10 books NOT about marketing that every marketer should read

We’ll never run out of things to read about marketing – but if we’re not careful, we’ll run out of time to read about anything else. Here are 10 reasons to make that time…

September 4, 2018

10 books NOT about marketing that every marketer should read

Marketers are never short of reading matter: there are books on every aspect of the craft and science of what we do, classic texts on positioning, must-read new perspectives on persuasion and the psychology of buying, essential handbooks to rapidly emerging areas like Artificial Intelligence (AI). The danger isn’t that we’ll run out of worthwhile things to read about marketing; the danger is that we’ll never have time to read anything else.

No human activity exists in a vacuum – and our capacity to keep challenging and evolving what we do depends on an ability to see outside of the marketing bubble. It’s when we’re curious about every aspect of life that we’re most fresh and creative about the aspect of life we take a professional interest in.

That’s why I wanted to put together an alternative reading list for marketers in the closing stages of the summer. These are books that are specifically not about marketing; they’re about everything else that marketers could and should be interested in. They’re not all new – some are classics that you may never have had time to read properly before. But I promise, from personal experience, that they’ll make you think and feel differently about the type of questions that marketing increasingly throws up.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I have:

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

You all know the story: the club with the lowest budget in the league sets a straight-wins record by using data and analytics to identify potential where others couldn’t see it. However, there’s more to the Moneyball story than the Brad Pitt Hollywood tale (wonderful though that film is). Spend some time with Michael Lewis’s original book, published 15 years ago, and you’ll discover a deeper message.

It’s not that the Oakland A’s under Billy Beane were more interested in data than their richer rivals. The trigger for their success was the courage to dismiss the data sets everyone else was obsessed with – and find different ways to measure value. That’s the real story, and it’s as much about human courage, conviction and original thinking as about the pure power of numbers.

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

You’d expect a book written by the statistician who correctly predicted the results of all 50 states in the 2012 US Presidential election to be a celebration of how to predict the future. The Signal and the Noise is far more interesting than that – and far more useful for anybody pondering how data will impact on marketing and other areas of life.

Nate Silver offers up a history of prediction that features far more examples of disaster and hubris than stories of success. He’s not out to show you how clever he is, or how precisely we’ll be able to read data signals in the future. Rather you’ll learn about how forecasts are often less certain than they can appear – and how the same assumptions keep tripping us up, no matter how much information we potentially have to play with. It’s a determination to keep seeking out broader sources of data and alternative perspectives that counts, not just crunching the data you have more efficiently.

Rules for Mavericks by Phil Beadle

Almost nobody on earth has the credibility and authority to write a book with a title like this. Phil Beadle is the exception. This isn’t the autobiography of somebody trying to cultivate a ‘maverick’ image. It’s not an angry rant from somebody secretly frustrated that the mainstream hasn’t appreciated his or her creative genius. This is a book written by a teacher – quite possibly the most original, creative-thinking and provocative teacher to have ever held a class. And it’s a book intended to teach.

Phil Beadle has become famous (winning Royal Television Awards for his classroom documentaries and literally writing the book on teaching by launching the How to Teach series) and over time, he’s become less famous. But recognition has never motivated him. He’s interested in how original thinkers who challenge orthodoxy can find ways to be effective in the ways that matter to them. He knows first-hand the forces that can prevent people with genuinely original ideas from making those ideas count. And in this book, he’ll help you overcome them.

As a side note, I was fortunate enough to persuade Phil to appear as a guest on our seventh series of The Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast. Watch our blog for the launch of that episode in the next couple of weeks. You won’t want to miss it.

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

Human beings don’t just enjoy stories. Our civilisations, societies, systems of thought and sanity are almost entirely dependent on them. This is the New York Times bestseller that helped to launch storytelling to the forefront of marketing consciousness – but it’s not really a book about marketing at all. Read it and you’ll discover how our urge to tell and consume stories influences almost every aspect of life, including plenty that you thought had no room for fiction or embellishment at all. It will broaden your concept of what a story can be and what a story can do – and it does so with a writing style that’s as compelling as any yarn you’ll read.

The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel

The experiment that lends its name to this book has become one of the most famous in the history of psychology. That’s partly because its initial premise was so simple and amusing, and partly because its implications have turned out to be so profound. In this book, Walter Mischel tells how tempting children to eat marshmallows revealed the impact that the ability to delay gratification has on entire lives. But that’s not the end of the story. He also introduces less famous but no less compelling aspects of his research. Conducted over decades, those studies show how a capacity for willpower that appears hard-wired can actually be within our control. It’s an insight that’s both challenging and inspiring.

Notes on a nervous planet by Matt Haig

We inhabit a planet and a society that seems engineered to drive destructive levels of anxiety. Connectivity too often results in fast, nervous lives driven by the alarm bells we hear through mainstream and social media. After years of panic attacks, Matt Haig set out to find the truth about how the world around us is changing how we feel. He could have made this an exercise in finding new scapegoats and reasons to feel anxious. Instead, he’s written a book that can help human beings feel more like themselves.

The History of the World in 100 objects by Neil MacGregor

On one level, this is a lovingly written guidebook to 100 of the most intriguing objects in the collection of the British Museum. On another level, it’s the most compelling and concise history of human society ever put on paper. Neil MacGregor is a brilliantly engaging writer, illuminating societies you had never heard of, revealing recurring cultural themes that matter as much today as they ever did, and putting the disruption of the last 10 years in the context of the disruption of the last 10,000.

Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark

Nothing else I’ve read has explained the issues around AI quite so well as this book, which is written with real creative verve by a professor of physics at MIT. Like many writers before him, Max Tegmark imagines a near future in which AI is subtly taking control of the planet. But there are a few key differences. Tegmark’s vision is rooted in first-hand understanding of AI’s capabilities and how organisations are likely to use it. And rather than spelling out an apocalyptic vision of the future, he explains how ours remains very much up for grabs. This is an insightful and even-handed discussion of what AI can mean for humanity, by someone who walks the walk in conducting research to try and keep the technology beneficial. There are warnings – but also a conviction that we have the potential to unlock a new era of prosperity.

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s true. Everybody does – and for years our mendacious tendencies have stood in the way of a real understanding of what makes people tick, how society works and how to make it better. Suddenly though, things are changing. Because there is now a repository of information to which people seem compelled to tell the truth: the internet.

In this celebration of the transformative power of Big Data for human understanding, former Google data scientist explains how the aggregated data of the internet is revealing answers to riddles that have foxed researchers, psychologists and social campaigners for years. It’s a witty, irreverent and optimistic book – and it opens up a whole new way of studying the human mind.

What does this button do? By Bruce Dickinson

This book needs no explanation for me. Just glance at who the author is or the gleeful warning at the bottom of the cover: “may contain flying heavy metal.” It’s written by one of the greatest front men in music history, and one of the most fascinating and inspiring human beings around. You want the transformation from spotty teenager to heavy metal icon? You got it. You want the learning to fly on the side and starting your own airline twist? You got it. You want international fencing competitions? Check! Beer brewing? Check! Infiltrating Sarajevo in the middle of a civil war to play a legendary secret concert? Of course!

This is a fantastic book that moves along at the speed of an Iron Maiden riff. If that’s not going to convince you, I don’t’ know what will.