5 Books to Inspire Better Advertising and Creativity

I know what you’re thinking, who has time to read a book? If you ever do find yourself with a little time and a desire to expand your creative thinking and advertising know-how, here are five books that are definitely worth your time. The titles below offer a different look at advertising and creativity—spanning from the basics of ad creation to thoughts on the consumer’s psyche, all the way to abstract interviews on branding in general.

Some are available as an audiobook for you multi-taskers. And if you only ever have time to read one chapter from each—I gave you that, too. You have no excuses now.

1 ) Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Ads by Luke Sullivan

If you only read one book on advertising and creativity in your whole life—read this one.

Reading Hey Whipple is like sitting down with your favorite teacher or mentor. Between the stories of personal experiences, there are moments of bitingly honest advice. He pulls no punches, covers almost every topic imaginable and makes a joke about every five sentences—but not in the annoying uncle way, rather in a way that keeps the advice fresh and relatable. I recommend his most updated version, the fifth edition, which includes advice on digital platforms as an addendum to his original book.

If you only have time for one chapter, read Chapter 9: Pecked to Death by Ducks.
If you couldn’t guess from the title, it’s about receiving client feedback and learning when to listen, when to push back and that sometimes even the best ideas will be killed.

Notable quote:
“You’ll never have to do any heavy lifting. Never have dirt under your fingernails or an aching back when you come home from work. You’re lucky to be talented. Lucky to get into the business. Stay humble.”

Amazon | No Audiobook, but here’s a great interview with the author from NPR

2 ) Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy

Now, if you really want your office or desk to look like you’re an industry vet, you have to have a copy of Ogilvy on Advertising somewhere around you. Its stark white and black cover complement most design schemes, and it’s short enough to breeze through should you need to provide an insightful quote. But you should also, like, actually read it sometime.

Unlike Sullivan’s, Ogilvy’s advice doesn’t come across like wise words from a friendly mentor—rather more like the creative director who displays their awards in a glass case for all to see. He was and is a legend and he knew it. Nevertheless, his advice on how to create thoughtful advertising with impactful creative is sound and proven, which is why you can Google “books on advertising” and always see his at the top of the list.

The most notable feature of Ogilvy’s advice is its timelessness. It’s simple and to the point, applying to current trends and mediums in spite of its 1983 copyright. You can find a version updated for the digital age, but I highly suggest and quite prefer the original’s charm and old-man grit.

If you only have time for one chapter, read Chapter 2: How to Produce Advertising that Sells.
Pretty self explanatory, but incredibly useful information for the beginner and even the experienced.

Favorite quote:
“I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information. 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.”

Amazon | Again, no audiobook—but here’s a great interview with him and David Letterman

3 ) The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Although not traditionally considered an advertising book, The Power of Habit references advertising frequently. The book is focused on the human condition of why we form habits and how we can change them. As creatives and ad professionals, we can learn a specific lesson from this book: People change only when they want to or when they are given a compelling enough reason to. It’s not enough for us to stand on the advertising stage with a product and pretty pictures hoping people will buy it—there has to be more method behind our madness.

If you only have time for one chapter, read Chapter 2: A Craving Brain.
Not only does it tell the story of how advertising got us to brush our teeth, but it also details the shaky beginnings of Febreeze and how it eventually altered the landscape of air fresheners with the term “nose-blind.” It’s pure marketing genius and a great reminder that even products that are household names today had to start somewhere.

Favorite quote:
“The best agencies understood the importance of routines. The worst agencies were headed by people who never thought about it, and then wondered why no one followed their orders.”

Amazon | Audiobook

4 ) Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek

Another book that’s not really about advertising but is also a book all about advertising. Plus, everyone seems to love talking about Simon Sinek, so it’s very on trend. Start With Why is a deep dive into why some companies are doomed to repeat their failures or simply doomed in general—they don’t start with a solid ground of why they are doing what they are doing.

With numerous case studies, I think the book actually reads better from the point of view of advertising rather than its intended look at leadership. It can help us in the field realize why some clients will always be easier and, frankly, more fun to work with and why with others, we will constantly hit a wall of sameness. It serves as a great reminder that we, too, have to start with “why” whenever we sit down to come up with a campaign.

If you only have time for one chapter, read Chapter 2: Carrots and Sticks.
This chapter dives in deep with some strong criticism on businesses who operate without knowing the real “why” behind their operations, while offering the foundations of how humans and consumers are actually influenced by the “why.”

Favorite quote:
“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.”

Amazon | Audiobook

5 ) Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits by Debbie Millman

And we’re back to a more traditional ad book, but with an nontraditional execution. Brand Thinking is less of a book you sit down and read in one sitting and more like a book you can pick up, pick through and put down. It contains a series of interviews from various authors, thinkers and marketers and asks them their thoughts on branding and advertising in today’s world. Basically, it’s a podcast in written form. I like how it lays out the multitude of ways people think. Whether they are creative or analytical, it’s eye-opening (or mind-opening) to see how others look at branding and attempt to solve the biggest issues in marketing.

If you only have time for one chapter, read David Butler.
Butler is a vet of one of the most recognizable brands in the world, Coca Cola, but he keeps his interview honest and real. Being in charge of such an iconic branded product carries its own set of burdens and challenges that anyone can learn from.

Favorite quote:
“In Darwinian terms, we’re suckers for stories. Stories are the way that humans have always communicated. The Quaker Oats box is not only visually attractive, but it’s a story.” – Tom Peters (from another great chapter worth your time)

Amazon | Audiobook

Other books worth a read or a skim:

  • If you like Disney history with a side of leadership introspection and the creative process: Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (Amazon | Audiobook)
  • If you haven’t heard enough from old white dudes who are good at advertising: Hegarty on Advertising (Amazon | No Audiobook, but here’s an excellent presentation from him)
  • If you have heard way too much from old white dudes and want to be Peggy Olson when you grow up: Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the ’60s and Beyond (Amazon | Audiobook)
  • If you want to get into deep, meaningful discussions about the role of advertising in society to annoy your friends, partners and co-workers: AdCult USA (Amazon)
  • If you want to be impressive at holiday dinners with family members who think you “doodle” or “use the Facebook” for a living and make no effort to actually understand what you do: Literally anything written by Malcolm Gladwell