15 of the best marketers of all time
No matter how many tools and tactics come and go with the evolution of technology, certain underlying marketing principles will stand the test of time. These principles are the best practices behind the most successful marketing strategies – from community building to growth hacking – that will always hold true. If you look back at the greatest business and community leaders through history to today, they were the best marketers – some far before “marketing” was ever a thing. But what made them so great?
Below, we travel back in time to explore what about the greats made them so great, and what they have in common with today’s marketing leaders. We hope you walk away with a fresh perspective for your marketing goals and what it takes to connect with your audiences. We do realize that there’s a serious lack of female representation here – and as women, we wish that wasn’t a case. That said, we fully believe that the future marketing greats of tomorrow will be full of women – and we can’t wait!
1) Plato (423 – 348 BC)
There’s a lot we can say about Plato – he’s widely considered the most pivotal figure in the development of western philosophy. He was the founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. He’s also known to be one of the founders of Western religion and spirituality, particularly Christianity. Clearly he was quite the entrepreneur and leader, but what made him a great marketer? He focused on educating his audiences to build movements. He was a teacher first and foremost, building a great following. He influenced the masses through education.
2) Conrad Gessner (1516 – 1565)
Conrad Gessner was well known as a botanist, physician and classical linguist. He’s also known as the “inventor” of word of mouth marketing. He wrote an easy-to-repeat poem about tulips that not only familiarized Europeans with a flower they never heard of, but also spurred “Tulipmania” – where people were paying up to $1 million (in today’s standards) for a single tulip bulb. Goes to show how much messaging matters!
3) P.T. Barnum (1810 – 1891)
Let’s face it, we all love a good hoax, and P.T. Barnum was the king of them. Widely credited for coining the phrase, “there’s a sucker born every minute,” he will always be remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Barnum became known as the “Shakespeare of Advertising” due to his innovative and impressive ideas. Some say that he was a scam artist, others say he simply indulged in the truth and made it more appealing – according to Wikipedia. However you want to look at it, he was a genius marketer and creative businessman.
4) Henry Ford (1863 – 1947)
The founder of Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford was undoubtedly one of the most influential and important marketers to ever live. He was a true innovator – the pioneer of the automobile industry. He was an effective marketer because he sold a lifestyle over a product. He sold freedom to the Americans of his time. As stated on Wikipedia, “Ford converted the automobile from an expensive curiosity into a practical conveyance that would profoundly impact the landscape of the twentieth century.” The lesson he bestowed on all of us (long before Simon Sinek did): focus on the “why” not the “what.”
5) John R. Brinkley (1885 – 1942)
John R. Brinkley is by far the most controversial marketer to make the list. Known as the “goat-gland doctor,” Brinkley fraudulently claimed to be a medical doctor, promoting his procedure – the xenotransplantation of goat testicles into humans – as a cure for male impotence. That’s obviously not what made him a great marketer. But in an effort to hype his cure, he invented broadcast advertising – almost by accident. He built a radio station in 1923 where he combined entertainment (booking some of the great country music acts of his day), bible readings, and a strong sense for the memorable turn of phrase. He invented “infotainment” long before that was a word.
6) Dale Carnegie (1888-1955)
Dale Carnegie was an American writer, lecturer and developer of famous courses in self-improvement, salesmanship, corporate training, public speaking and interpersonal skills. He was the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) – a bestseller that remains popular today, as well as several other books. He may be known today as one of the greatest sales people to ever live, but he was also an excellent marketer because he focused on interpersonal relationships and valuing people. He was an expert in communication – a skill critical to any marketing role.
7) Ray Kroc (1902 – 1984)
Credited with making a number of innovative changes in the foodservice franchise model, Kroc turned McDonald’s into the fast food enterprise it is today. Most notably, he wanted uniformity in service and quality among all of the McDonald’s locations. Those things make Kroc a smart businessperson in his day. What made him a great marketer was his dedication to his loyal customers. He famously wrote a letter to Walt Disney looking to place a McDonald’s in Disneyland. He refused to agree on a 5 cent increase on the price of fries for Disney’s profit because he didn’t want to gouge his loyal customers.
8) Walt Disney (1901 – 1966)
A pioneer of the American animation industry, Walt Disney expanded his media enterprise to a production studio and multiple theme parks. According to an article in American Express Open, “to create a truly remarkable Disney World that could literally market itself, Walt Disney had both corporate and park employees ride the rides before they opened to the public.” He believed in applying authenticity to magical experiences and cared deeply about detail and quality. He created experiences that marketed themselves.
9) Bugsy Siegel (1906 – 1947)
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was known as one of the most infamous and feared gangsters of his day. He was also the driving force behind the development of the Las Vegas strip, making it a destination. Wikipedia says that when he took over the Flamingo, “Siegel would supply the gambling, the best liquor and food, and the biggest entertainers at reasonable prices. He believed these attractions would lure not only the high rollers but thousands of vacationers willing to lose $50 or $100.” He didn’t make the best financially sustainable decisions, but he knew how to get people in the door by giving them what they wanted.
10) David Ogilvy (1911 – 1938)
Considered the “Father of Advertising,” David Ogilvy’s first big win was packing out the grand opening of a hotel on a $500 budget with a direct postcard campaign. Not only was he an incredibly creative mind, he was also one of the first analytical marketers and a pioneer in split a/b testing. He would run two versions of one ad at the same time, both keyed with a unique way for consumers to respond so the winning ad could be identified, then rolled out nationally. He believed that tests were the key to improvement.
11) Mary Kay Ash (1918 – 2001)
Mary Kay Ash has been credited for bringing network marketing (and multi-level marketing) from the fringe into the mainstream with the launch of her world famous cosmetics firm in 1963. The first marketing principle she embraced was “know your audience” as one of the first to tap an underutilized workforce: the housewives who were sick of being a stay at home mom but didn’t want a traditional 9-to-5 job. She incentivised this workforce to spread the word of her business by awarding top sellers with lavish gifts such as pink Cadillacs, transforming them into mobile advertisements for the company’s products.
12) Ronan O’Rahilly (1940 – still kicking)
Ronan O’Rahilly was one of the pioneers of the UK’s pirate radio stations – stations on ships in international water outside of British authorities’ legal reach. This meant they could play whatever they wanted when British radio was limited by law to six hours/week of pop music. It also meant they could play commercials. According to NPR, “the prime motivating force behind the pirates wasn’t some kind of rock ‘n’ roll evangelism; it was good old-fashioned profit.” “American and Irish entrepreneurs ran the two biggest stations, trying to sidestep Britain’s refusal to grant radio licenses to commercial broadcasters.” That said, they employed DJs who were in it for the rock n’ roll evangelism and knew how to appeal to the youths who’d tune in. They creatively tapped a niche – a movement – and knew how to make a profit of it, partnering with advertisements who knew their audience equally well.
13) Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011)
It nearly goes without saying that Steve Jobs would make the list. One of the most innovative marketers of all time, Jobs embraced the value of standing out – being unique, breaking the status quo. He put his focus on creating the best possible designs, knowing they would sell themselves. He kept his marketing messages mysterious and focused on the movement they created. He embraced being different and coveted things of beauty – and that showed in everything he did. You could say he thought differently. 😉
14) Seth Godin (1960)
One of the most endearing qualities of Seth Godin as a marketer is his true honesty and authenticity. He has written some of the best modern day books on marketing including best-sellers Tribes and Linchpin. In his books and on his blog, he shares advice on how to build an audience and focus on creating value. He has taught us that people are attracted to the remarkable – and to be remarkable you have to be the uniquely best.
15) Gary Vaynerchuk (1975)
Gary Vaynerchuk is a genius marketer because he doesn’t ignore trends. Instead, he analyzes which are most likely to be successful and becomes a leader in all of them. This is most true for various social media tools, most notably SnapChat. He doesn’t only talk about these tools, he uses them like crazy too. He’s a prolific video marketer with a focus on educating his audience on how to make the most of these trends and tools and answering questions.
How’d he get to be such an expert? After graduating college in 1998, he assumed day to day control of his father’s liquor store, then called Shopper’s Discount Liquors. He changed the name to the Wine Library and through a combination of e-commerce, email marketing and aggressive pricing, Vaynerchuk grew the business from $3 million to $50 million a year by 2005. He’s a great marketer because he’s not afraid to test new tactics to identify the strengths and weaknesses – then find the most unique way to leverage the strengths.
There is one big, unavoidable commonality among all of these marketers: they took risks. Sometimes in marketing, you don’t know what’s going to work best until you try something. When marketing your clients, be strategic but don’t be afraid to try something new. To be uniquely new. Have any marketing greats to add to the list? Leave them in the comments below!
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