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The Greatest Marketers of All Time & Why Their Advice Still Applies

Greatest Marketers of all time

6 min read

In any field, the ones who thrive are those who stand on the shoulders of giants.

As marketers, we have a powerful heritage to draw on. Yes, digital marketing is relatively new, and inbound marketing even more so. But everything we do draws on the history of marketing stretching back hundreds – yes, even thousands – of years.

Lots of marketers think back to the first catalogs and the brilliant direct response copywriters of yore as some of their heroes. That said, marketers can look far afield for inspiration: From top executives to brilliant artists, all have had a marketing streak.

Let’s take a walk with some of the greatest marketing minds of all time – and figure out lessons you can start putting into practice right now.

1. P.T. Barnum

When it comes to colorful characters, P.T. Barnum stands head and shoulders above the rest.

While he was undoubtedly a marketing genius, there’s something important to bear in mind: He never, ever said anything like, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Yes, Barnum’s most famous quote actually comes from his detractors.

Instead, the figure who founded the modern circus should be remembered for deeply understanding his audience and aligning his work with their desires – even those that they would not admit to themselves.

His salacious shows, bold promises, and unforgettable stage persona tapped into an unmet need of his time. He never withered under the weight of his critics and continuously built and rebuilt his business based on his evolving understanding of others.

Plus, he integrated his own interests into his business plans, making them even more resilient. Most people don’t realize he was instrumental in developing the first modern aquarium.

2. Tim Ferriss

To swing forward more than a century, we have Tim Ferriss: author of the legendary The 4-Hour Workweek. Since releasing this seminal work in 2009, Tim has built an empire around some simple concepts: Automation and outsourcing.

These ideas are no secret in marketing, or even in the business world in general. One of the most impressive things Tim brought to the table was the ability to make a big promise and stick with it. Nothing else quite encapsulates “the dream” like the title of his flagship book.

Since then, Tim has built on the core promise of his brand, all without repeating himself.

Call it a “reimagining,” but not a reinvention; if you go looking for Tim Ferriss works today, you’ll find such sequels as The 4-Hour Body. As an author, a speaker and a brand ambassador, Tim has succeeded in infusing all kinds of endeavors with the power of the Big Promise.

3. Henry Ford

It’s no secret Ford was involved in some – okay, a lot – of shady business.

But, when you think of the talented people who modernized marketing for a new era, you can’t leave him off the list. His automotive revolution was also a marketing revolution.

For one thing, Ford was interested in achieving buy-in throughout his whole organization.

He wanted to be sure everyone who worked in his auto plants could aspire – realistically! – to own a Ford Model T. That means every one of them had the potential to be enthusiastic brand advocates ... not just for the quality of the car, but for Ford as an employer.

In a challenging and transformative time, Ford was able to stay focused and craft an industrial empire unlike any other. Part of this product-market fit came from having the vision to eschew the “bells and whistles” we would consider essential to many consumer products today.

After all, it was Ford who said, “you can have a Model T in any color, as long as it’s black.” With his ideas about the automobile as a symbol of personal freedom, he pioneered lifestyle marketing.

4. Steve Jobs

Since his untimely death in 2011, reams of pages have been published about Steve Jobs both online and off. If we could distill his story into one theme, it would be innovation.

Jobs never followed trends – he started them.

That got his career off to a rough beginning, with Apple struggling for many early years. Still, Jobs was adamant about his core philosophy: “You can’t ask customers what they want,” he said, “and then try to give it to them.”

Instead, Jobs was intent on looking ahead and defining what customers would want.

He believed that innovation was “what distinguished between a leader and a follower.” He instilled that in the way he integrated design throughout his brand and all of his products.

One of the biggest challenges Apple faces today is continuing that heritage of innovation – which launched products like the iPhone and iPod into the public consciousness and cultivated its brand to $300 billion in value (#2 worldwide).

5. Walt Disney

Many things could be said about the creativity, passion, and determination of Walt Disney, a man who was able to see possibilities where others saw only swampland. Disney transformed Central Florida – miserably hot, humid, and tough to traverse at the time – into a wonderland.

When building Walt Disney World, Walt encouraged all his personnel to use and enjoy the rides.Their suggestions improved the experience in ways he could not have conceived of himself.

Famously, staff input resulted in the addition of fireflies on The Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Even before the famous movie franchise, it became one of the most popular Disney attractions of all time.

6. David Ogilvy

A post for digital marketers wouldn’t be complete without David Oglivy.

Many experts regard him as the father of modern advertising. One of the field’s most impactful thinkers, he was also ruthlessly (and ceaselessly) pragmatic; he insisted upon clarity in brand communications and respected his audience’s time and intelligence.

In an industry that was overstuffed with jargon at the time, it was Ogilvy who enjoined others to remember the customer isn’t stupid – in his words, “she is your wife.” That seed of a single thought continues to influence inbound marketing today.

7. Dale Carnegie

The first modern self-help writer in the business realm, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is full of gems, but we’d just like to take a second to focus on this one: “Take a genuine interest in other people.” Sound familiar, inbound marketers?

8. Eugene M. Schwartz

Author of Breakthrough Advertising, Eugene M. Schwartz was one of the leading direct response copywriters of all time. Many of his axioms have become commonplace in the world of digital marketing, especially among those interested in landing pages and conversion optimization.

Schwartz is known for spending up to a week on a headline alone, presaging today’s rapid-fire headline split tests. “When you have written the headline,” he said, “you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar,” since 80% of readers check the headline – but only 20% read the copy.

To succeed in marketing, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Take inspiration from these eight titans and let their successes guide you to go further. Before you know it, your own voice and strategy as a marketer will be sharper than ever – and someday, you’ll join this list.

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Published on August 7, 2018


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