If you’re going to devote your career to something, it helps to study it before you commit—especially in a sector like advertising, which can be either banal and soul-crushing, or diverse and disruptive, depending on how you approach it (or who you’re talking to).
So I compiled five books that will teach you “everything” about advertising. Spoiler: They aren’t going to teach you everything. But they’re a good starter kit for a subjective quest, because advertising thrives on people who can use subjectivity to kiss the universal.
1. Adland: A Global History of Advertising by Mark Tungate
To understand where ad land’s headed, it helps to know where it’s been. The sector’s packed with bombastic memoirs, from David Ogilvy and Mary Wells to Hadji Williams and David Oakley, all great reads. But Tungate’s been writing about advertising for years, mostly from the outside. That perspective is helpful, even if you’ll miss a bunch of saucy martini-driven anecdotes.
What’s great about Adland is its take on advertising through time and space. Follow its origins and evolution through decades, including the Depression and the mad ‘80s. See it evolving in pockets of Chicago, the U.K. and France, and how those tiny renaissances coalesced into (more or less) what we’ve inherited. Plus, Tungate’s a fun writer: His author’s note ends with, “If I’ve missed out on any advertising luminaries due to lack of space or simple misjudgment, I apologize. Your egos will recover, I’m sure.”
2. Copy Paste: How Advertising Recycles Ideas by Joe La Pompe
“Joe La Pompe” is the pen name for a French advertising pro who’s anonymously called ad copycats out on his blog for longer than most creatives have had careers. On the surface, this book feels like a gleeful romp of shameless rip-offs. But it contains a valuable lesson: Don’t stop at your first idea, or the idea you came up with after an hour of brainstorming.
Two things—neither intentional—make duplication easy: Advertising thrives on the appropriation of pop culture, making it likely that your “idea whose time has come”—like dogs doing selfies or whatever—is already being worked on by enterprising hustlers elsewhere. It also thrives on the labor and zeal of young people, who often lack the experience, scope or patience to recognize (or check for) something that’s been done before.
3. Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads by Luke Sullivan
I once asked a creative director how to become a copywriter, and he gave me this. I’ve been rereading it ever since. Written as a guide for making great advertising, it oscillates between tips for being a rigorous ad hound (see above: Don’t stop at your first idea, or even the third, fourth, fifth, sixth…) and explaining in steps how to kill it in any category you’re working, from print to digital.
Sullivan doesn’t buy the idea that one medium is better than another, which makes his advice richer still. Radio, for example, is more visual than people think; to excel at it, you need to see it for its strengths, not through the frustration of lacking a sexy TV spot to work on. In a chapter aptly called “Pecked to Death by Ducks,” he also explains how to address a variety of client protests that sabotage great work. Examples range from the request to feature multiple products or benefits in one ad, to the tacky old “make the logo bigger.”
Trust Luke. He has seen it all and he doesn’t suffer fools.
4. Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella H. Meadows
Somebody smarter than me once said advertising is the business of hacking people. This is true, but you won’t be an effective hacker unless you understand what drives behavior, and you can’t understand that without knowing what systems facilitate them.
Thinking in Systems starts small, describing the basic structures of input and output using the flow of water into a bathtub. Then it works its way into complex governmental, economic and environmental structures. One of the biggest learnings I gleaned is that there are two key ways to turn a tide: Working within a system, which requires years of collaboration across other systems to effect change; or by changing a paradigm—committing an act or crafting a message so compelling that the world seemingly changes overnight, and systems with it.
At its best, the latter is what advertising aspires to do. Why hack a person when you can hack a community, a culture, a generation? But day to day, you’ll mostly be working to effect change within systems. This will show you how.
5. inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity by Tina Seelig
Seelig distills what she teaches in her Stanford University course on creativity. Generally speaking, it’s best to remember that creativity is a subjective process that will vary from person to person. But advertising is the economic exploitation of creativity, usually on ridiculous deadlines, so it’s best to garner all the tools you can get to jumpstart that fickle spark.
In this, Seelig does well (and if you don’t believe her, trust her case studies). She cites how knowledge, attitude and imagination help arm you internally. She describes how, externally, you can draw from your environment, culture and whatever resources are available.
As mentioned, this list is just a primer—one meant to kick-start a journey, not dictate one. Honorable mentions include Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building, which is actually about architectural techniques that get people to use buildings as designers intend. It’s massively popular in software design, and deserves a spot on any ad thinker’s shelf.
Good for Business, by authors Andrew Benett, Cavas Gobhai, Ann O’Reilly and Greg Welch, details the rise of the conscious corporation (handy work for avoiding a Pepsi snafu). And there’s Generation Creation, written by me, Bill Green and Darryl Ohrt—which addresses a range of creativity, agency and advertising challenges from the perspectives of three different people. (Sometimes we don’t agree, and that’s important too.)
Ready? Cool. Fire up your Amazon, get out there and raise Whipple.