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.
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.