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Five Creative and Marketing Books that Stand the Test of Time


I recently emptied out my Mullen office as my slow exit from the agency is near the end. After transporting the few belongings I still had there to my BU office, where I’ve spent most of my time for the last two years, I posted a photo on Facebook. AdWeek’s Dave Griner noticed the picture and wanted to know which of the creative and marketing books crammed into my sagging shelves had stood up over the years. Given the constant change our industry endures, a lot of books have a short shelf life. But not all. So I made a list and threw together a piece for AdWeek, which is excerpted below. Hope you enjoy. And as always, I welcome your thoughts or additions to my list.

A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young (1965)

There is no better advice for understanding where creative ideas come from and how to generate them. The art of producing ideas has nothing to do with luck, serendipity or the shower. It’s not about where you go to look for them, it’s a matter of “how you train your mind in the method by which all ideas are produced.” Once you understand that an idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements, that you can learn to create combinations and collisions, and that the process involves both an active and passive mode, you’re on your way.

The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder (1981)

I worked at Data General during the years that Tom West’s engineering team was racing the calendar to develop a faster machine to compete against Digital Equipment Corporations VAX in the emerging 32-bit minicomputer market. Kidder, who was embedded in the company chronicling the team’s round-the-clock efforts, tells the compelling story of what happens when you abandon top-down management and instead inspire creativity and innovation from below.

The Bill Bernbach Book, Bob Levenson (1987)

I bought this book the day it came out 27 years ago. Within hours I had devoured every chapter, every ad, every Bernbach quote. Even then ads featured in the book were 20 years old. But the thinking was as fresh as could be and in many ways remains so. Many of Bernbach’s quotes could have been written for the digital age and social media. One of my favorites: “If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you and nobody for you.” I still go back to Bernbach for inspiration.

The Book of Gossage, Howard Gossage, edited by Bruce Bendinger (1995)

It was the 1960s when Gossage criticized the industry for talking “advertingese.” Instead he suggested having conversations with people.  Even if in those days it simply meant a coupon. More importantly he espoused being interesting. Relentlessly pounding people with the same message over and over made no sense to him. If it’s interesting people will remember it. If it’s not, no number of forced exposures would make up for the shortcomings. The idea of involving readers and being interesting. Now there are two ideas that hold up.

The Cluetrain Manifesto, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, David “Doc” Searls, David Weinberger (2000)

Fourteen years ago it predicted and explained much of what has happened since. A number of the original 95 theses ring perfectly true today. Examples: Thesis 16: Already, companies that speak in the language of the pitch, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone. Thesis 17: Companies that assume online markets are the same markets that used to watch their ads on television are kidding themselves. Thesis 23: Companies attempting to “position” themselves need to take a position. Optimally, it should relate to something their market actually cares about.  For anyone still trying to understand how to market in the digital age, this is a great read. It’s not about technology. It’s about behavior.

What’s on your bookshelf that you’ll never throw out?

Originally published on AdWeek’s AdFreak, May 13, 2014.

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