketing books I was reading bore any resemblance to my real-world marketing career.

It does not matter whether you consider them great literature, or whether they are historically true. All that matters is that each now forms the foundation of culture, and clearly tells some timeless truths about human nature.

And what’s more, they blow a hole in the fallacy that things that are happening now are somehow different from before.

If you disagree with me, here are a couple of phrases from the King James Bible that most self-respecting marketers have used at one time or another: “law unto themselves”, “stumbling block”, “at their wits’ end”, “bottomless pit”, “from strength to strength”, “skin of my teeth”, “turn the world upside down” and, of course, “woe is me”.

Will Shakespeare has helped us marketers somewhat as well. How about “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”? OK, maybe that is a secret reflection of our career ambitions, but I am sure I could shoehorn into some presentation.

The key marketing texts

About 10 years ago, swotting my way through a very textbook-heavy MBA, it dawned on me that none of the marketing books I was reading bore any resemblance to my real-world marketing career, and it was almost impossible for me to explain to my fellow students (who had no marketing background) why this was so. I realised that I had to go back to basics and ‘zero-base’ my thinking about marketing.

I had to ask myself: if I were a newbie in marketing, where would I start? What would I read? What are the core texts? And I came up short. I could not really point to an uber-text for non-marketers – one that they could keep coming back to again and again.

So, what are the marketing texts that matter? The slight technical hitch with this question is that the study of marketing is reasonably new – barely even 100 years old – so there are no 400-year-old tomes to read. There are no Shakespeares or Cervantes of the marketing world – yet. So is it the daily newsletters that are important, communicating the minutiae of what’s happening in our trade? Or are they like soap operas – you can go without seeing them for a few days and not miss a beat?

READ MORE: Colin Lewis – Future leaders will need a compass, not a map

I am now doing a lot of teaching and coaching in marketing and, bit-by-bit, have developed a core group of must-read books. At the centre of these are ‘Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind’ by Al Ries and Jack Trout, and ‘The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing’ by the same authors. No self-respecting marketer can truly call themselves a marketer without knowing these books inside-out. Likewise, ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’.

For challenger brands, the classic ‘Eating the Big Fish’ by Adam Morgan is still the reference text. Technology marketers must read ‘Crossing the Chasm’ by Geoffrey Moore; ‘Guerrilla Marketing’ by Jay Levinson is the definitive texts for SMEs; Robert Cialdini’s ‘Influence’ is a must-have. If you can hack dry textbooks, the bane of every undergraduate marketer, Philip Kotler’s ‘Marketing Management’, has to be sitting on your shelf.

I truly believe that just one truly original insight or idea is worth a lot more than the umpteenth regurgitation of conventional day-to-day marketing hype, so the choices of what you read are crucial and you must make them consciously. These are the uber-texts that have influenced me and have shaped the way I think.

Colin Lewis is CMO at OpenJaw Technologies

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