Book Review: The Wizard of Ads

I picked up The Wizard of Ads many years ago on a whim. I’d never heard of Roy H. Williams, but the book intrigued me with chapter titles such as “Velcro, the Ad Writer’s Friend” and “Idiots Are Out to Get Me.”

When I had a chance to sit down and read the book, I found myself mesmerized by the series of inventive contemplations on pretty much everything under the sun, all related one way or another to advertising and selling.

Unlike most books on advertising, this one isn’t filled with tactics, so you won’t find any how-to advice. It’s not a book on strategy either, so it’s not full of buzzwords. It’s really a collection of thoughts about basic principles. Most chapters are no longer than a page or two. And what makes the book special is that Williams uses stories, memories, history, and trivia to make his point.

The first chapter, titled “Nine Secret Words,” is a good example of the style:

“Lean down so that I may speak into your ear, for the thing I am about to tell you is not for the others to know. I share with you now the secret knowledge known to only a powerful few. I give you the Nine Words which, if held in your heart, will transform Success and Failure into mere coins that you may pull from your pocket and bestow upon those you would favor.”

Leaning closer, I could feel his weak and ragged breath on my ear as he whispered:

“The risk of insult is the price of clarity.”

Then he was gone.

Williams then briefly explains how most ads fail because advertisers are more interested in not ruffling feathers than in being clear and direct.

Admittedly, taken in large doses, Williams’ style can get monotonous. But this isn’t a book to read start to finish. It’s meant to be sampled a few thoughts at a time. And it can be very inspiring. In fact, Williams has built a small training empire on the back of this and subsequent books using whimsical stories to help people understand the principles of effective advertising.

I keep The Wizard of Ads handy for a quick mental pick-me-up and it never fails to do the job. It’s smart, creative, and far ranging, covering subjects such as multiplying the effectiveness of ads, understanding the tug-of-war between mind and feelings, seeing opportunities, and creating new ideas from old ones.

Williams is not a direct marketing guy. He’s an advertising guy who, I seem to remember, used to specialize in memorable radio ads. But most of the principles he talks about translate nicely to any sort of advertising, marketing, or business. It’s even good for general advice about living life.

If you’re looking for actionable information, don’t bother. And if you have no patience for anything but direct advice, the whimsy of this book isn’t for you. But if you want a unique book that you can dive into again and again for inspiration, I highly recommend The Wizard of Ads. Keep it near your desk for a quick lunch read, use it as a bathroom book, or put it on your nightstand for a five-minute business devotion before you go to bed.

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11 Responses to “Book Review: The Wizard of Ads”

  1. Dave Young on December 17th, 2007 1:33 pm

    That’s a good review. I think that people looking for direct advice would like the sequel “Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads” better. It has a bit more fuel for the left hemisphere of the brain.

    The “training empire” you mentioned is also a great place for people to seek out the specific techniques for gaining and keeping the attention of customers. Read all about it at It’s not really his empire. He’s created a non-profit foundation to run the training school. His only benefit is to his reputation.

    Anyway, it’s a nice review of a book which is standing the test of time quite well.

  2. Janice C Cartier on December 17th, 2007 1:52 pm

    Sounds delightful. Will look it up.
    “The risk of insult is the price of clarity.”
    Could you expand a bit on this point. My late and very dear friend, Abby Catledge had absolute grace and dexterity with this very useful skill. Her dear husband Turner was managing editor at the New York Times and he” suffered no fools”she always said. Amazing how it worked for her. Always the lady, yet not one hesitation to “haul out the artillery” if needed.
    How do we take risks, and hone the craft of ” civilized controversy”, while keeping our grace?
    All best,

  3. Dean Rieck on December 17th, 2007 3:15 pm


    I’ll leave it to you to find out what the book has to say about “The risk of insult is the price of clarity.”

    But one example would be an e-mail I received from a guy in Tokyo this morning blaming me for “crass” and “annoying” radio ads. Apparently he downloads radio programming from the U.S. and doesn’t like the ads. And he read an article I wrote where I advised that radio advertisers repeat phone numbers 3 or more times.

    Another example would be how I repeatedly beat response rates for Sprint products with ugly, offer driven mailers instead of the usual pretty mailers that downplayed the offer. It rubbed some people the wrong way, despite the added sales.

    Being direct and clear will “insult” some people because they simply can’t handle it. For many, advertising is a game, not business.

  4. Janice C Cartier on December 17th, 2007 4:30 pm

    The book is happily on my list. I look forward to its arrival.

    Direct + clear with offers= increase in response

    “Ruffled feathers” or no.

    Good to know.
    Even in , or especially In, the business of aesthetics, there is a beauty in using the right tool. Thanks for handing me one.

  5. Dean Rieck on December 17th, 2007 6:57 pm


    Well said. Marketing can be elegant. By that I don’t mean “pretty,” but pleasing in its efficiency and simplicity.

  6. Dave Young on December 17th, 2007 7:49 pm

    Just another tidbit about the author. Most of this book is compiled from his Monday Morning Memo. He’s been writing and sending a memo like clockwork for years.

    He used to record it on an answering machine, then it migrated to a faxed memo, and of course, now it’s an email newsletter. (

    The message to bloggers is that with consistent effort, you will one day have enough material to publish a book!

  7. Janice C Cartier on December 17th, 2007 9:54 pm

    Absolutely. As elegant as a falcon on the hunt, or an arrow finding its target…


  8. Dean Rieck on December 17th, 2007 11:52 pm

    “As elegant as a falcon on the hunt, or an arrow finding its target”

    LOL I was going to give a few examples like that, but didn’t want to freak out people. I was thinking along the lines of a sniper bullet.

    I’m a sci-fi movie buff and saw “I Am Legend” this last weekend. Will Smith’s character refers to a world-killing virus as “elegant.”

  9. Janice C Cartier on December 18th, 2007 12:29 pm

    Laughing out loud here…hey…we just illustrated your point…clarity vs risk……. still laughing…


  10. Jay Ehret on December 26th, 2007 9:01 am

    While this book may not exactly be a “how-to” book, after reading it, I think you will have a better understanding of “how-to” write better copy.

    While Roy Williams is an old radio guy, he has copywriting truths that cut across all media.

    This book has been on my shelf for years, thanks for the reminder to pick it up and re-read.

  11. Murtaza on December 27th, 2007 6:59 pm

    Well Dean,

    This books seems like an appetizer for our kind of readers…Why don’t you put couple of more para from the same book?


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