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Textbook rant

I've spent the last few months looking at marketing textbooks. I'm assuming that they are fairly representative of textbooks in general, and since this is a topic I'm interested in, it seemed like a good area to focus on.

As far as I can tell, assigning a textbook to your college class is academic malpractice.

They are expensive. $50 is the low end, $200 is more typical. A textbook author in Toronto made enough money from his calculus textbook to afford a $20 million house. This is absurd on its face. There's no serious insight or leap in pedagogy involved in writing a standard textbook. That's what makes it standard. It's hard, but it shouldn't make you a millionaire.

They don't make change. Textbooks have very little narrative. They don't take you from a place of ignorance to a place of insight. Instead, even the best marketing textbooks surround you with a fairly non-connected series of vocabulary words, oversimplified problems and random examples.

They're out of date and don't match the course. The 2009-2010 edition of the MKTG textbook, which is the hippest I could find, has no entries in the index for Google, Twitter, or even Permission Marketing.

They don't sell the topic.
Textbooks today are a lot more colorful and breezy than they used to be, but they are far from engaging or inspirational. No one puts down a textbook and says, "yes, this is what I want to do!"

They are incredibly impractical. Not just in terms of the lessons taught, but in terms of being a reference book for years down the road.

In a world of wikipedia, where every definition is a click away, it's foolish to give me definitions to memorize. Where is the context? When I want to teach someone marketing (and I do, all the time) I never present the information in the way a textbook does. I've never seen a single blog post that says, "wait until I explain what I learned from a textbook!"

The solution seems simple to me. Professors should be spending their time devising pages or chapterettes or even entire chapters on topics that matter to them, then publishing them for free online. (it's part of their job, remember?)  When you have a class to teach, assemble 100 of the best pieces, put them in a pdf or on a kindle or a website (or even in a looseleaf notebook) and there, you're done. You just saved your intro marketing class about $15,000. Every semester. Any professor of intro marketing who is assigning a basic old-school textbook is guilty of theft or laziness.

This industry deserves to die. It has extracted too much time and too much money and wasted too much potential. We can do better. A lot better.

[Update: got more mail about this post than any other post ever. People pointed to Flatworld and to Quirk, and so far, more than 94% of the letters aggressively agree with me. Most of the people are either students, parents of students, former students or other disgruntled customers that are tired of being ripped off by a senseless, broken system. I also heard from a handful of people who said that I was jealous, that the union won't permit the system to change, that textbooks are really good, that professors are underpaid, that professors are too busy or (possibly and) that I'm delusional. I'll note that not one of these letters came from a textbook user.]

Ruby slippers

If you could make one thing come true that would change everything for your project, do you know what the one thing would be?

One breakthrough client, one technical advance, one testimonial? One achievable change in the world?

For Google, the one thing was a big thing, "we need to be the place people come to search." But for many sites, many companies, there isn't a thing. They can't articulate it. They have no wish. If you have no wish, how can it possibly come true?

How big is your farm?

If you own a lot of acres but just have a few bags of seed, you might be tempted to spread out what you've got and cover as much territory as you can. Farmers tell me that this is wasteful and time consuming. You end up with less yield and more work.

Marketers face the same dilemma.

The number of media channels available to you keeps growing. The number of places you can spend time and money is almost endless. Yet your budget isn't. Your time certainly isn't.

Some people would have you spend a little time on each social network, run ads in ten or fifteen media, focus on one hundred major markets and spend time on PR and publicity in every publication willing to listen to you.

Or you could pick one channel and win.

What are the chances that people are eager to join the tribe of the fiftieth most popular brand in a given market? Or that they will pay attention to someone who shows up now and then but is in a huge hurry to get to the next place?

Yield is what matters, and yield comes from getting through the Dip. You punch through the clutter when you allocate more resources and more dedication than everyone else (in that market). Ignore the other markets and the other channels. They're dead to you anyway.

Should Hugh swear so much?

Hugh MacLeod's new book on creativity is out today.

It's brilliant, and if you're willing to be pushed, it will push you.

Some people avoid Hugh's work because he's unafraid (even eager) to write about sex and to use language that looks good on Jack Nicholson. I have no problem with this, but a lot of people do, certainly at work.

So, the question: Should Hugh leave it out?

One school of thought says that if he wants to sell boatloads of books to frightened corporations, then yes, of course, he should and he must.

The other says, wait, you only get to write a classic book like this once in your life, how dare you make it less than you think it needs to be just to sell a few hundred thousand more copies.

JD Salinger took the latter advice. So did Hugh.

It's not commerce, it's art.

The irony, as most multimillionaire authors will tell you, is that it's art that creates the commerce, not the other way around. Hugh set out to write a book that matters, not a book that will please everyone.

Direct and useful project feedback

I'm not talking about annual reviews (which are stupid). I'm talking about how you work as a client for a project that needs to make something.

It might be an internal team developing a website or it might be an outside designer working on a logo. Regardless of the team's make up, as their client, you walk a fine line. On one hand, you want their best, most creative insight, delivered with passion. On the other, you want the people you represent (your boss, the customers) to be happy with what gets made.

Which leads to the feedback part. (Not criticism, feedback).

What do you do when the work that comes in is no good? When it's off target or needs tweaking or even an overhaul?

In my experience, there are three different ways to structure the project. Each leads to a very different feedback loop.

1. The goal of the team is to please you.

2. The goal of the team is to make a product that they love and are proud of building.

3. The goal of the team is to build a great product.

There's more difference between #2 and #3 than it appears.

The first scenario is quite common. It leads to mindreader syndrome, in which alert team members work hard to get you to tell them what you want. If they can read your mind, they'll be successful (and done) that much sooner. The real problem with this approach is that the team has rarely bought in to the project. They don't take ownership because, after all, the goal is to make you happy. They won't give you more than you expect, because they're trying so hard to give you exactly what you expect. This is especially problematic when the team thinks you're an erratic, egomaniacal nutcase with little or no real world chops.

The second scenario is common with well-known freelance help, or agencies or other creatives that bring ego to the table. In this situation, anything you say about the project appears to be a personal attack. That's because, in the eyes of the person that came to you saying, "here is our work," it is a personal attack. If you don't like my logo or strategy or code, well, of course I'm going to be defensive.

You can work with people like this successfully, but to do so involves giving them a clean sheet of paper, not being part of the development process.

The third scenario is the one in which all sides want the best possible project and the team believes that you have valuable insight on how to make that happen. This only works if there's mutual respect around the table. They have to hold you in esteem and trust your judgment (not organizational judgment, but judgment about what makes the project great). That means that, "because I said so," is not effective feedback.

I've seen all three work. The first scenario is really efficient if you are truly in charge, you know what you want and you don't have a lot of time. The second scenario works if you absolutely trust the team and want them to push the envelope. And the third scenario works when you have mature people, a dedicated team and enough time and mutual respect to work it through.

How do you develop the trust and esteem you need in the third example? Sit with the team and jointly criticize other work. Before you start developing, spend time giviing feedback on how someone else could have done a better job (on a design, on the foley in a movie, on a logo). By earning the right to give feedback externally, you make it more likely you've got the right to do it internally.

Guy #3

Paul just sent over this video of a dance tribe forming spontaneously at a music festival.

My favorite part happens just before the first minute mark. That's when guy #3 joins the group. Before him, it was just a crazy dancing guy and then maybe one other crazy guy. But it's guy #3 who made it a movement.

Initiators are rare indeed, but it's scary to be the leader. Guy #3 is rare too, but it's a lot less scary and just as important. Guy #49 is irrelevant. No bravery points for being part of the mob.

We need more guy #3s.


I got some fascinating responses to yesterday's post.

A few were from entitled college grads. They basically asked, "With all this debt, how can I possibly do what you asked? Sure, some people might be able to do this, but I have no choice but to take a menial job, look for work and then party at night so I can have some friends."

More, though, were from people who said, "Yes! I can do this. I'll sleep on a friend's floor and eat beans and rice every night if I have to, but this is as much a part of my education as taking English 101 was." I heard from three recruiters who violently agreed with this plan–who else would you hire?

Marketers have it tough today, just like job seekers, job holders, laid off people and people worrying about being laid off. It's not easy, very few people are getting what they deserve. You can't just run an ad or send in a resume and succeed.

Which is great news if your goal is getting through the Dip. It's great news because if you're a little tougher than people who are ready to give up, or you are a little more creative than people who are stuck, you'll break through.

I built my first internet company before and then during the dot com boom. It was far easier to do great work before everything heated up, far easier to stand out and far easier to make a difference. This is your moment, but I'm afraid it won't be easy.

Graduate school for unemployed college students

Fewer college grads have jobs than at any other time in recent memory—a report by the National Association
of Colleges and Employers annual student survey said that 20 percent of
2009 college graduates who applied for a job actually have one.  So, what should the unfortunate 80% do?

How about a post-graduate year doing some combination of the following (not just one, how about all):

  • Spend twenty hours a week running a project for a non-profit.
  • Teach yourself Java, HTML, Flash, PHP and SQL. Not a little, but mastery. [Clarification: I know you can't become a master programmer of all these in a year. I used the word mastery to distinguish it from 'familiarity' which is what you get from one of those Dummies type books. I would hope you could write code that solves problems, works and is reasonably clear, not that you can program well enough to work for Joel Spolsky. Sorry if I ruffled feathers.]
  • Volunteer to coach or assistant coach a kids sports team.
  • Start, run and grow an online community.
  • Give a speech a week to local organizations.
  • Write a regular newsletter or blog about an industry you care about.
  • Learn a foreign language fluently.
  • Write three detailed business plans for projects in the industry you care about.
  • Self-publish a book.
  • Run a marathon.

Beats law school.

If you wake up every morning at 6, give up TV and treat this list like a job, you'll have no trouble accomplishing everything on it. Everything! When you do, what happens to your job prospects?

“Why am I here?”

This is a simple mantra that is going to change the way you attend every meeting and every conference for the rest of your life.

You probably don't have to be there. No gun held to your head, after all. So, why are you spending the time?

Do you have an agenda? It might be to change the agenda, or meet someone who will become a client or to learn something that will help you at work tomorrow.

Well, if that's why you're here, tell me again why you're just sitting there? If the only reason you came was to avoid the office, you need a new office. Quick, before the boss decides that for you.

Surely you have a question you can ask the speaker. Surely you have something interesting to say to the person sitting next to you. Surely you can do more than just sheepishly hand someone a business card they have no reason to save or remember or use.

If there isn't a good reason, go home. If there is, then do something. Loud, now and memorable. Productive too, please.


When you start a business, a brand or a project, there's a lot of work to be done. You must tell a story, build credibility and a permission asset. People don't trust you or believe you and you must earn their attention and trust. On top of that, you need skills, systems, machines and a team that works.

Quite an investment.

The goal is to reach the point where there's some harvesting going on. The first sales might cost you a hundred or thousand dollars each to make. At some point, though, you want sales to happen for free, people to show up with money. At some point, you want word of mouth to replace promotion and to earn back the money you invested up front.

That's why it's astonishing to me that people develop projects where harvesting is difficult or impossible. Here are some of the elements of a market where you are likely to reach the point where you can harvest the benefits of your investment:

  • Word spreads. You want a market where stories of your success and reputation will reach other prospects.
  • Needs are similar. You want a market where the skills you developed to help one person can also be used to help another person.
  • Budgets exist. You want a market where there is more than one player with money to spend (on you) to solve a problem.
  • Barriers exist. The market should reward insiders (like you) but make it really difficult for copycats to come in and steal share and lower prices.
  • Price should rise with value delivered. As your work spreads and your reputation increases, you should be able to charge more, not less.

I think 90% of all markets don't meet these standards, and given the choice, I'd avoid them.