The thing is, 98% of the time, when anyone asks "what should I learn about advertising?", the answer will be "Ogilvy". And - you know what? That's right. I can't even set this up as a controversial "Nogilvy" (see what I did there?) hot take, because the eminently quotable David Ogilvy managed to churn out advice that's, frankly, both practical and timeless. Darnit.
So start there.
But here are five other books I recommend to folks getting interested in advertising and marketing, either as a career or just... self-improvement. It is also worth noting that I'm more interested in the strategy ("planning") than the creative (e.g. "what to say" as opposed to "how to say it"), and these selections are more for budding planners than creative teams. Still, it never hurts.
Ok, ironic to start with 'modern advertising is a SCIENCE!' and then recommend a book from 1954. But Huff's book is the best primer to statistics and, more importantly, how they are communicated. It explains what all the common terms mean, how they're used and, best of all, how they're misused. Immensely useful for deciphering the chicanery of advertising, media and, in general, anything that's said by some sort of 'guru'. (Get lying.)
Persuasion for Profit by Nicholas Samstag
Another old-school one, this time from 1957. Samstag was the promotions director of Time for almost two decades, and wrote about publicity, marketing and strategy. On one hand, Samstag is a legacy of an earlier era - he deliberately and openly eschews discussing the morality of persuasion (notably pointing out that "a strategy is an instrument for winning"), and, with that out there, his books rather coldly delineate all the tricks of the trade and how and why they work. On the other hand, the cyclical nature of the marketing beast means that Samstag's holistic view of marketing is in vogue again: his is one of the few practical guides that see PR, marketing and sales promotion as part of a single discipline. Like Huff, this is an excellent 'plain English' book that contains a lot of common sense.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
We're in the 1980s now! And Cialdini's study of what makes people tick (and more importantly, buy stuff) is about as seminal as a work can be. Cialdini spent three years watching persuasion in practice, working at used car dealerships, telemarketers and charity fund-raisers. The resulting book combines the best of theory with some amazing revelatory nitty-gritty detail. And his rules of influence make for a model that helps understand (and create) marketing. He's up there with Gladwell's "tipping" and, of course, the next one... (One example of Cialdini's rules of influence? Reciprocity. For example, Blackwells are distributing The Builders, so all the links in this post go... I bet you can guess.)
Thaler's the "nudge" dude. You may remember him from a cameo in The Big Short. He's also good value on Twitter and even gives the occasional Reddit AMA. Nudge is also well worth reading, as it is a concept both frequently-cited and misunderstood. Misbehaving goes a step further and presents an overview of Behavioural Economics as a whole. The book encapsulates the rise of this new(-ish) field, but also includes engaging demonstrations and examples. It is worth noting that Misbehaving is a step removed from marketing. It does review the role of communications (in general), but alongside sales, policy, management and, well, everything. (Get to misbehaving.)
I'll Have What She's Having: Mapping Social Behaviour by Alex Bentley and Mark Earls
I appreciate these books are getting increasingly distant from 'how do I make of the pretty advertisements' guides, but, well, I'm a first principles kind of guy. Bentley and Earls' (short and amusing) text explains, using the latest in behavioural research, where trends come from - how they get started, how they continue, and how they fade away. Thaler and Cialdini are (generally speaking) more focused on the process of persuading individuals. I'll Have What She's Having is on larger scale; modelling group behaviour. Like the other books on this list, it is an educational but accessible read. (I find there's something inherently untrustworthy about books about communications that aren't engaging to read.) (Here's what she's having.)
Some online resources that I recommend as well:
Mind, Society and Behaviour (World Bank) - a massive tome from the World Bank about using behavioural science to make the world a nicer place. Plus, terrific, visual explanations of a lot of the common vocabulary, plus case studies a-plenty.
EAST: Four simple ways to apply behavioural insight (BIT) - the Behavioural Insights Team - the fabled "nudge unit" - is damn good at what it does. EAST is a framework developed to help people create effective work (marketing, policy, whatever). It also makes for a handy guide for marketing - what are you asking consumers to do? And how can you encourage them to do it?
"Wired for Imprudence" (RSA) - The RSA puts out rather amazing work. This is a bit like the World Bank paper above, but focused solely on behaviour change in the financial sector. Why are people so rubbish at their personal finances? What are the barriers, and how can they be addressed? Great case studies and a really clear introduction to cognitive biases, and how to overcome them. There's also another report that does much the same, but for health.
"The Culture of American Families" (University of Virginia) - This is really cool. A long-term study in how families engage with one another, how values are passed between generations, and how families behave as a unit. Riveting, and an endlessly quotable reference for anyone doing marketing to parents or families. I'd love two things: a British equivalent, and a 2016 update that focuses the rising impact of social media and mobile phones. Also, a pony.
"Adults' media use and attitudes" (Ofcom) - At least the UK gets this. The Government - especially the regulatory Of-whatnots - does a ton of research, and thanks to the beauty that is GOV.UK, it is all incredibly accessible. Which is why I'm always baffled when people settle for inferior stuff. This is one example - a vast, regular survey that pokes and prods into how people use media (including social media, downloads, you name it).