History of advertising: No 167: Jay Conrad Levinson's Guerrilla Marketing

There is irony in the fact that somebody who helped develop some of the biggest campaigns - from the Marlboro Man to the Jolly Green Giant - should later be lauded as the man who showed advertisers with shallower pockets how to thwart them.

He was Jay Conrad Levinson, whose 1984 book Guerrilla Marketing: Secrets For Making Big Profits From Your Small Business was an industry game-changer. It set out, for the first time, how big results could be achieved with little promotional investment.

A one-time creative director at Leo Burnett in London and a senior vice-president at J Walter Thompson in the US, Levinson laid down tactics for Davids wanting to tackle Goliaths.

His game plan was simple.  Forget about expensive campaigns. Use unconventional tactics that will make the most of a small budget. Make your campaign so shocking, funny, unique, clever or outrageous that people will love talking about it. But make sure that whatever you’re advertising is worth the buzz. "Marketing is not an event but a process," he said. "It has a beginning, a middle but never an end."

Levinson’s book was apposite, coming at a time when consumers had grown cynical about advertising techniques while advertisers worried that their campaigns were becoming less effective.

At the same time, the relaxation of government regulations and affordable technology was fuelling the establishment of record levels of small businesses. But huge numbers of such ventures were also failing, often because they failed to understand marketing.

That said, Levinson’s book was a happy accident. It came about when one of the students at his marketing class at Berkeley asked him to recommend a book for marketers without big budgets. After searching without success, he decided to write one himself.

Things you need to know

  • Guerrilla Marketing has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and is required reading on many MBA programmes.
  • Levinson employed guerrilla marketing to sell the first book he ever wrote. He approached ten local bookstores and offered to provide the books, a rack and 50 per cent of the purchase if they agreed to put them near the cash register. A month later, he had sold 240 copies.
  • Levinson died aged 80 in October 2013.