‘Top-Drawer’ Business Books of 2011

Books are highly subjective – what appeals to some will not appeal to others. Business books specifically tend to resonate best when they address a pressing issue or interest and when they provide inspiration. In previous years, I have contributed lists of the “best” business and marketing books. I have assembled my own and conducted podcasts to share them. Those opportunities were cool but I was never completely comfortable labeling any book “best”.

This year I have opted to call my selections ‘Top-Drawer’. This slightly tongue-in-cheek honor is meant to describe books that are top-of-mind, notable, relevant, well written, practical, thought-provoking, and innovative. Life is too short to drink cheap scotch – equally so there is precious little time to tolerate books that are not ‘Top-Drawer’. Thirteen make the list this year and are in no particular order. Enjoy and I look forward to feedback on the selections.

Best Practices Are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition by Stephen M. Shapiro

The author introduces a great premise … it’s time to innovate the way we innovate. Innovation tends to be episodic but Shapiro emphasizes the need to consistently produce fresh ideas and implement them with passion. He makes suggestions that are great in theory (a little harder in application but valuable) like hire people you don’t like, define challenges you want your employees to overcome, and create an environment that tolerates experimentation and failure. The bottom-line…reward success and failure equally, punish inactivity.

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A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

A confession: I love history so may have been unduly influenced with this choice. Yet, it holds amazing business lessons specifically how the best innovations served real needs. From the Olduvai Handaxe to the Early Writing Tablet to Korean Roof Tile to the Ming Banknote right up to the modern Credit Card, these incredible stories from our history offer practical instruction. Let me put this way – wouldn’t you like to know the answers to the following to amaze and amuse your colleagues … When were cows domesticated and why do we feed their milk to our children? Where were the first cities and what made them succeed? Who invented math-or came up with money? All kidding aside, the book reveals “who we are by looking at what we have made”.


Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Commonly accepted research shows that people buy both on rational and emotional considerations. As a marketer, it is a challenge to brand a product solely on rational aspects. People bond with brands and establish commercial relationships like they do with peers and lovers – the most successful of these are described in emotional terms. Noble Prize winner Kahneman describes two systems that are at play simultaneously in our minds. “System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.” This is the must read book for corporate and brand strategists. Underlying the author’s work is how certain constructs in our society bias us even before we cognitively balance the two systems.

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In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Stephen Levy

Google and Apple have captured the imagination of the masses. Ironically, often when a company is heralded for its incredible practices it can be precursor to its downfall (think of “In Search of Excellence” and “Good to Great”). I also wonder how much is propaganda. Having visited Google in Palo Alto and their substantial New York City location, I would say they enjoy “an atmosphere of the possible”. However, it’s unbelievable growth will challenge it’s ability to protect and nurture what made it great in the first place: innovation mind-set, speed, openness, experimentation, and risk taking. Author Levy keeps a nice balance and is not entirely sucked into all things Google. From my perspective, the moment Google changes its policy on giving employees one day a week to work on anything they want will be the first step in a path to irrelevance.

Pantone: The 20th Century in Color by Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker

This is a very creative entry and it will appeal far beyond the design community. Longtime Pantone collaborators and color gurus Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker present over 200 touchstone works of art, products, and fashion, matching them with 80 different official PANTONE color palettes. The authors’ commentary on design and business trends along with the associated history of hues is thoroughly entertaining. It is very much a social history with significant design and business implications.

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Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy by Martin Lindstrom

I have been in marketing and advertising for over twenty years and am still fascinated by human behavior. The rational and irrational decisions we make in the commercial world do not get enough attention. While the “big idea” still resonates in brand communications, more and more, consumers are growing in sophistication and gaining increased control in their brand relationships. I appreciate Lindstrom’s controversial packaging of this book but branding is a democracy – people vote with their purchases. There is no mysterious cabal pulling levers of persuasion. The most successful marketers treat their consumers with respect and allow them to help shape the brand. Brandwashed is valuable for certain statistics and entertaining anecdotes but the fact that Morgan Spurlock writes the Foreword is telling.


The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries

The economy is a train wreck and priorities in our society questionable. One way to help turn the economy around and be responsible is to innovate. Starting a business is an uncertain outing and this is where Ries’ book nails it. Entrepreneurs have always possessed a higher risk tolerance than most and we need these folks more than ever to drive employment. However, anyone in business can benefit from thinking like a startup by innovating within their own jobs and given it is a mindset it can also be applied to non-profits, NGOs, public sector, and volunteer organizations. Ries advocates not getting bogged down in excessive planning instead focusing on adjusting as one goes – ‘action now’ is its rallying cry.

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Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul by Howard Schultz and Joanne Gordon

I know you are probably groaning but I choose this not for the oft told tale of the coffee purveyor’s success but for a glimpse into Howard Schultz himself. I was impressed with his full-page pleas in major publications this year calling for business leaders to influence government response to the economy. I have twice had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Schultz speak and appreciate his candor and consistency. If you pick this one up read it not only for how he put the company back on track but to also envision what he may do for innovation, the economy, and public policy in the coming years.

High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky by Joshua David and Robert Hammond

This is a story of reinvention and reclamation told by the two New Yorkers who had the idea to transform a derelict elevated railway into something all could enjoy. Their tenaciousness and dedication are inspirational and admirable. It is even more amazing given they had no experience in urban planning. The process they employed involving the various stakeholders provides numerous lessons for all us striving to advance projects and start businesses. High Line is incredibly illustrated but cannot replace the actual experience of walking this creatively transformed West Side asset.

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Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty by Andrew Bolton

Admittedly, this selection seems incompatible with the others but it is incredibly relevant. Alexander McQueen’s incredible influence can be attributed to smashing convention and challenging people to rethink the status quo. He took fashion out of its own realm by expressing ideas through his design. His work confronted race, class, sexuality, religion, and the environment. The book coincided with the wildly successful exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (my daughter and I tried getting in to no avail given the crowds). McQueen was a technical innovator who knew how to employ theater and extravagance to deliver incredible runway presentations that showed his works of art in the superb creative context.

Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters by Richard Rumelt

I experienced countless all-nighters in the nineties working on strategic plans when in management consulting … and I loved it. On one hand they were silly things because their assumptions were too broad and the planning horizon too long. On the other hand, they were robust and valuable exercises for the clients who committed to their development, sharing, and execution. Rumelt accurately points out that there is a “growing and unfortunate tendency to equate Mom-and-apple-pie values, fluffy packages of buzzwords, motivational slogans, and financial goals with “strategy”.” These are bad strategies while a good strategy identifies any and all obstacles to progress while leveraging the author’s “nine sources of power”. He recommends going past the superficial and relying on insights into human nature to construct the most successful strategies.

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We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World by Simon Mainwaring

If this book had come out in 2010, it would have been lost among the dozens of others that focused on Social Media. The difference is Mainwaring has benefited from one more year of actual experience in this young field and he is very credible as a former Nike creative at Wieden & Kennedy and worldwide creative director for Motorola at Ogilvy. He founded We First, a social branding consultancy so one cannot deny that this book is also a 256 brochure for his business. Once you have accepted this, read it for the practical case studies from P&G, Walmart, Starbucks, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Toyota, Nike, Whole Foods, Patagonia, and Nestlé.

Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present by Jeff Madrick

The author tells a compelling story of what led American to its current economic woes and calls out those responsible. The free market and self-interest have guided a boom for the few and a bust for the many. But do not worry – this is not an “Occupy” book even though it emphasizes economic inequity. For me, the larger lesson is how dramatic economic instability may be our new norm for years to come (the contradictory economic news I see in a twenty-four period supports this). So do not look for comfort in these pages but look for some lessons we cannot repeat.

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Congratulations to these authors for putting out ‘Top-Drawer’ books this year. And to all authors who put incredible effort into writing and bringing their books to market.

Jeff Swystun DDB Worldwide Chief Communications Officer

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