The ultimate planner’s reading list

I have started compiling a required reading list for anyone with a serious professional interest in advertising or marketing communication.

I’m sharing the list in its current form, partly because it may offer some useful guidance or inspiration and partly because I’d like your help in adding to it, please.

What’s missing?  If there’s a book you think should definitely be on the list below, please post a comment or drop me a line via email or twitter.

I’m not looking to produce an exhaustive list – even in the fairly narrow field of advertising and marketing theory there are simply too many books out there for one person to get through – but I do want to summarise the most interesting, thought-provoking and useful texts, both directly and indirectly relevant to the comms industry.

I should point out that I’ve not included any IPA texts on my list, but their reports (click here) are also definitely required reading for any half decent or aspiring planner.

Here’s my list so far (in no particular order).  What do you think?

The ‘Classics’

Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy

Behind the Scenes in Advertising by Jeremy Bullmore

Truth, Lies and Advertising : The Art of Account Planning by Jon Steel

Perfect Pitch by Jon Steel

A Masterclass in Brand Planning: the Timeless Works of Stephen King

The Book of Gossage by Howard Gossage


Advertising & Marketing Theory

Marketing in the Era of Accountability by Les Binet & Peter Field

The Long and Short of It by Les Binet & Peter Field

How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp

The New Marketing Manifesto: 12 Rules for Building Successful Brands in the 21st Century by John Grant


Human Psychology & Decision-making

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism by George A. Akerlof & Robert J. Shiller

Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature by Mark Earls

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H Thaler & Cass R Sunstein

Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Brand Positioning

Positioning: the Battle for your Mind by Al Ries & Jack Trout

The Pirate Inside by Adam Morgan

Eating the Big Fish by Adam Morgan

Branding only works on Cattle by Jonathan Salem Baskin

Economics & Behavioural Economics

Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist by Tyler Cowen

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

The Long and the Short of it: A Guide to Finance and Investment for Normally Intelligent People Who Aren’t in the Industry by John Kay


Creativity & Idea Generation

Sticky Wisdom : How to Start a Creative Revolution at Work : by What If? (Dave Allan, Matt Kingdon, Kris Murrin, Darren Rudkin)

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James W. Young

Where Good Ideas Come From: the Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

Creative Mischief by Dave Trott

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon

Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity by Edward be Bono

(Image credit: the original version of the photo accompanying this post can be found here)


Artificial intelligence: a real concern?

In December last year Professor Stephen Hawking upgraded his communication software system, allowing him to connect more easily with others.  This event was remarkable for three reasons:

Firstly, we found out the new technology is so good he could have had a more realistic ‘human’ voice, including a British accent, but Professor Hawking chose to keep his ‘speak and spell’ voice because he considers it his trademark.

Secondly, Professor Hawking used the publicity around the new software launch to predict that artificial intelligence could spell the end for the human race!

That comment inspired me to write this hilarious joke on twitter, which was criminally ignored at the time:

Stephen Hawking Tweet

I really am wasted on you lot.

It wasn’t just me that was ignored, though.  Because the third reason the launch event was remarkable, is that nobody paid the slightest bit of attention to what Professor Hawking said.

Here’s a clip of the BBC News interview Professor Hawking gave last December:

At the time of writing it’s got just over 170,000 views.  A paltry 170,000 people could be bothered to watch a five minute interview where one of the most famous and celebrated scientists in the world explains how the whole of human civilisation could come to an end within our lifetimes!

Honestly, you should be ashamed of yourself…

It’s not entirely your fault though.  You see our feeble human minds simply aren’t capable of understanding the huge potential of artificial intelligence.

This is you:

Distorted View of Intelligence - 1

And this is you in about 25 years:

Distorted View of Intelligence - 2

All the cleverest people in the world are pretty much agreed that the exponential growth of computing power means artificial intelligence will supersede the human brain well within our lifetime.

The only real questions are when it will happen, and whether this new superintelligence will be good or bad for humankind.  Will it find a way to eradicate disease and hunger?  Will it even deliver human immortality?

“…there is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death. This suggests to me that it is not at all inevitable” – Richard Feynman.

Or will it race straight past us on the evolutionary path, rendering us extinct in the process?

These aren’t, as you might imagine, theoretical questions posed by conspiracy theorists, lunatics and science fiction nerds.  They’re the subject of heated – but entirely well-reasoned – debate amongst the greatest thinkers of our time.

If you’re interested to learn more about Artificial Intelligence I urge you to read the rather wonderful 2-part Artificial Intelligence essay on

Part 1 is here, and part 2 is here.

Go on, increase your intelligence.  You’re going to need it.

What ‘Bad Jews’ can teach us about good communication

“It is my sincere belief that by being incredibly specific, one taps into something which is universal”.

Casually perusing the theatre reviews page in the Evening Standard last week I came across this great quote from playwright Joshua Harmon, taken from the programme notes for his new play, Bad Jews.

Whilst patently true, Harmon’s maxim rarely seems to be followed, particularly in the world of marketing communication.  Too much mass marketing takes a ‘one size fits none’ approach – attempting to appeal to everyone, whilst actually appealing to nobody.

Maybe it’s the desire not to offend, or the fact that too many ads are designed by committee, all the interesting rough edges having been smoothed away in endless rounds of research, but however it happens a large proportion of the work that finally sees the light of day ends up being bland, uninteresting, and – the cardinal sin for advertising – unmemorable.

Every brand wants to have a genuine dialogue with its customers, and ‘be part of the conversation’.  But most of them are too scared to talk to people on a human level, in the language ‘real’ people actually use in day-to-day conversation.

Some people (such as self-styled Ad Contrarian, Bob Hoffman) take this as a sign that people don’t want to have any form of relationship with brands.  And for the most part this is undoubtedly true.  But it isn’t necessarily so.

Mischief-making bookmaker Paddy Power is one clear exception.  It’s not for everyone, but Paddy Power always provokes a reaction, and that makes it a brand that many people want to have a conversation with, and about.

Because it is one of few brands out there that genuinely has character.  It is edgy and provocative.  Sometimes (often!) they go too far and get it wrong.

But by talking and acting like a real sports fan in the pub, they appeal to laddish young (and not so young) men who comprise a large proportion of the betting audience.  This is an amazing success story in such a commoditised and highly crowded market.

Going back a few years, the Yorkie ‘Not for Girls’ campaign was equally distinctive and controversial.  Byron Sharp uses this campaign in How Brands Grow as an example of focusing on too niche an audience, because ultimately more women ended up buying Yorkies than men.

I see Yorkie more as a triumph for distinctive brand positioning than bad targeting.  Nestle made sure to use mass media that would expose the campaign to men and women equally.  In doing so they deliberately created a strong emotional reaction amongst women, forcing them to actively appraise whether or not Yorkie was for them.

Of course the increasing ability to use data to deliver personalised behavioural marketing should theoretically put an end to this issue of irrelevant and uninteresting advertising.  We know so much about who people are, where they go and what they do that we have the ability to always be incredibly specific with our marketing communication.

The problem is that for the most part creativity doesn’t seem to have kept pace with technology where personalised marketing is concerned.

‘Hey, look at this really cool ad that’s obviously been created just for me’, said nobody, ever.

‘How do they know which websites I’ve been on, and why do they now keep bombarding me with ads for things I looked at once but didn’t want to buy?’ say lots of people every day.

Having lots of data at our disposal is a wonderful gift.  But with great data comes great responsibility.

Obviously we have a duty to our clients to drive cost-efficient sales in the short term, if that is the task at hand.

But we also have a duty to the consumer, to ensure we use what we know about them to deliver interesting, relevant and timely communication in a way they will genuinely value.  And we haven’t cracked that part yet.

For the billions of marketing dollars that are spent every year, most people wouldn’t care if the vast majority of brands ceased to exist.

Unfortunately it seems we know everything about everyone, except how to make them care about us.

We’re smart people.  We can change this.  But only if we make data and content work hand in hand, rather than seeing them as discrete choices.

What you see is all there is

How much do you know about the country you live in?

For all the rhetoric about immigration that currently dominates the news agenda, do you know how many immigrants there really are in the country?

Russell Brand is running around urging us all not to vote, but do you know what proportion of the electorate actually voted in the last general election?

These and other questions like them were included in a fascinating study conducted last year by IPSOS-MORI in an effort to understand how closely people’s perceptions match reality.

Before you look at the results why not take the quiz yourself, by clicking on this link.

How well did you do?  Don’t worry if your estimates were way off, the study’s title ‘Perils of Perception’ should give you a clue as to how well most people fared.

What I find fascinating though isn’t that most people have a distorted view of the key issues, but that when confronted with the truth they still refuse to believe it.

On immigration, for example, when told the actual figure is actually much lower than they first thought, respondents either flatly refuted the official figure or defended their answer based on the evidence of their own eyes:

IPSOS-MORI Immigration

Coming to incorrect conclusions based on limited evidence is of course a common problem.  As far as our intuitive mind is concerned perception is indeed reality –  ‘What You See Is All There Is’, as Daniel Kahneman explains in his behavioural economics bestseller Thinking, Fast & Slow.

This perception bias is equally true of people who work in advertising as it is of everybody else.

As Thinkbox found in 2013, most people’s estimates of UK media consumption are wide of the mark, but people who work in advertising are in most cases even further out than “normal people” on what is supposed to be their specialist subject!

Why are advertising professionals getting it so wrong?

Is it because they spend such a high proportion of their time looking at new media opportunities that they assume they carry greater weight with the wider population than they really do?

Or is it simply that advertising folk – most of whom live and work in London – just aren’t representative of the UK population?

Would it improve the ad industry if more ad agencies upped sticks to other parts of the country?

Certainly it might persuade more cash-strapped young grads to join the industry.  And spending more time outside London might help planners understand the ‘real world’ better.

However, proximity doesn’t necessarily lead to empathy.

For example, advancements in the use of technology in ethnographic research mean that geography shouldn’t be a barrier to understanding different types of people.

We can’t change the way our brains work, but we can make a conscious effort to overcome these instinctive biases in order to produce more impactful and effective work.

Firstly we must find a balance between constantly innovating and testing new opportunities that might give clients a competitive advantage over their peers, whilst ensuring we don’t neglect the reality of what works in the here and now.

Secondly it’s not about where we’re based geographically, it’s about remembering that other people’s reality may differ from our own, and constantly seeking to understand and empathise with the way people think and act.

What can X Factor teach us about new business pitches?

OK I admit it; I’m a massive X Factor fan.

I’m one of the thousands of men who claim they only watch it because they’re forced to by their other halves, but secretly love the grand spectacle, the emotional highs and lows, and the sheer silliness of it all.

Last weekend’s instalment was sillier than most.  The human incarnation of Droopy sang all five harmony parts of Bohemian Rhapsody (badly), whilst one of the guys most able to sing ended up losing the public vote and leaving the competition.

Sadly for Paul Akister, the writing had been on the wall for a couple of weeks, as he failed to heed warnings from the judges to crack his face and start looking like he was enjoying himself (I’m paraphrasing, but only slightly).

In these squeaky clean days of competition rule compliance there could clearly be no question of the TV producers rigging the vote, but that’s not to say they couldn’t use their influence to stack the odds against young Paul, with his sweet voice and sour face.

And so it came to pass that in the week when all the surviving contestants would be guaranteed places on next year’s X Factor tour, out came Paul to open the show singing a terrible drum & bass arrangement of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now, dressed all in black against a black backdrop punctuated only by distracting strobe lights.

Eurovision enthusiasts will already know that running order makes a huge difference to the voting pattern, and I’m guessing the same is true of X Factor given that so far in this year’s competition no act that has performed in the last four slots has ended up in the bottom two of the public vote.

Freddie Mercury himself would have struggled to win out under those circumstances, and tearful Paul duly received his marching orders to a chorus of boos from the stunned studio audience.

What Paul and the audience failed to appreciate is that X Factor is first and foremost an entertainment show.  The ability to sing is only one – arguably relatively minor – element in a contestant’s success.  For many of the previous contestants who have subsequently enjoyed some degree of TV fame (such as Olly Murs, Rylan Clark or Stacey Solomon), the ability to sing has been secondary to a likeable personality, positive attitude and strong work ethic.

As I watched the results unfold on Sunday night, I realised there are a number of parallels between Paul Akister’s situation on X Factor and some of the more common reasons for failure in new business pitches:

  • He focused too narrowly. He spent too much time on one element of his presentation, whilst neglecting other equally important areas to score points.
  • He didn’t focus on the key decision makers. He put all his efforts into winning over the public with his live performance, failing to realise that the real judging had already occurred well before the main event.
  • He didn’t build strong relationships. He thought his talent would be enough to see him through, when being well liked and trusted by those in power was the real key to success.
  • He didn’t respond to feedback. He was given a clear warning that he needed to adapt his approach, which he failed to heed.
  • He didn’t look like he wanted it enough. He didn’t demonstrate sufficient enthusiasm and desire to win in the face of strong competition.

I wish Paul all the best, and hope he can go on to build a great singing career, but his X Factor tactics left him a long way short of being pitch perfect.