Ten Great Books to Sharpen Your Marketing Tools

With the recent passing of Robert Pirsig, I started to think about books that effected me the most. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” was the rare book that had a profound effect on me both personally and professionally. Besides being a great read, it made me more self-aware, changed my perceptions of mental illness and kicked off some self-reflection.

At that stage in my career, I was working harder and had more responsibility than ever before. While I wasn’t overwhelmed, I was working harder than ever and I had just moved from San Francisco to New York, so I didn’t have any relationships that allowed me to talk through my situation and get a little perspective.

It was the perfect book at the perfect moment, shifting my mental approach to work and teaching me that professional help can come from the unlikeliest of places.

Here are ten books that I believe every young marketer aspiring to be a CMO should read:

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Early success can be a double-edged sword.

You’ve been promoted, given more responsibility and a higher profile because up to this point, you’ve killed it. But, with more responsibility comes more stress, more people to manage, more visibility to senior leadership and projects that have more impact on the company than you’re used to.

If you have a mentor or a colleague who’s close to you that can talk to to manage the stress, get insights or solicit feedback from, that’s great. But the simple fact is that most companies don’t spend much time with mentorship programs and these types of relationships really need to grow organically to be effective.

Robert Pirsig’s book teaches the readers about living in the moment, focusing on what’s important, and letting go once something is finished. It also taught me a lot about the pursuit of perfection and how to learn form a small failure and move on, so the small things don’t become big.

The result was less stress, better work and the ability to develop a style focused on maintaining excellence as a constant instead of only when the stakes were high. Losing the low buzz of daily stress helped me read and react when there was a real emergency and also gave me a foundation to build some real professional perspective.

Last but not least, the book made me brave enough to write this blog. After all, if someone can share their personal battle for mental health, it’s nothing to share some insight about your career.

Hey Whipple, Squeeze This

Luke Sullivan’s book was written for young advertising creatives, but has value for those outside the creative world.

At some point in their career, every marketer will be tasked with working with creative people. Your approach can either add to the output, or detract from it. If you help feed the talent you have, you’ll get better work, build better partnerships and work more efficiently. While a passion for the marketing help with get you respect of creative people, this book helps build a true relationship.

The insights into the creative process, the understanding of how personal creative ideas are for the people dreaming them up and the respect for the fragility of the path from concept to message has made me a better marketer in every phase of the process.

Good marketing needs strategic excellence, but world-class marketing demands creative brilliance. Think of strategy as your launching pad and creative messaging as the jet fuel. As you build the consumer and media strategies you create the platform, but you have to buy the creative fuel from someone else. The cheapest way to get it is to be a great partner.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

The words “innovation” and “disruption” have become so overused they have lost all meaning. The side effect for marketers is that we make decisions and create campaigns without the perspective of what’s really happening around us.

Klaus Schwab takes an academic approach to looking at the technological, societal and economic transformation happening right now. The perspective he provides is invaluable for a young marketer to think critically about the decisions that are being made and to ask the kind of questions that intelligently challenge the status quo.

It also helps you understand how technology is making purpose and virtue so important to the success of any company, so you have the building blocks to understanding why marketers need to be focused on engagement and experience.

Seeing the forest through the trees is the mark of potential in a young marketer, but this book helps you see the molecules that make up the forest, the water and the air that make up the entire world.

Dethroning the King

Marketing would be incredibly easy if we worked in a vacuum. There’s so much information available to us that we have no shortage of insights to create brand strategy, consumer strategy, media strategy and creative communication.

But as marketers, we have corporate boards, stockholders, corporate culture providing winds and currents that keep us from getting where we want to go. Julie Macintosh’s account of the merger between Anheuser-Busch and InBev provides a front-row seat to what happens when a marketing-driven organization meets a finance-driven one in a merger.

The resulting shift in corporate culture changed how AB/In-Bev acts as a marketer, and as you get more visibility outside marketing it will help you manage the cultural barriers internally that effect marketing.

It’s a great read, and as you understand the implications of organizational change, you’ll really appreciate how merger and stockholders effect then marketing campaigns you see.

Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere

David Ogilvy famously said, “the customer is not a moron, she’s your wife.” The idea being that as marketers, we shouldn’t misjudge our customers and always respect them.

However, marketers tend to live in a handful of big cities and liberal enclaves. We spend precious little time among a large portion of the people who use the products we sell and are painfully out of touch with their day-to-day lives. No amount of market visits or ethnographies will ever bridge that gap. But reading can help bridge the knowledge gap and also give us a respect for their day-to-day lives.

I’m a sucker for a great sports book and this is one of the best non-fiction accounts of a baseball team I’ve ever read. As a bonus, it’s a very insightful piece into rural America: what life is like and what people care about (hint: it’s not brands). There’s a richness to the characters that makes you really interested in them, and as a marketer it helps ground your expectations about how your work fits into a person’s life.

If baseball isn’t your bag, find something you enjoy and look for a good non-fiction book set in middle America and pay special attention to the characters and their daily life.

Truth Lies, and Advertising

Jon Steel is a legend in advertising, and I had the pleasure to work with him. But even before I stepped into his office, I read his book about brand strategy. A few decades after being published, it’s still is one of the best marketing books ever written.

The fact is that every single piece of brand communication comes from an inspiring brief, and this book provides a great introduction how to write one.

Through a first-person account of some of America’s best advertising campaigns, you’ll learn how to mine insights and business challenges to create campaigns built on a singular, inspiring idea. Even if you don’t have the gift of making the complex simple and inspiring, the book will show you the potential of defining a simple proposition and bringing it to life creatively.

As a bonus, Jon is an entertaining storyteller, so you’ll laugh the whole time and you won’t realize how much smarter you’re becoming.

The Hero and the Outlaw

Odd as it might sound, not everyone in marketing understands brands.

Technology has fractured the marketing function to such an extent that a CMO might never create brand-centric messaging, build, or maintain a brand. Especially in the world of technology and direct-to-consumer products, a user and customer base can be built by using marketing technology for performance-based marketing that drives users to a great digital experience. This can drive sales and create profitability, but the lack of a formal definition of the brand means that you might actually have a product or company, but no brand.

This leads to an interesting problem as a company matures and wants to define it’s brand.

How do you communicate and discuss a brand to with marketer if they don’t have brand experience? Without the experience of managing and building a brand, it’s difficult to understanding of the qualitative things that make a brand special and give it meaning. Also, brand conversations can be widely subjective, and the words you use to describe an attribute like “luxury” can have a wildly different meaning from one person to the next.

Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson’s book will help you ground the discussion of brands in ideas that are universal and instinctual for everyone. Because brands are by their nature subjective, having a baseline language that humanizes brands and the process that arrived there helps you communicate more effectively to someone new to branding and can bridge the gap between their marketing expertise and your branding experience, helping make both stronger.

True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business

Traditionally, marketing has been about communication out to your audience. But we’ve seen enough social media and experiential fails to know that the status quo needs to change.

Ty Montague’s book mines his experience with brands like JetBlue to introduce the idea of brand purpose and more importantly, a process to help you find and define a brand purpose and story. This helps you move from a traditional model of marketing through communication to one that’s focused on actions and storytelling.

Purpose-driven marketing tends to get misunderstood and isn’t necessarily for every brand, but as a marketer, defining a brand’s context for every stakeholder will keep you away from creative a brand emergency, whether you become a purpose-driven marketer or not.

Radical Technologies

It’s understood that technology has changed marketing, you’d have to live under a rock to disagree. The most talented marketers are able to truly understand how the technology effects a brand and use that to catalyze culture.

What we seem to forget is how technology has fundamentally changed us as humans. I’ve always been fascinated how technology has destroyed cultural norms and recreated them: teen dating, friendships, conversation and even the basic human idea of trust has been radically changed by technology. For example, imagine if I told you ten years ago to go out, have a few drinks and hop into an anonymous strangers car for a ride home.

Adam Greenfield’s book is the deepest and most interesting examination of this I’ve read, both as an examination of the intended consequences of technology, but also the unintended consequences of new technologies.

Hacking a technology can make for great marketing, if you remember Whopper Sacrifice, you know what I’m talking about. But to explore this type of work, it helps to have a better view of technology and humanism.

The Art of the Pitch

Communication skills are the key to success. To communicate clearly through writing, you have the luxury of time — time to edit, reformat, rethink and proofread for clarity before you share.

Speech is much more unforgiving, and the ability to speak publicly to an audience in a way that’s both memorable and entertaining can make or break a career. Simply put, every single presentation of your professional career is a sales pitch. And while the content you’re presenting is important, people are buying into you as the person delivering it. A poor delivery can undermine great thinking the same way a great presentation can elevate it. And as a bonus, a great presentation can make people care enough that they want to help make your marketing more successful.

Peter Coughter’s book will immediately improve your ability to communicate to an audience and as a bonus, it will help you when you speak to a person one-on-one as well.

So, as a first step to being a better communicator, read this book. Talking it a step further, never pass up the opportunity for live, in-person presentation coaching. It might be the best thing you ever do professionally.

These ten books are only a small sample of what I’ve read as part of my professional development, but as a group help round out the core skills of a great marketer: Strategic thinking, consumer empathy, focus on innovation and technology, communication and foundational brand skills.

As always, I’d love to hear what you’d add to the list.


I’m constantly preaching that marketing is an investment, not an expense. There are plenty of historical proof points, but one that is stark and very recent is the Kraft/Heinz merger.

Megamergers, while good on paper tend to only benefit investors. Working with Kraft, I met some supremely talented marketers at an organization that truly believed that investing in a brand would pay dividends down the road. They invested in new markets, product innovation and would happily test new platforms with mature brands and small budgets.

As an organization, they looked at brands as something with value that needed regular investment.

Fast forward to today, and shortly after the merger, KraftHeinz is in dire straits. While changing consumer tastes play a small role in a drop in sales, Kraft was dealing with the same headwinds rather well when the merger happened.

The key difference is the newly merged company treats marketing as an expenditure, forcing annual budgets to be defended via zero-based accounting. The result has been drastically lower marketing budgets and falling sales. It’s worth noting that many legacy marketers from both companies have moved on, taking their historical brand knowledge with them. Not a huge surprised considering they have valuable experience which has been marginalized.

While brand affinity can help get though hard times, for CPGs, a healthy and regular marketing spend is the lifeblood of a brand, which is incapable of being separated from a product.

The moral here is that can’t cost-cut your way to success, especially when you’re cutting investment in things that consumers will see and experience. A brand has value and needs investment to both survive and grow. While I don’t recommend throwing marketing money at a problem, I do endorse investing in a brand and keeping an eye on sales and brand measures to make sure you’re spending in the the right way.

What’s the big idea?

It’s an amazing time to be a marketer.

Technology has enabled us to know more about who we want to sell to than ever before, it has lowered the cost of producing creative work and it constantly offers new ways to reach a customer.

The advances in marketing and communications technology make it ever more important that whatever message you send out in the the world on behalf of your brand has an idea behind it — a concept, a thought that the consumer can “get” that will make your brand stronger or will help you sell more product.

Without a real idea, your marketing is at best parlor trick, something to be quickly forgotten when “the next thing” comes along. At worst, it’s ignored.

I don’t see a lot of ideas (big or small) in B2C brands and older brands who are “going digital.”

B2C brands seem to feel that an innovation in the sales or delivery mechanism is what makes a brand. In reality, they have momentary awareness followed by a price- or convenience-driven transaction. They haven’t created a point of differentiation or a foundation for loyalty, and are wide open to the next competitor stealing their business. Their business becomes on that focused on constant, efficiency-driven messages to remind a customer that the brand even exists.

More entertaining are the established brands that are “going digital.” These are the brands moving all their spending from traditional media into digital and experimental marketing platforms, desperately hoping for a winning innovation. As a marketer, these feel like attempts by marketing directors to reposition themselves for their next job. After all, the brand looks like a grandparent suddenly trying to look younger by listening to Daft Punk and wearing different clothes.

The best marketing is simple.

- Create a smart, simple and inspiring brief that solves a business problem.

- Use that brief to develop an idea that’s true to what your brand is.

- Customize that message for the best media channels, whether they’re digital or traditional.

- Rinse and repeat.

The best campaigns out today, Volkswagen’s “In the Darkness We Found Light” and Nike’s global women’s football, are both just that…big ideas, made to work on the best medium possible.

The importance of design thinking

Modern marketers need to be many different things. They need to be poets, artists, futurists, technologists and data analysts all rolled into one. A few of these things are hard skills, that can be learned pretty quickly by understanding the basic principles at their core. Technology and data analysis are good examples of this. Understand the fundamentals of technology or the sources and measurements of the data, and you can put them to good use.

What’s harder are the softer skills around creativity, but for those of a more rational bent, training yourself in design thinking can help bridge those skills a bit. Design thinking is simply the idea that developing and evaluating of an idea should come from the end user (i.e., the customer). While this might seem to be pretty basic, the end user is often an afterthought and we develop campaigns, products and systems based on improvements over legacy ideas and not from the perspective of our customers.

Here’s a good read from The Atlantic, about design thinking and Ford Motor Company. It’s a nice introduction to the idea of design thinking for those who haven’t given it much thought up to now. Then, you can go into your next meeting and ask, “what would my customer do with this?”

Post Super Bowl Thoughts

Everyone in marketing talks about the Super Bowl leading up to and after the game, and while I hate to add to the clutter, I have to get a few things off my chest. I want to quickly share my POV about some well-worn marketing perspectives and the big game:


We deal with a cluttered marketing environment and it’s nearly impossible to guarantee someone will see your ad on TV, OOH or digital. You’re guaranteed a broad audience on the Super Bowl, so it’s worth the premium for nearly every brand If:

You have a reasonable marketing budget for TV. That means you’re not spending over 30% of your marketing dollars on one day. If your budget is too small, you’re probably killing your business by driving too much traffic in a short period anyway and the inability to fulfill demand will cause more damage to your company than the increased profile is worth. Plus, if you are willing to spend such a large proportion of your budget for one execution, you should be fired anyway.

You make plans around the spot appropriate to the expenditure. That means you’re making sure website, customer service and retail or fulfillment is all ready for the rush. You carry the idea through the line, invest in digital to extend the idea and have enough money to run the ad past the game so you actually have a campaign and not a blip on the radar screen. More then likely, you can run a lighter TV schedule than usual since the ad should have good recall. (Side note here, campaigns that are integrated across digital and traditional mediums perform 43% better).

Included in this is the ability to actually leverage a celebrity past a single day. Don’t spend millions for :30 of a famous person on film.

You have a good brief. Strategy is almost half the battle in advertising and marketing, so a smart succinct and singular brief will get you good work. You have :30 to make a point, so focus on communicating that point. Creativity is paramount in Super Bowl advertising, so don’t hamstring your agency with a bad brief.

You don’t act desperate. If the idea that “this is the biggest investment we’ve ever made soohmygodithastowork” crossed your mind when approving the Super Bowl campaign, you’re desperate. You’re a marketing professional, so act professional and know this is a battle, not the war.

You don’t over do it. The best ads aren’t the ones over the top, but the ones that are well-executed with focus, a balance of product/concept, and have an appropriate level of investment in the production values. Good marketing is like cooking. You have to maintain a good balance and figure out the right moment to spice things up.

And with those five words of advice, my top 5 Super Bowl ads and a two-sentence review:

#5 Chevy, “Little Bit of Country, Little Bit of Rock and Roll”
This spot nails the target insight, broadens the customer base and it executed brilliantly. Bonus points for not being made specifically for the Super Bowl, but run in a premium ad slot.

#4 Bud Light/Game of Thrones
As a marketer who knows when brands influence culture they sell more, I love the “Dilly Dilly” campaign, but as a beer marketer, I hate it as a lazy gag to sell a cheap product. It’s been around for a while and a subpar Super Bowl ad might have killed its cultural credibility, but the mashup with Game of Thrones was a brilliant piece of buzz-worthy work that will pay off until the show comes back on in 2027. Tip of the cap to the person who made the partnership happen.

#3 Simplisafe
This is a brand that could easily spent time overthinking and overstrategizing a complex product that everyone should think about using. The idea “in a world full of fear, home should be anything but” is insightful, poetic and brilliant, but most importantly, on the website and all over digital as people start to think more about internet security.

#2 Amazon Alexa, “Harrison Ford”
Funny, disarming and buzz-worthy. It also shows a real product benefit while taking on the historical screw ups of Alexa in an interesting way. (But I’m still not putting one of those things in my house.)

1/ NFL Anniversary
The biggest, glitziest and best-produced ad for the company that put on the biggest, glitziest and best-produced game. This is a love letter to football with current stars, past stars and a million little subtle things that hardcore fans appreciate, but without heading into “Just Do It” territory.

Brands That “Get It”

Business publications love copy about how any established product or brand more than two decades old is under attack and struggling. However, quite a few brands are doing very well, thank you. 


Because those brands “get it.”

They see their brand and the marketing supporting it as investments and understand that, like a person, a brand personality starts from day one and everything is has ever done contributes to a customer’s perception of it. This perception is key to how performs as a business at this very second, and the historical investment helps smooth the process of innovation and new product development or repositioning. They look at this history as a strength rather than an albatross, see their culture as a resource to be nurtured, and understand a brand’s soul gives something that people can believe in.

Here are my six favorite examples:


As toy that was developed to help inspire children and foster discovery, a core value has been a commitment to the development of children. So as play and child development have become more technology-focused, so has Lego. Here are they ways they did it. 

First, they diversified into larger than life “discovery centers,” small amusement parks and dynamic, hands-on retail experiences. These appeal to kids, but also the adults who grew up on the product and now have kids of their own.

Next, they focused on innovative and dynamic extensions to their base block sets, using electric engines, gears and “codeable” sets that create moving, remotely controllable and dynamic toys.

Most importantly, they developed a media/production strategy to create branded sets for entertainment and hobby properties like Star Wars, Volkswagen. This strategy also included media of their own, like video games and movies. Each one of these have creation as part of the storyline and action, which subtly reinforces the brand and creates an interesting creative challenge for the team overseeing the production of the movies. But it’s a challenge that requires them to be ultra-aware of the brand’s history and brand, putting it at the center of their job.


Jeep has arguably the strongest fan culture of any automotive brand in America. The culture is all about adventure, freedom, utility and authenticity, and fans invest their own money to customize their Jeeps to fit their life. 

Like all automotive products, Jeep needed to update designs to integrate technology and materials after over a decade, but there are key, practical design changes that would be inauthentic to the brand. So what did Jeep do?

They created a panel of about a dozen hard-core Jeep fans who own, restore and upgrade their own Jeeps to work hand-in-hand with the design team as they created the new Jeep JL. The result was a great balance of the classic and the contemporary that brought the Jeep up to today’s standards while still respecting the past.

It seems to be working fine, as 70% more JL’s were sold than the previous year and it’s sales are almost as high as the Toyota Camry.


As a company developed with the core value to “cause no unnecessary harm” the outdoors, Patagonia has always put the environment first. This has led them to develop its own supply chain the minimize ecological impact and, as consumer politics have changed, expand the company philosophy to encourage consumer action.

This comes to life through the Patagonia Consumer Action Works, which can be found on their website. Also, they have developed a political voice around the environment to encourage voting, and address anti-consumerism by encouraging fans to either fully “use up” their durable product or resell it through their Worn Works website.

All of this is incredibly PR-able, but more importantly goes back to the original purpose at the core of the brand.



As the music industry became more digital, home audio hardware was left behind. Sonos was developed to help the world listen better, since digital music was both mixed differently and was relegated to digital players with low quality speakers. 

Walking the line between mass audio and audiophile, Sonos has always kept regular people at the center of their user experience and product development. Their packaging is designed so owners can remove the product intuitively without damage, their app walks you through the set up of the system easily, allows for room-specific tuning and has literally 100s of digital sources are integrated.

Hardware development remains limited, as they focus on the design and pricing of a few, key products for the enjoyment of music and video. Which is important, since the best brands understand that just because you can do everything doesn’t mean you should do everything.

The result is a brand that has an effect on people’s daily life, as it makes playing and experiencing music in the home accessible and better to anyone who buys Sonos.



A classic shoe brand, it has always played catch-up to Nike in spite of being 15 years older and initially having better performance credentials.  

But the brand with three stripes has gained plenty of ground in the last three or four years through a combination of product innovation (UltraBoost and AlphaBounce technology), to better compete with Nike on the court and smart partnerships (Parley for the Oceans, Yeezy and Stella McCartney) for those who are more about lifestyle than fitness, as most people are.

Last, they have made a strategic decision to use only recycled plastics. Sustainability has always been an issue for a product that uses lots of cloth and plastic. By committing to using only recycled plastics (most of which will be ocean plastic), Adidas has gotten ahead of consumer trends and cultural norms all while giving new customers an excuse to sample their innovative products. 

Your move, Nike. 


Red Bull

The last example is a classic that most marketing people know well. Suffering from jetlag on a trip to Thailand, Dietrich Mateshcitz sampled a local drink that was purported to supply a kick of energy. Shortly after, Red Bull was formed in partnership with a local businessman and the rest is marketing history.

The drink that “gives you wings” was a grassroots marketer well ahead of it’s time. The entire brand was built bottom-up through events like Fluetag, sponsorships of sports that required both energy and concentration and branded content well before content was a “thing.” Each marketing idea was an investment (and in the case of their content operations, a big time and money investment).

By constantly investing, innovating with flavors and formulas to keep up with consumer tastes and health trends, the brand has continued to see year-over-year growth, even as tastes have moved beyond the core product. It also developed the content playbook that everyone from GoPro to Huckberry have used to launch their own brands.

So what’s the point? 

The point is, marketers need to know their brand’s history, constantly use it as a filter to validate and improve what they are doing and invest, invest, invest in the brand in both big and little ways, because it gives people a reason to care about your products.

What Makes a Brand Great?

I’ve been spending lots of time analyzing different companies in different industries over the last few months. These have been both new and established companies, with brands at different stages of their lifecycle and facing different challenges. This exercise has afforded me the opportunity to give lots of thought to what makes a brand and the traits great brands share, and here are my top six:

Today more than ever, this is the most important characteristic of all. Digital media has made a brand part of the fabric of society, so a lack of integrity will be quickly called out, amplified and quickly create an emergency. 

Having well-defined principles and sticking to them are what gives a brand the ability to be honest and transparent, which in tough situations is the only thing a brand can rely on. So integrity isn’t just the cost of doing business, it’s good business.

Great brands aren’t frenetic and constantly changing. They are consistent in action, voice and look. How a good brand comes to life stems directly from its brand personality and architecture, so any change has to be based on something concrete that’s directly related to where the brand has been and plans to go. 

This doesn’t mean that evolution has to be slow. The best brands can launch a new brand campaign, message or visual language, but it’s disciplined disruption. It’s change with a purpose that should last years, if not decades.

This is why so many changes to brand identity fail (I’m looking at you, Burberry). They become change for change’s sake, rather than an evolution to shore up some brand shortcomings. A new logo won’t fix a fashion brand’s stale line-up. In fact, it can accelerate a downturn because you’ve killed a link to a successful past.


Great brands know who they are, so they can play to their strengths and focus investment in them. For years, Amazon was a transactional brand focused on scale and convenience. Growing scale and focusing on volume has helped define new products like Prime and Alexa, expand into entertainment, fashion and of course, data.

Self-awareness also helps brand be honest with themselves so they don’t waste time or effort on what isn’t part of their core strengths. Evernote is a great example. As the software became a useful and popular tool for business, it introduced unnecessary, unrelated products like bike messenger bags and socks. It’s gone from a billion-dollar company to the fifth-best option in its segment.


Great brands have confidence. Even if they aren’t number one in their category, they act like it. They have the confidence to talk about what makes them great and the confidence to be ruthless when evaluating success and failure. When they make a new product mistake, the brand kills it and moves on. 

Confidence also allows the brand to have opinions and make a stand, because they trust their principles and know who they are. In effect, it makes taking a stand a good business decision, because the people who buy the brand have expectations, so a stand is simply fulfilling those expectations.


Great brands have a reason for being. Whether it’s putting humanity back into air travel, treating everyone like they’re an athlete or bringing joy to every child in the world, there’s a goal that every employee can understand. That goal helps instill a standard that employees live up to and a filter for all marketing and product decisions.

A purpose also gives customers something to talk about and share with friends. It gives them a sense of pride for making the “right” decision and helps define the values they share with a brand.

We make our purchase decision based on a mix of the rational and emotional, and the best brands understand this. By simply having some humanity, a brand makes it easier to grow an emotional connection and therefore, harder to pass it by.

But humanity is even more important because it’s the foundational characteristic for everything else. It fosters a corporate culture that helps retain employees and thus maintain consistency, confidence, purpose and the understanding of what makes it special. 

Giving Creative Feedback

The power of creative messaging can’t be understated. It’s what makes a brand stand out, defines its voice and drives sales. Creativity is the magic that pushes a good brand to greatness. And while everyone wants their marketing messages to be great, too often they aren’t, because there are so many places the messaging can go wrong – from conceptual idea, to refinements that make it more relevant to the final execution.

One important place where it can go wrong is when stakeholders are giving creative people feedback. For those who aren't creatively-oriented, finding the middle ground between being too easy and too hard on creative can be a difficult proposition.         

Here are a few tips for giving creative feedback to your creative partners on the agency side that can help get to better work.

Creative Development Is Not a Rational Process
Don’t get me wrong, “not rational” doesn’t mean undisciplined. Creative feedback is a key part of the process and the best work has some sort of method or discipline behind it. Greatness isn’t random.

However, the ideas in front of you were developed by a human, and they are more than likely emotionally attached to something they spent plenty of time and effort on. While it’s important to share a gut reaction (since that can closely represent how a consumer will react), things like, “I hate this” or “this isn’t what I wanted” aren’t exactly a good place to base feedback on. It's the equivalent to telling a new parent that their baby looks like a little Winston Churchill, but without the cigar. (Which, they actually all do, but some things are best left unsaid).

Start your feedback with the work that has the most potential and what you like about it. It starts a positive conversation and sets up to the inevitable negative feedback. 

 Focus on What's Strategically Strongest
Your creative should be based on some sort of simple brief. Start with the work that’s on brief and filling your strategic needs, then go to other work that has potential, but might be off strategy. If it can be refined to get closer into the strategy without spoiling the conceptual idea, keep working in it, if not, kill it quickly and mercilessly.

Creative resources and time are finite. By focus on the best ideas and messages that fill a business need, you save time chasing an idea that won't help your business and gives the team time to make the good work great.

Direction IS NOT Feedback
Don’t direct creative people with specific changes to the work. This is creative direction and should be done by someone with creative skill. Give feedback on the objective you want to accomplish and why you feel what you’re seeing doesn’t do that. Then let your creative people solve the problem with their talent.

That said, it's OK to dislike copy or design for subjective reasons, but acknowledge they are subjective reasons. 

Some ideas you hate, your creative teams will love. Some you love won’t be their favorites. There’s no right or wrong here, so recognize the subjectivity. Discuss the merits of both over the brief, the potential to effect your audience and effect on the brand long-term.

Prepare Yourself to Be Amazed
Before reviewing creative work, toss out all notions of what you expect to see. We all bring some baggage into the creative process, and yours is to have an open mind while also applying the discipline required to manage a business and brand.

If you feel like there are ideas that should have been explored, ask if the teams explored them. You’ll usually hear a good rationale for why something might not work for the brand, and at the very least have a good conversation about what's right for the brand's personality. You'll also build a better working relationship with your creative partner, which pays dividends down the road.

Don’t Forget Production
Early on when talking about creative, discuss how it gets made. What you have from a production perspective should have been determined before briefing, but if it hasn’t, it’s better to align earlier on costs and resources rather than later. 

These discussions can effect how the work develops and gets revised. It also helps you understand the importance of key exceptional aspects of the idea as you sell the work into the organization or to a board.

Great work doesn’t have to be expensive, but some ideas need the right production value to be effective. Don’t try to create a million-dollar idea on a ten thousand dollar budget.

A Final Word
Be honest, clear and open to discussion. You won’t always agree, but to create a campaign takes partnership, and honesty and discussion is the best way to build a strong partnership and great work. You’ll find the best ideas tend to rise to the top when you're having a healthy and open discussion. The alignment will pay dividends, as it helps everyone become emotionally invested going into the final phase of creative development.




Stay Curious

It’s a real blessing to work in a creative field. I can’t think of many jobs that challenge both the left brain and right brain quite like mine. But one thing I’ve found is that many marketers don’t embrace the creative part of the business, instead relying on agencies to tell them what’s “creative” or “relevant,” mainly because it’s outside of their comfort zone, or don’t feel comfortable with the rationale for a creative business solution, and hand that thinking off to an “expert,” to trust what they are told, no questions asked.

My advice to those folks: Stay curious.

Curiosity an invaluable tool that deepens the well of knowledge that can be tapped to solve business problems and keeps you connected to different cultures and generations. This doesn’t have to be something on the “to do” list, but just taking something you love in every day life and taking it a set farther. It also helps you attack problems from new directions and see opportunity in new places.

If you like classical music, look for a hip-hop instrumental playlist on Spotify. You might find out you love Wu-Tang or Gang Starr and not even know it.

If you like film, find a Criterion Edition of your favorite movie and listen to the director’s commentary. You’ll find a new appreciation of the art of crafting great video.

If you like to travel, find a history of the next city you visit. You’ll see how so many different factors created the small details you’ll see in each neighborhood. The effects of politics, human geography and the elements on architecture and urban planning will suddenly reveal themselves, and you might find history in something as simple as a garden wall.

If you love the outdoors, try a new hobby. You might find that the perspective or discipline required in a new activity can catalyze a new way of working or simply help you work off stress.

We live in a time where so much is convenient and we think we have too much on our plate. But bringing some intellectually curiosity to our lives can help us grow professionally and work beyond our comfort zone and maybe just give us the confidence to do the best work of our lives.

The Biggest Threat to Brands

My belief is that the biggest threat facing brands today isn’t cynical consumers or rapid change in digital media. 

The biggest threat is actually short-termism.

Short-termism, or the focus on short-term profits rather than long-term growth drives far too many brand and product decisions today. The maniacal focus on quarterly performance forces marketers to act tactically and react, rather than think about long-term steps to keep a brand healthy and strong. 

A downward trend in sales doesn’t require a new packaging innovation for the summer season or a fruit-flavored malt liquor brand extension as a quick fix to goose sales. These are cheap tricks to gain attention and trial from customers that already know your brand. And by being successful, they cheapen what made people like the you in the first place.

It reminds me of the quote goes from the movie Charlie Wilson’s War: 

First off, I'd appreciate it if you didn't throw my name around quite so much, because from time to time I use it myself, and I need it in good condition.

Extensions and product innovations have a cost in brand equity. Each extension or gimmick attached to a brand name mines a little of this equity and makes the brand less valued and loved.

Making the problem even bigger is the waste of resources on the innovation pipeline, a fractured media budget to support a launch and the man hours to manage bringing a new product to market. All of this takes valuable resources needed to remind consumers what originally made a brand special.

While difficult to quantify in financial terms, brand is your most valuable possessions. It’s the reason people love your products, why they pay a premium and most importantly, allow you to make mistakes. It represents shared values and when you make gigantic errors, those shared values allow you to make things right. 

If you don’t believe me, think of the well-managed brands who bounce back quickly after major mistakes: Jet Blue stranding people for three hours on a hot tarmac, the launch of New Coke and resulting backtracking to get the original back on shelves.

Brands can take a strategic path to growth and product extension by focusing on core brand values and a smart customer segmentation. Corona offers a great example with Corona Light and Corona Premiere, which have 70% new user consumption. 

They have seen both steady growth and managed to launch brand extensions that actually introduce the brand to new consumers. Rather than cannibalize existing consumers with a gimmicky variation they develop a subtly different product that respects by knowing the brand's place in culture, the core equities and the overall customer segmentation. All the while, continually investing in the master brand. 

So during the next annual plan or discussion around innovation, think about what your brand will mean in three years after the innovation cycle is over. It might make sense to invest in the the core brand rather than pushing out a "quick fix."


The Importance of a Brief


Marketing tends to attract the reactionary. Clients maintain the status quo until their business slows down, and the agency model encourages partners to wait until getting marching orders from the client. The result tends to be lots of “ready, fire, aim” work. The simple fact is that bad briefings cost money, as the team spends more time figuring out what they need to do, than actually doing it.

I’ve been lucky enough to site on both sides of the marketer/agency table, and nothing is more overlooked than the brief. Any kind of brief. Almost every profession has a brief before starting work. Surgeons confer with a Chief of Surgery, accountants have an understanding of what to look for to save money or an efficiency goal for specific expenditures, Army Rangers know what the primary goal of a mission is, rules to engage and what obstacles are expected, architects understand what’s important in an environment and how it will be used and contractors understand what you will use the most, how it will be used and where to put the most durable/expensive materials. 

The majority of these briefs are simpler and clearer than marketing briefs. These jobs also tend to be more successful on a project-by-project basis, because simplicity of the brief tends to directly effect the outcome. So we can learn from that.

With more responsibility than ever before, senior marketers need to remember a brief is the primary tool that will keep a project efficient, establish good work as a point of entry, with great work and success becoming the rule rather than the exception.

A good brief, of any kind, has the following:

Clear, simple objectives

If these objectives don’t lead to something fulfilling the marketing plan, start over or rethink the project.

A singular idea to be communicated

The simpler here the better, since the goal of the campaign is to catalyze action or create sales. Give a customer a little nudge and some inspiration and they’ll finish the process for you, especially when your brief will have a clear call to action because of…

Well-stated mandatories

If there’s a logo, tagline or call-to-action that's important, share these in the brief. This is your chance to think about how this campaign will fit into the overall marketing of the product and brand that customers see, how you’ll approach PR and how it will create a customer experience. If the CEO hates the color blue, state that here. This is the chance to clearly state what to avoid so the work isn't killed by the final decision-maker.

Add up the number of things listed above in your brief, and if there are more than five, start over. Odds are that you’re trying to do too much and none of it will be accomplished well. This is measuring before cutting, so it’s OK to do this a few times and rework a brief before sharing.

After you do this, write up a simple background/reason why for the brief as the introduction. This will help stimulate a conversation with your partner up front when briefing and more importantly, focus them and put them in the proper mindset to think about the task at hand.

But I don’t have the time…


If you’re a marketer, you spend over 40 hours a week working on your business. You know what the company is investing in, what they are good at and what they aren’t. A first draft of a brief should take 15 minutes, revising/rethinking 15 to 30 more minutes, depending on the size, scope and strategic nature of the project.

Think of the cost of a bad brief: Half the time the early creative, UX or back-end measures need to be reworked on a campaign, costing days in man hours and at least an hour (if not two) of you and your agency partner's time wasted. More importantly, a bad brief leads to reviews and work sessions being about creating the campaign, rather than making it better. That's dozens, if not hundreds of man-hours wasted, including yours.

If you’re an agency, you have reams of marketing plans, historical performance data, and consumer insights to cull from. If you don’t, reach out and spend 15 minutes talking through the project objective and mandatories with your client and they’ll realize they are sitting on reams of valuable information about the project you can use.

The cost of a bad agency brief is the same -- wasted time by the most expensive resource (multiple creative teams), and long internal reviews where to refine work and multiple client presentations to "get it right."

So now you have a good brief. Time to make it great.

Make it inspiring

The APG book (one of those paper things with the hard covers that we don’t use anymore), “How to Plan Advertising,” has the great way of illustrating what makes an inspiring brief using the example of the Sistine Chapel and potential briefs for the job. Here’s an annotated version:

#1: Please paint the ceiling

#2: Please paint the ceiling using green and yellow paint

#3: We have terrible problem with leaks and cracks in the ceiling, and would be do grateful for you to cover it up

The first three briefs tend to be the norm today, using being “too busy” as an excuse. Tactical, terse, restricting through a lack of information and lacking in a focus and understanding of the audience, these briefs are almost doomed to fail and waste everyone’s time.

#4: Please paint the ceiling with biblical images or scenes using God, Angels, Adam, Cupid, Devils and Saints

The fourth gets to a place where it’s a “good brief,” provided the marketer and agency are inherently close to the business problems and have a chemistry that helps them work well together. It fills all the mandatories, the job is clear, but it lacks inspiration for the best work.

#5: “Please paint the ceiling for the greater glory of God and as an inspiration and lesson for his people. Frescoes which depict the creation of the world, the Fall, Mankind’s degradation by sin, the divine wrath of the deluge and the preservation of Noah and his family."

This is a brief. 

A clear objective, mandatory, message and inspiration provided by a lofty goal and the inherent importance of the project. It becomes easy to see how this can result in the best work, as even the most talented artist would have to bring his or her A-game to paint something worthy of the “greater glory of God and an inspiration for his people.”

Today, we can tweak, revise and optimize any campaign so it performs as well as possible, but unless the brief is good, we’re simply putting a fresh coat of paint on ceiling and not building an idea that will grow stronger and better with time or robbing ourselves of the time to actually optimize our work.

I’ll leave you with a final example. My Morning Jacket wanted a song that would bring to life their idea of hitting it big and going on tour as a young band. But it was written to be a hit, blending every eclectic influence they have as a band, from classic rock, to blues, to soul, to punk to create the joy and high of being the ones to hit it big.

Click here to enjoy. 




Justice, Risk and Heroes

If you work in marketing and advertising it’s almost impossible to read anything that doesn’t talk about brands dying, difficulty connecting to young audiences and customer backlash and loyalty right now. 

Activated by digital and social media, people are supporting their political views with their wallets. They’re pushing advertisers to reconsider media choices and shooting their $350 coolers with their guns in protest.

What a great time to be a marketer, and I’m dead serious.

While we might be a long way from “I am not a role model,” from Nike and Charles Barkley, but a brand who knows what it stands for and has the belief in itself to take a stand has limitless opportunities to find loyal fans. 

Jemele Hill wisely observed that the biggest athlete endorsement that adidas could make is to sign Colin Kaepernick. Now, of course, he’s a Nike athlete, but the statement that a serious effort to sign him would make can have tremendous effect on anyone under the age of 20. This is a generation that’s exhibited a bias toward action and loyalty, while showing an acute understanding of brands. Personally, as a brand leader, I’d love to lock up 75% of this generation for the next decade as loyal buyers because free speech is important and he’s actually out in the world doing good. 32 million teens will buy a lot more from me than 32 million NFL owners.

Let’s take another example. This month’s Atlantic has a great interview with Malcolm Jenkins.  

You’ll read an interview with an intelligent, well-spoken, stylish NFL champion. He’s everything a company looks for in an endorser, so why isn’t he signed to Russell Wilson-type endorsement deals. He deserves to make $6.5MM hawking Sprite, Nike and Beats headphones. But because he’s made a statement by raising his fist for the National Anthem, that makes him a bad risk for a brand.

But no. He’s not.

When you learn more, you see that he’s followed up his symbolism with action – action that has taken into account the voices on both sides of the argument. His position isn’t, “you’re wrong,” but “let’s make it better, because the situation isn’t right.” He should be a leading endorser because he’ll speak intelligently about your brand on and off the field, has millions of loyal fans and positions your brand positively with other professional athletes, who happen to understand that standing up for equal rights can cost them money.

For years, marketers embraced (or co-opted) counter-culture figures to sell or build loyalty. Today, we don’t have to find a counter-culture figure, but a figure who is active in culture. These are risks worth taking, because you know what to expect going in. 

I’d applaud brands making these investments instead of the ones for inherently inauthentic athletes like a Kevin Durant. While he’s a great basketball player, he’s kept his true personality and thinking hidden away, essentially making him a one-dimensional character suitable to sell performance apparel, but little else.

When these types of endorsers become three-dimensional and the hidden aspects aren’t positive, you’re left with two choices. Batten down the hatches, and wait (the Tiger Woods strategy) or dump them, which makes your brand seem impersonal, inauthentic and out of touch with a customer who is demanding more and more touch. 

I applaud the brands who look to make a statement and impact, and embrace the change, rather than run from the headlines. Yeti’s is doing that right now, trusting that a great product and strong brand can survive having a point of view.

 Malcom Jenkins is repped by CAA. I’d be picking up the phone right now to talk about his point of view and find out what he wants to do next if I worked in fashion or fitness…


NOTE: This post also appears on my pseudo-sports blog, Mr Black's Sports Page, which I'll author on the rare occasion.