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Home » On the phenomenon of marketing books: why they are all the same

On the phenomenon of marketing books: why they are all the same

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To many, including myself, the amount of hot air that is circulating in marketing books is of unbearable proportion. Buzzword bingo and infinite repetition of the same arguments makes us wonder who reads these books. But more importantly, who writes these books and with what purpose?

Marketers write marketing books

The self-proclaimed raison d’être of marketing books is that they will help you sell your sh*t. It’s usually not stated so explicitly but experiences, brand identity, contextual, growth hacking, storytelling, engagement and insert buzzword aside, the end-goal is — and should — always be to earn you something, whether it’s money, respect or karma.

Here’s what ‘Marketing to the Entitled Customer‘ (henceforth ‘Entitled’) promises:

…identify the challenges with marketing to entitled customers, and figure out the approaches you can adopt to help turn those unreasonable expectations into lasting relationships.

Here’s Seth Godin in ‘This is Marketing‘:

…to make things better. To cause a change you’d like to see in the world. To grow your project, sure, but mostly to serve the people you care about.

But I think David Ogilvy, in his 1988 edition of ‘Confessions of an Advertising Man‘, actually gets down to the heart of the matter:

Why did I write it? First, to attract new clients to my advertising agency. Second, to condition the market for a public offering of our shares. Third, to make myself better known in the business world.

I really would like to think that all marketing books are written because of the reasons Ogilvy confesses to: authors marketing themselves. And it’s not even subtle. When Seth Godin’s titled his book ‘This is Marketing’, I think he meant it literally. The book is a never-ending repetition of 3-line paragraphs, in which you cannot entangle a common thread. But it’s digestible and quotable. “Make things better by making better things” is a great example that’s already being reproduced across a multitude of digital media.

‘Entitled’ is co-authored by Nick Worth, CMO of Selligent Marketing Cloud. All success stories are references to companies using Selligent, and the quotes are testimonies from their marketing departments. The book was gifted to me by a salesperson from Selligent. It doesn’t take rocket science to understand the real goals of the book.

Marketing doesn’t change

The American Marketing Association has adopted the following definition of marketing:

Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.

This is nothing new. Ogilvy wrote in 1963 that “your job is to decide what you are going to say about your product, what benefit you are going to promise.” This hasn’t changed. It’s simply being rephrased and inflated by hot air. Here’s Seth Godin: “Not a selfish, unique selling proposition, done to maximize you market share, but a generous beacon, a signal flare sent up so that people who are looking for you can easily find you.”

In its core, what both authors claim is that markets aren’t perfect: consumers do not have perfect knowledge of the market. To help them make a trade-off between (e.g.) a mobile phone and a new bicycle, companies — and their marketers — need to get their message through. Since attention spans are limited: it better be the message that generates the most sales. Seth Godin is trying to turn the act of marketing into something divine. However, marketers don’t act out of benevolence: their objective is making markets more efficient to maximize trade and utility. With regards to Adam Smith, in modern markets, the butcher, the brewer and the baker need a marketer to get their tenderloin, craft beer and glutenfree sandwiches on consumer’s plates.

Back to Ogilvy, on testing: “…each batch bearing a different promise on the package. Then we compare the percentages of consumers in each sample who send us a repeat order.” And here’s Godin, 56 years later: “The ever-faster cycles that requires us to always be testing, to resist creating boredom, are driven by the fact that the only people we can serve are curious, dissatisfied, or bored.”

Need another example? Here’s Ogilvy on what we today know as ad blindness: “The average family is now exposed to more than 1500 advertisements a day. No wonder they have acquired a talent for skipping the advertisements in newspapers and magazines, and going to the bathroom during television commercials.” And here’s what Entitled had to say: “Consumers are distracted and besieged by ads, and our inboxes are crammed full of offers from every company […] The overload creates numbness and increases resistance.”

Marketing doesn’t change. However, the means to do it efficiently change. But to answer the ‘how’, you don’t need a high-level book. Au contraire. To get a proper understanding of modern marketing technologies, a hands-on online course, webinar or summer course is something more adequate to acquire the proper skills. But beware…

Tech and marketing: in bed with each other

The tech and marketing sector are in bed with each other. An economy fueled by free money has led to an explosion of marketing software. Messages of more efficient marketing are substantiated with bullshit “research” and published on bullshit websites. Modern marketing “news” ofttimes comes in tandem with the marvelous promises of technology such as artificial intelligence. It’s a good sales pitch: self-driving cars and drone delivery are driven by AI, the same magic that’s under the hood of modern marketing technologies.

The martech ecosystem as of april ’19.

After the banking crisis in 2008-09, one of the causes that was often cited were the ‘revolving doors’ between banks, rating agencies and governments. In the marketing sector, this is no different. Marketing consultants and agencies use software & technology from tech companies that reward them with ludicrous events, trips and commission. Consultants come to age and become managers at large companies, bringing in their former friends and colleagues. They present half-ass cases at events to reel in marketing “awards”. Of course, these plastic trophies are carefully distributed among the event sponsors and partners. Finally, attendees are carefully selected marketing managers from Fortune X companies, closing the circlejerk.

Finally, all these technologies claim that they generate sales and leads. Meetings between companies and their marketing partners (agencies, martech vendors, media buyers, etc.) usually result in inflated sales numbers. This is caused by everyone claiming to have generated the same transactions, ignoring the fact that because a consumer clicked on their ad, it’s not necessarily the one that caused the sale. The marketing ecosystem has become so complex and outsourced to a wide range of partners, that it’s often impossible to wield one attribution system and actually come to a conclusion of what works and what doesn’t.

Don’t read marketing books

Although I have quite some affinity with marketing technologies, I do not consider myself a marketing expert. However, I do grasp the fundemental dynamics behind marketing in a modern world. But I did not acquire these understandings from marketing books, nor from online articles, nor from marketing conferences. I believe there are no shortcuts in life to mastery.

I recently spoke for a class of college university students on the use of data and AI in marketing. I finished my guest lecture with the advice to not read marketing books. Instead, I gave them a list of noteworthy resources that I recommend that are useful in a context of marketing.

On the media/tech industry:

  • “The Attention Merchants” by Tim Wu
  • “The Curse of Bigness” by Tim Wu
  • “The Master Switch” by Tim Wu
  • “Chaos Monkeys” by Antonio Garcia Martinez
  • “Data-ism” by Steve Lohr
  • “The Second Machine Age” by Erik Brynjolfsson
  • “Disrupted” by Daniel Lyons

On economics & psychology:

  • “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman
  • “Fooled by Randomness” by NN Taleb
  • “How to lie with Statistics” by Darell Huff
  • “Irrational Exuberance” by Robert Shiller
  • “Too big to know” by David Weinberger
  • “The Winner-Takes-All-Society” by Robert Frank
  • “What Money Can’t Buy” by Michael Sandel

Finally, if I had to recommend one, and only one marketing book, it’s the classic “Confessions of an Advertising Man” by David Ogilvy. No fluff, hot air or downright bullshit. Simply a great book on running business.

Got some good book recommendations? Let me know through LinkedIn.

On a final note: Marketers write marketing blogs about how marketing books suck. Although I maintain this blog website for personal branding, mental peace and the display of advertisements, the goal of this blog post in particular is purely to influence your opinion. I spent two weeks on formulating these arguments.