It turns out that there's a trilogy of “Wizard of Ads” books, and I ended up getting all three and reading them in sequence. I was toying with “batching” them and doing one review covering all three, but I figured that wouldn't be fair to either the books or you readers, so a lot of the “over-all” stuff is going to be dispensed with here, and the following two reviews will simply assume you've read this one. The first thing you'll notice about these three books is that they're not your standard business books, being designed to “look and feel” like well-worn leather bound volumes, sporting deckled edges, cream paper, and design elements both drawn from medieval “hand-illuminated” texts and, well, frankly, scrapbooks.
The first of these, 1998's The Wizard of Ads: Turning Words into Magic and Dreamers into Millionaires starts with a somewhat edgy assertion – the “9 Secret Words”: The risk of insult is the price of clarity.” which is pretty gutsy for most marketers … and he follows that with:
While the book is sub-divided into fairly “business book”-like sections: “Turning Words into Magic”, “Turning Strangers into Customers”, and “Turning Dreams into Realities”, things proceed in a rather unique manner. There are 100 “chapters” here, running just 1-3 pages, and most embellished by some graphic – from a charred twenty dollar bill, to vintage ads, to framed quotes … needless to say, this is not a “dense” reading experience, but a series of “business parables” which illustrate particular points. These aren't all just “stories”, as a number of them veer off into brain science, like:If in your advertising you are willing to speak the simple, essential truth as plainly as you are able, and if you are willing to support what you say with illustration and example, meet me in the backyard … we'll take over the world.
An example he gives is an exercise where you do a series of math problems, all of which end up as 14, and then you're asked to name a vegetable … odds are you'll say “carrot” because the repeated impressions of the term “14-karat” for gold have anchored that combination in your brain (Williams also notes here that audio input is stronger than visual).Planting a reticular activator in the mind of a customer is the Mount Everest of ad writers. The reticular activator is a mental trigger in your unconscious that directs your attention and causes you to notice and remember things you never intentionally committed to memory.
One thing he does (across all three books) is start off stories like he's talking about some guy down the block who's doing this or that, like “his friend” Al who said “we do things, but we do not know why we do them” which Williams projects to people not being able to be “fully trusted” when they tell you what they want … the person looking for car wax doesn't really want the wax, they want a shiny car, the business owner who asks for advertising, really is looking for more customers, etc. Eventually he gets around to noting that his buddy “Al” is more famous for saying E=MC² … and you find out that he's talking about an observation by Albert Einstein (who he doesn't know). There are many bits like this where the story plays out and has the “punchline” of having the tale being about a familiarly famous person.
There are lots and lots of little bits of what is no doubt hard-earned wisdom in here, like how certain locations can boost business far more than others (one that was 33% more expensive than a client's old space ended up bringing in as much business in 3 months as the old one saw in 12), and almost nagging on some points. One phrase that he highly recommends is “which means ...”, because all marketers are way too close to their products and tend to assume that there are “self evident” aspects that anybody would know about them … and typically they don't … so when you say something even vaguely technical about your product or industry, it's wise to follow up with a plain-talk re-framing about what that means. There are also “old saws” thrown in, like “ The man who sells to the classes / will live with the masses. / Sell to the masses / and you'll live with the classes.”, with the further note that “people who make a living by serving the rich are called butlers”!
Aside from the “punch line” stories, there are some other straight-forward historical pieces here, like the one about how Sears got started with a mis-directed shipment of pocket watches … the addressee hadn't ordered them, but rather than send the case back, railway agent Sears bought them himself and started what was to become a huge retail empire. In the words of Johnny Carson: “I did not know that!” despite having lived in Sears' hometown for most of my life.
I'm skipping over a lot of the specific “philosophy” here, not so much as to leave you itching to get to the details, as that a lot of this is presented in ways that don't conveniently translate to bullet lists … things like “The Seven Laws of the Advertising Universe”, which is brilliant, but not easily distilled to something scaled to this review. However, The Wizard of Ads is a very enjoyable and informative read, and I'd guess that nearly anybody would find something of interest in here, although it is, obviously, targeted to the marketer.
Perhaps a testament to its on-going utility is that it's still in print (even in this fancy design), and at a very reasonable cost via the on-line big boys (I don't know if, after 17 years, this has a lot of penetration into the brick-and-mortar stores). Of course, I ended up getting my copy via the new/used vendors, and you can presently get a “very good” used copy of this for a penny (plus the $3.99 shipping), so you don't have much of an excuse of passing it by.