Marketing inspiration – read like a polymath

Blue Neon sign saying "Do Something Great" on a black background

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Summary : We take marketing inspiration from reading about other topics. So, in this article we some learning from psychology and behavioural science. Then, look at how to improve your writing skills. And, we finish with what you can learn from the culture behind the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. We call this polymath reading. 

One of the challenges when you call your business Three-brains, is people expect you to be smart and clever ALL the time. And if there’s something you don’t know, then you open yourself up to “well, your three-brains didn’t think of that, did they?”.

Which, you know is (coughs) always funny.

The same thing applies to any weird or unusual job title out there. You open yourself up to piss-taking, if you can’t live up to what your title says. 

So, never, ever call yourself a Knowledge Manager, for example. Strategy Manager, or Strategist as we’ve covered in a previous article is not a great one either. Because, really everyone should be thinking strategy. 

And if your need for power and status mean you feel the need to call yourself “Chief …” something, do be aware that 90% of normal people will think you are a bit of an ego-centric dickhead. Which if you feel the need to spend what is essentially public money on Cartier watches is probably correct. Though maybe, Daniel Ricciardo, Chief Optimism Officer at OPTUS can just about get away with it.

Just about. 

But anyway, back to Three-brains, and one of the ways we work at being smart and clever is to read widely. We read books on all types of topics. Because the more you know, the more you grow, right? 

So, we take the approach of the polymath and take opportunities to learn different and divergent ways of thinking. And this week, we want to share lessons from books we’ve read recently. They’ve given us some marketing inspiration, and we hope this article does the same for you. 

Alchemy - Rory Sutherland

First up, we’ve got Alchemy by Rory Sutherland. Now, remember, this isn’t a formal book review as such, though we do sometimes do those. Because, while this is an interesting book, it’s not without its issues. 

But where it’s good, it is VERY good, and that’s really what we wanted to talk about. 

To set the scene, he’s a well-known advertising guru, being Vice Chairman of the advertising agency, Ogilvy. And if we remember rightly, he set up and lead the behavioural science arm of that business. 

Woman standing in a poorly lit street at night. She is blowing into her hands which holds a light and some sort of illuminated confetti

We first came across him in this well-known Ted talk, where he tells a great anecdote about customers stealing the salt and pepper pots on Virgin Airlines. And Virgin making this a positive thing. It’s worth a watch of the video, because the book is full of similar anecdotes and unexpected and unusual bits of knowledge. 

And once you know who he is, you realise he spends a considerable amount of time speaking at these types of events. We’ve seen him pop up on multiple adverts for marketing events in the last few weeks. 

His basic premise in the book is that the business world is set up to be logical and analytical. In big business, nothing gets approved without lots of complicated market research. Businesses rely on data to drive decisions. Big business decide everything by committees. And logic is what drives most decisions in business. (though there are other influences, especially in marketing decision-making).

And as an advertising guy, he thinks this is not always the best way to make decisions. Because, real people make illogical decisions all the time. 

So, there’s a disconnect between how businesses make decisions, and how people make decisions. 

Non sense and psycho logical

Our brains are complex machines that need energy to function. And the part of the brain (the neo-cortex) which drives logic uses up the most energy. So, to be efficient we make many decisions with other less logical parts of our brains. 

This means we often make decisions that actually don’t make a lot of sense. 

And it gets even more complex when you factor in our interactions with other people. Because in the field of human interaction (which is where advertising sits), there are many things which make sense. But don’t actually work. And many things which don’t make sense, but do work. 

Like with our TV buying example last week. In our review of high ticket items to buy online, we looked at two different televisions, one from Samsung, and one from a brand no-one had ever heard of. The Samsung TV was $3,500 more expensive. For basically the same specification of TV.

But we bet, the Samsung sells more, because of the Samsung name. Logically, that makes no sense. 

Non sense ideas

He calls these sort of ideas non sense ideas (the spacing is deliberate). Ideas that make no logical sense, but actually work. And he calls the thinking behind them psycho logical. (again, deliberate spacing). Because the logic is applied with a psychology filter around it. 

So, for example, he gives the example of one of his clients testing a sales promotion offer where they would give away a cuddly penguin toy, or a cash reward that was much more valuable than the toy. People, overwhelmingly went for the penguin.

He talks about how one hotel business decided to get rid of their doorman and put in an automatic door instead, so it’d save money on his salary.

But, they didn’t recognise that having a friendly helpful face as your first impression of the hotel is a big part of the experience. And, they lost a lot of sales as a result. 

Logic and imagination

Alchemy is packed with all sorts of quirky stories like this from many different fields like science, history and psychology. But the one that really stood out for us, was when he talked about how businesses tend to value logic over imagination. 

He points out that if you put a logical plan together and it doesn’t work, people will just say you were unlucky. But if you put an imaginative plan together, and it doesn’t work, people will say you’re an idiot. 

And you’ll get fired. 

So, no-one wants to take the risk of creating imaginative plans. They focus instead on logical plans. Because, as he puts it nobody ever got fired for being unimaginative. But, you can get fired for being illogical. 

It’s worth thinking about that in terms of the culture you create for creative thinking and marketing innovation in your business. How do you make it OK to use imagination to find those more break-through and “out there” ideas? 

The book’s got loads of tips on how to find and hire people to help you do this. From a marketing inspiration point of view, Alchemy has a lot going for it. 

Writing Tools - Roy Peter Clark

Marketing inspiration comes in many forms. 

Alchemy will make you think, but marketing is also about actions too. And of those key actions is the ability to write well.

In Roy Peter Clark’s book Writing Tools, he goes through 50 short writing lessons that you can apply to all sorts of writing situations.

Given the title, it’s exceptionally well-written. You can learn a lot. For example, we like his straight-forward advice on to use the active voice as your default when you write. 

Person wring at a table - close up of their arm with a coffee mug in front of them

Try to keep most of your sentences to the structure Subject-Verb. You’ll be less likely to go astray. And readers will find it easier to follow along. The active voice sounds more certain and more clear. 

There’s no ambiguity with the active voice. 

Writing blogs

This is particularly helpful advice when you write longer content like blogs. It makes your writing more readable. If you use tools like Yoast SEO, it come with a series of SEO checks which flag when you use the passive voice too often. 

Often, first drafts use a lot of passive voice. Ours, definitely do. 

First drafts are typically when your thoughts on a topic aren’t totally clear. Your mind is still forming ideas, thoughts and specific points as you write.

The passive voice reflects that lack of certainty. It’s very common, but it can make your writing harder to follow. And harder to believe. 

Screengrab of Three-Brains blog page - category selections and search tag options

So, rewriting to eliminate as much of the passive voice as you can (Yoast advise less than 10%) is a great exercise to sharper up your writing. You sound clearer and more confident, and that’s a good thing, right? 


Clark also covers the origins of the Flesch reading score. This was a system developed by Rudolf Flesch in the 1940s which calculates the readability of text, by the numbers of words in sentences, and the number of syllables in words. Shorter sentences and shorter words mean better readability. 

Yoast SEO also checks this score for you, and warns you if you use too many long sentences. Or, too many complicated words. 

We learned from Clark’s book that the average sentence length has becomes shorter and shorter throughout history.

In Elizabethan times, the average sentence length was 45 words. By Victorian times, it had dropped to 29 words. And today, the best practice is to aim for 20 words of less. 

Less time to read

From a marketing point of view, this means consumers have less time to read your content and writing.

The simpler you make it, the more they’ll read it. The more they read it, the more likely they’ll do something about it. Which is clearly the impact you want your writing to have. 

After your first draft, you should go back and look to simplify what you write. Can you take words out and still say the same thing? 

If you have a choice between using a technical word or a simple word, pick the simple one. Simpler words are easier to understand. They are easier to remember. 

And they make a bigger impact. 

(Check out some of our other articles on writing blogs and editing blogs for more tips on writing).

Legacy - James Kerr

And so talking of bigger impacts, let’s make a bit of a leap to our final piece of marketing inspiration. 

And, that’s the New Zealand All Blacks.

They spend most of their professional time making a big impact. Arguably, the world’s most successful sports team, Legacy by James Kerr covers many of the ways that the All Blacks work off the field, that drives their successes on the field. 

Including the humbling destruction of the Australian rugby team in the Bledisloe Cup last weekend.

Nez Zealand rugby team in black strips doing the aka on a rugby field in from of a watching crowd

And where this book works best, is when it uses simple words to talk about powerful concepts. There’s a big focus on culture

So, for example, the book gets it’s title from the amazing sense of pride that players take in being an All-Black. They realise the significance and history of the jersey. Every player who becomes an All Black takes it on themselves to leave the jersey in a better place

That’s a brilliant visual image written in simple language that anyone can understand. And it’s one that any team, business or organisation could look at and take into what they do with their marketing.

What’s the equivalent of the “jersey” in your business? And how do you leave it in a better place?

The value of humility

We also love how this book talks about the value of humility. They have a “no dickheads” rule (which they adapted from the Sydney Swans – we didn’t know that) and make sure that no player becomes bigger than the team.

Even the biggest star name players take their turn to “sweep the sheds” as they call it. To clean up after practices and games. That’s another amazingly powerful way of describing the culture of not getting above yourself. Of understanding your role within the team, and giving your all for the team. 

Both those principles – legacy and humility – can run through the culture of any business. But, we’ll close with another topic they cover which is the adaptability of the team.

In the book, he talks about how it’s not the strongest that survive, but the most intelligent. And the most intelligent are the one who are most responsive to change. They keep looking for feedback. 

Budding marketers can take a lot of marketing inspiration from this thought when they apply it to what they do. Even the All Blacks lose sometimes (just less than everyone else), but they are always looking for new ways to win. 

That’s a legacy you’d want in any business. 

Check out our article on reading business books for more marketing inspiration. Or contact us, if we can help you learn more about any of the topics in this article. 

Photo Credits 

Do Something Great : Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

Alchemy : Woman blowing sprinkles : Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

Writing – Person writing near mug : Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

All Blacks : All Blacks doing Haka : Photo by Stefan Lehner on Unsplash

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