Should you read the Classic Marketing Texts?

All marketers should turn to the old school marketing texts that have stood the test of time.

Colin Lewis
10 min readJan 26, 2020


Seneca the Younger

You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.

Seneca, Epistles

Let’s face it: almost everything we marketers write is ephemeral: marketing plans, presentations, emails, social posts. Of course, we hope our campaigns will be seen by our target market, and, ideally, will be around for a long time, but the reality is that the majority of our output is seen by just a few people and then discarded.

And it’s not just us marketers: even yesterday’s front page news, read by millions, has no readership 24 hours later. There is an ongoing debate in academia on how many academic papers are read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors. How many books released today will still be in print and being purchased ten years after they first appeared?

Sun Tzu, Don Quixote, Marcus Aurelius

Yet there are texts in the world which are hundreds of years old that are still widely read today: the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Vita, Confucius Analects, Shakespeare’s plays, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Homer’s IIiad and Odyssey, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Of course, that is a short list: the point is not whether the list contains a few or a few dozen entries. The point is that list is short. Of all the plays, all the books, all the articles there are only a few dozen or so are still widely read today.

These few dozen texts have influenced us a lot more than you think. They have shaped the way people think, write, speak, and act over the centuries up to and including today. Anyone who writes a book, movie, play or gives a speech has been influenced far more than they know by these texts even if they have never read them — or even have read them and disagree with them!

It does not matter that these ancient texts are great literature or even true. Rather, all that matters is the fact that each has been read for years and form the foundation of culture and are clearly telling some timeless truths about human nature. They blow a hole in the fallacy that things that are happening are somehow different from before.

The original King James B

If you disagree with me, here are a couple of phrases from the King James Bible that most self-respecting marketers have used at one time or another:

· ‘law unto themselves’,

· ‘stumbling block’

· ‘at their wit’s end’

· ‘bottomless pit’

· ‘from strength to strength’

· ‘skin of my teeth’

· ‘turn the world upside down’

· ‘woe is me’.

Will Shakespeare has helped us marketers somewhat as well. How about ‘some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’? OK, maybe that is a secret reflection of our career ambitions, but I am sure I could shoehorn into some presentation!

An MBA is no guarantee of insight or capability

About ten years ago, swotting my way through a very textbook heavy MBA, it dawned on me that none of the marketing books I was reading bore any resemblance to my real world marketing career, and it was almost impossible for me to explain to my fellow students (who had no marketing background) why this was so. I realised that I had to go back to basics and ‘zero base’ my thinking about marketing. I had to ask myself, what if I was just starting out as a newbie in marketing, with no background in it, where would I start? What would I read? What were the core texts to read? And, I came up short — I could not really point to an uber-text for non-marketers — one that they could keep coming back to again and again.

“Read what you love until you love to read.” It’s that simple

— Naval Ravikant

Now, its not just me who believes in reading the basic texts. Listening to the famous Naval Ravikant podcast called ‘How to Get Rich’ (don’t let the cheesy title put you off, he acknowledges that it is cheesy and probably the wrong title!) The full quote from Naval is worth studying:

‘The foundation of learning is reading. I don’t know a smart person who doesn’t read and read all the time. And the problem is, what do I read? How do I read? Because for most people it’s a struggle, it’s a chore. So, the most important thing is just to learn how to educate yourself and the way to educate yourself is to develop a love for reading.

Everybody I know who reads a lot loves to read, and they love to read because they read books that they loved. It’s a little bit of a catch-22, but you basically want to start off just reading wherever you are and then keep building up from there until reading becomes a habit. And then eventually, you will just get bored of the simple stuff.

So you may start off reading fiction, then you might graduate to science fiction, then you may graduate to non-fiction, then you may graduate to science, or philosophy, or mathematics or whatever it is, but take your natural path and just read the things that interest you until you kind of understand them. And then you’ll naturally move to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.

Read the original scientific books in a field. There are actually things you can read, especially early on, that will program your brain a certain way, and then later things that you read, you will decide whether those things are true or false based on the earlier things.

So, it is important that you read foundational things. And foundational things, I would say, are the original books in a given field.

For example, instead of reading a business book, pick up Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Instead of reading a book on biology or evolution that’s written today, I would pick up Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Instead of reading a book on biotech right now that may be very advanced, I would just pick up The Eighth Day of Creation by Watson and Crick. Instead of reading advanced books on what cosmology and what Neil Degrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking have been saying, you can pick up Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces and start with basic physics’.

Naval claims that “reading is faster than listening, doing is faster than watching.” I 100% agree. If you listen to videos or podcasts, you will find that there are much fewer words per minute, you cannot write on the side, underline things or keep coming back to a section you liked. Reading and concentrating is the core skill.

So, what are the few uber-texts that matter?

The slight technical hitch with a question about marketing uber-texts is that that the study of marketing is reasonably new — barely even 100 years old, so there are no 400+ year old uber-texts to read.

There are no Shakespeare or Cervantes of the Marketing world — yet. But is the daily newsletters with the minutiae of what’s happening in our trade? Or are they like soap operas — you can go without seeing them for a few days and not miss a beat.

I do a lot of teaching and coaching in marketing — over 100+ hours a year for the last ten years to teams from Bayer, Facebook, Britvic, Experian, Toyota, Ryanair and so on. I’m also a columnist for the number 1 marketing magazine in the world since 2015 and I founded and programme the largest marketing conference in Ireland DMX Dublin. So, bit-by-bit, have developed a core group of texts that marketers must read — and keep going back to.

Let’s start with positioning: ‘Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind’ by Al Ries and Jack Trout, and the ’22 Immutable Laws of Marketing’ by the same authors. No self-respecting marketer can truly call themselves a marketer without knowing these books inside out.

Likewise, ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’ by David Ogilvy. ‘Confessions of an Advertising Man’ by the same author should be read for good measure. And while we are talking ‘old school’, we should remember Claude Hopkins’ ‘Scientific Advertising: 21 Advertising, Headline and Copywriting Techniques’ and ‘Breakthrough Advertising by Eugene Schwartz’.

If you have heard about the concept of challenger brands, the classic ‘Eat the Big Fish’ by Adam Morgan is still the reference text. That is definitely one book that has been very misquoted and misunderstood.

Technology marketers must read ‘Crossing the Chasm’ by Geoffrey Moore. If you are tech business with revenues off $2m to $30m, then read April Dunford’s book about positioning, called ‘Obviously Awesome. And, of course read ‘The Lean Startup’ by Eric Ries, pretty much the equivalent of the Bible in Silicon Valley.

Robert Cialdini’s ‘Psychology of Influence’ is regarded by the first wave of internet marketers during the noughties as a must read, and ‘Pre-suasion’ is a great followup. If you are an SME, ‘Guerrilla Marketing’ by Jay Levinson is the definitive texts.

If you can hack dry textbooks, the bane of every undergraduate marketer, Philip Kotler’s ‘Marketing Management’ has to be sitting on your shelf somewhere.

The Marketing Effectiveness Trio Bibles

For anybody who wishes to get to the bottom of marketing effectiveness, which means everybody in the world of marketing, ‘How Brands Grow’ (1+2) by Byron Sharp, and ‘Building Distinctive Brand Assets’ by Sharp’s fellow member in the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, Jenni Romaniuk.

Given the importance of marketing effectiveness, I suggest you widen the list to include the following:

· The Link Between Creativity and Effectiveness: Peter Field

· The Long and the Short of it : Les Binet and Peter Field

· Media in Focus — Marketing Effectiveness in the Digital Age: Les Binet and Peter Field

· Re-evaluating media : Ebiquity

· Eat Your Greens : Wiemer Snijders et al

How to read well

The choices of what you read are crucial, so you must make conscious and deliberate choices. But a question you might ask is ‘how should I read?’

There is a difference between reading for understanding and reading for information. The goal of reading determines how you read. Reading the a pulp novel is not the same as reading Byron Sharp. To read for information, you’re going to read a lot differently than reading to increase understanding.

Conveniently, there is also an uber-text on that called ‘How to Read a Book’ by Mortimer Adler. Adler provides an interesting framework for reading with four different levels, called:

· Elementary Reading

· Inspectional Reading

· Analytical Reading

· Syntopical Reading

…as well as how to become a ‘Demanding Reader’. Alone, this book will save you tonnes of time.

As Shane Parrish of Farnham Street (wonderful) blog, ‘if all of this sounds like hard work, you’re right. Most people won’t do it. That’s what sets you apart’.

I would encourage you to think about what author David McCullough’s says about reading: “Study a masterpiece; take it apart, study its architecture, its vocabulary, its intent. Underline, make notes in the margins, and after a few years, go back and read it again.”

Why bother with all this reading?

You will need to give yourself uninterrupted time to read. There must be an emphasis on it for as long as you can, when you can. The key is eliminate distractions and focus on reading like, well, your career depended on it — because it does!

I truly believe that just one truly original insight or idea is worth a lot more than the umpteenth regurgitation of conventional day-to-day marketing hype. Phillip Pullman author of Dark Materials, the fantasy dram hit series put its beautifully: ‘Readers ask me all the time the traditional question where do you get your ideas from?” I reply: ‘We are all having ideas all the time. But I’m on the lookout for them. You’re not.’”

The above is my list of essential texts. You may not agree with them all, you may not like them and you are sure to say some of them are old hat. The point is — they have shaped how marketing is today. As I wrote at the beginning, they have shaped the way people think, write, speak, and act (about marketing) up to and including today.

So what are your suggestions? I am sure that there are lots of stuff I missed. Let me know and I will add them to the list on this post.



Colin Lewis

Professional Marketer, Lecturer, Coach. Marketing Week Columnist Founder/Programmer of DMX Dublin, largest Marketing event in Ireland. Total & utter petrolhead.