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Five valuable lessons I learned from Al Ries

Toomaj F. Bungs
Al Ries and Laura Ries Positioning Statue

I still remember the first email I wrote to Al Ries, on a day in the spring of 2005. Two days before, my father gave me the book “The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR” by Al and Laura. I will never ever forget how excited I was to read that book. I finished reading 320 pages of the book in two days, turned on my computer, and wrote an email to Al and Laura before closing the book. I wrote to them how much I enjoyed reading that book, how much I learned, and if they would allow me to translate some parts of their books into Persian and publish them on my website. A few days later, I received a reply that was more or less as follows:

Dear Toomaj,

Sorry to respond to your email with a delay. We weren’t in the office for the last few days. We are delighted that our book has caught your attention.

You have permission to translate the parts of the book you want.

All the best

Al

From that day until today, Al has played an important and key role in my life, and this advantage has been given to me so that I can learn from him. What I’ve learned isn’t just related to my career and marketing; it forms an integral part of who I am today. Here are the five most valuable lessons that I learned from Al Ries:

 

1- There’s no such thing as a good student

 

I once thanked Al sincerely for everything he had done for me and I said, “I don’t know how I can make up for it.” He replied with a short sentence: With success.

I think it is unlikely that I have been able to thank him properly with so many excellent opportunities I have lost. No doubt, Al, like everyone else who writes a book, has written his books to consolidate his status. Still, I personally know very few people, at least in the field of marketing, who writes enthusiastically and willingly everything they know for their audiences.

Iranians have a proverb saying that whatever comes out of the heart is welcomed wholeheartedly. Al’s works are a clear example of that proverb. The desire to teach others is clearly seen in all of Al’s works.

Some time ago, someone told me, “The accuracy and skill of observing things from different dimensions are distinct and admirable. How have you managed to achieve this much at this age?”

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I said, “Its skill was brought about by time and trial and error, but some else taught it to me as a necessary principle of life.” However, the same day I realized that there is no such thing as a good student if the teacher is not a master.

Today what is happening in the market for many well-known brands had been predicted by Al Ries four decades ago in his books. Apart from expertly observing the issues from different dimensions, what can turn someone into a market proponent?

The truth is I am not a good student. He is a perfect teacher!

 

2- A leader creates a leader, not a follower

 

Almost everyone who becomes an influencer not only avoids teaching what he knows, s/he is proud of the NUMBER of people who blindly follow him, not of WHO follows him.

Over these years, I have been in direct contact with many influential people in the field of business and marketing, and none of them have been able to persuade me to stay in touch with them. Al always gives me the feeling that: “even though I am Al Ries, a legend, you are not supposed to underestimate yourself.”

 

3- Being Meek does not mean being Weak, it just means the opposite

 

Only someone who really knows marketing can understand the impact of Al Ries on the marketing we know today. One day I asked Al to write an introduction to one of my books. It’s true that I’ve known him for years, but even the thought of him getting his name on my book made me laugh. Honestly, I fully understand that I have nothing to say compared to your 55 years of experience, but it would be a great favor if you wrote the introduction to this book. Not only he wrote the forward he also replied:

The truth is, most marketing people think that older people don’t know much at all. That marketing is such a fast-changing business that the only experts are younger people.

 

Al is right. The fact is that many people think that young marketing professionals are better than older people, but this is an entirely wrong idea. I learned most of what I know from someone who has 55 years of experience more than me. He may have a different perception of social networks, but he is the same person who a few decades ago, said that only a limited number of businesses would succeed by chance, and others must follow the rules. Thirty years later, Facebook became popular by chance, and today millions of people in the startups have started a ridiculous cult and want to achieve the success that Facebook has achieved without following any marketing rules.

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Marketing is war. Throughout history, many young commanders may have been much smarter, more creative, and more energetic in leading many battles, but always the one with the most experience defeated them.

Elsewhere, I ask Al if it would be okay to mention him as someone who always checks my ideas with him and use his name as a reference for my clients. He replied:

I am very happy that you mentioned me in the list of marketing experts!

The first question I asked myself: Are you kidding me? I had asked many others this question. The answers were quite the opposite of what Al had given. Let’s leave it out that all of them used Al as a reference in their books. Another example, I recently contacted him and sent him a part of my thesis to comment on. He pointed out the critical points that I had to add to my text. I asked him to allow me to quote him as a reference in my thesis, and he answered:

Sure, I’d be happy if you quoted me.

And again: Are you kidding me?! I will be happy if the opposite is true! In fact, I should be thrilled and even proud if he allows me to use his material in my research. To be honest, I have not yet personally achieved Al Ries’s level of meekness, and the only reason is that I have not yet experienced the marketing ups and downs as much as he has, nor have I been able to expand my knowledge.

 

4- Respond positively and show others that things are not limited to a professional relationship.

 

When was the last time you let someone know about your successes, and what response did you get? The fact is that many of us are not generous enough to react positively. It has undoubtedly happened to you that you have repeatedly told others that something good has happened to you. And you have heard responses answers like “Aha!”, “So what?”, “Not bad!”, or even “Now why are you telling me?’

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Al was one of the few people to whom I gave a piece of good news, every time he started his response with this phrase:

Tom, it’s always great to hear from you.

 

Sometimes he talks about his personal experiences, and sometimes he writes about the lessons he has gained in the market. Al is the only one I care so much about his responses. Perhaps the most crucial reason for it is that his experience of marketing and life is far greater than mine, but there’s no reason for him just to answer to please me.

 

5- Give courage to others and support them

 

I have told him about almost every important decision I want to make or about every critical event that happened in my life. The day I wanted to change my name, he said, “Congratulations! You have made a pertinent and timely decision.” In those days, others laughed at the decision and made fun of me here and there. The day I told him I had left Iran, he said, “I’m sorry to hear that, but there are always opportunities in immigration.” Then he told me about his personal experience. But the day I called him to say that I had been diagnosed with MS, he said:

 

“Always glad to hear from you, but not your latest message.

I’m terribly sorry to learn of your medical problems with MS. But I believe there are treatments for it and hopefully, they will be helpful.

 

Your last article was, as usual, terrific. Very insightful.

 

Keep your spirits up. Life is unfair, but that’s just the way it is.

Keep your spirits up and you can cope with any problem.

 

I’ll be thinking about you.

Al

 

It’s been years since I first get acquainted with him, but I still ask myself why. Why should a person with all his influence, experience, and connections respond to the email of a beginner who is miles away from him? As a matter of fact, he cannot even officially publish his books in Iran due to the political relations between his two countries. Why should someone, despite all his daily challenges and preoccupations, give another person not only professional lessons but also life lessons? Understanding this may only be possible in one way: You must be Al Ries to understand it!

Thank you, Al.

Toomaj F. Bungs

Toomaj is a marketing consultant, scholar, and entrepreneur who has been encouraged by many other experts & academics in four continents. He is a founding partner and the CMO of ARDOXSO.

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