Few founder/CEOs come from a marketing background; most come from product, many from engineering, and some from sales, service, or consulting. But few — ironically even in martech companies — grew up in the marketing department and consider marketing home.
When you combine this lack of experience with the the tendency that some marketing leaders and agencies have to deliberately obfuscate marketing, it’s no wonder that most founder/CEOs are somewhat uncomfortable with it.
But what’s a founder/CEO to do about this critical blind spot? Do you let your CMO and his/her hench-agencies box you out of the marketing department? No, you can’t. “Marketing,” as David Packard once famously said, “is too important to be left to the marketing department.”
I recommend solving this problem in two ways:
- One part hiring: only hire marketing leaders who are transparent and educational, not those who try to hide behind a dark curtain of agencies, wizardry, and obfuscation. Remember the Einstein quote: “if you truly understand something you can explain it to a six-year old.”
- One part self-education. Don’t fear marketing, learn about it. A little bit of fundamental knowledge will take you a long way and build your confidence in marketing conversations.
The problem is where to begin? Marketing is a broad discipline and there are tens of thousands of books — most of them crap — written about it. In this post, I’m going to list the three books that every founder/CEO should read about marketing.
I have a bias for classics here because I think founder/CEO types want foundational knowledge on which to build. Here they are:
- Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout. Marketers frequently use the word “positioning” and after reading this classic, you’ll know exactly what they mean . While it was originally published in 1981, it still reads well today. This is all about the battle for the mind, which is the book’s subtitle.
- Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy. Ogilvy was the founder of marketing powerhouse agency Ogilvy and Mather and was the king of Madison Avenue back in the era of Mad Men. Published in 1963, this book definitely shows signs of age, but the core content is timeless. It covers everything from research to copy-writing and is probably, all in, my single favorite book on marketing. 
- Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore. The textbook classic Silicon Valley book on strategy. Many people refer to the chasm without evidently having even read the book, so please don’t be one of them. Published in 1991, it’s the newest of the books on my list, and happily Moore has revised it to keep the examples fresh along the way.
If I had to pick only one book, rather than suggesting original classics I’d revert to a summary, Kotler on Marketing, an overview written by Philip Kotler , author of one of the most popular marketing college textbooks, Marketing Management. 
If reading any of the above three books leaves you hungry for more (and if I were permitted to recommend just a few follow-up books), I’d offer:
- As a follow-up to Positioning, I’d recommend The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing also by Al Ries and Jack Trout and also written in the same accessible style. This book would place second in the “if I only had one book to recommend” category and while less comprehensive than Kotler it is certainly far more accessible.
- As a follow-up to Ogilvy on Advertising, and for those who want to get closer to marketing execution (e.g., reviewing content), I’d recommend The Copywriter’s Handbook by Robert Bly. Most founder/CEOs are clear and logical writers who can get somewhat bamboozled by their marketing teams into approving gibberish copy. This book will give you a firmer footing in having conversations about web copy, press releases, and marketing campaigns.
- As a follow-up to Crossing the Chasm, I’d recommend Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, an excellent primer on strategy with case studies of great successes and failures and Blue Ocean Strategy, a great book on how to create uncontested market space and not simply compete in endless slug-fests against numerous competitors — which is particularly relevant in the current era of over-populated and over-funded startups. 
As founder/CEO you run the whole company. But, for good reason, you might sometimes be hesitant to dive into marketing. Moreover, some marketeers like it that way and may try to box you out of the marketing department. Read these three books and you’ll have the tools you need to confidently engage in, and add value to, important marketing conversations at your company.
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 The Wikipedia entry on positioning isn’t a bad start for those in a hurry.
 Right from the second sentence, Ogilvy gets to the point: “When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.” Love that guy.
 Of 4 P’s fame. Kotler’s 4 P’s defined the marketing mix: product, place, price, and promotion.
 Kotler on Marketing is deliberately not a summarized version of his classic, 700-page textbook, but alas it’s still written by someone who has produced numerous textbooks and nevertheless has a textbook feel. It’s comprehensive but dry — especially by comparison to the others on this list.
 I can’t conclude any post on marketing thoughts and thinkers without a reference to one of the great marketing essays of all time, Marketing Myopia, by Theodore Levitt. It’s old (published in 1963) and somewhat academic, but very well written and contains many pithy nuggets expressed as only Levitt could.
I think Blue Ocean Strategy is a really good book for anyone to read, not just entrepreneurs. One of my favorite books.
Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy didn’t even warrant a mention?
Great big, a bit of a tome like all his stuff. For this use-case, trying to educate founder/CEOs in way that helps them work with a typical high-market marketing department, it doesn’t make the cut. Totally subjective of course, but I’m leaning towards foundational pop marketing. The Kotler summary is more textbook and I’d still pick that over (any Porter — just too long)
Excellent list, plus you put a small dent in my net worth, but the return will be great. Little surprised that the Kotler book only has an overall 4.1 rating on Amazon. Think that’s because younger readers prefer tactics over strategy and mindset?
Glad to see my heroes Al Ries and Jack Trout well represented. For my first job out of college, my boss made me read Positioning. My third boss, an agency principal with deep brand and product marketing experience, turned me onto 22 Immutable Laws. We would give copies of a number of the R&T titles away to prospective clients.
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