Obvious Adams – Chapter 8

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Adams bent forward and looked Mr. Merritt squarely in the eyes. “Mr. Merritt, to whom are you advertising-paper-makers or paper- users?”

“I get your point,” said the president. “You are right. I begin to see that advertising is not white magic, but, like everything else, just plain common sense.”

And Adams went back to New York with a contract for a year’s campaign, to be conducted as the Oswald Agency saw fit. The paper campaign was a success from the start. Yet, when it was analyzed, Adams had done nothing but the obvious. In due time Mr. Oswald over in Europe heard of Adams’s success in securing the account, and in due time came a little note of congratulation from the president, and the thing that puzzled Adams was that the envelope was addressed to “Obvious Adams.”

That name “Obvious” spread all through the organization, and it stuck. Then the bond-paper campaign came into prominence, and with it Adams, and with him the new name. Today he is known among advertising men from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and it is doubtful if more than a score of them know his real name, for he always signs himself just “O. B. Adams.”

Nearly every magazine you pick up shows the influence of his obviousness. In advertising Monarch Hats, for instance, they had always been shown on full-length figures of men, making the hats very small and inconspicuous. “Let’s show the hat, not the man,” said Adams, one day as he looked at one of the large original photographs in the art department. “If men could see such a picture as this they would buy that hat. We lose too much when we reduce the pictures to such a small size.” Whereupon he grabbed a pair of shears and sliced that perfectly good picture on all sides until there was nothing left but a hat, a smiling face, and a suggestion of a collar and necktie.

“Now,” laying it on to a magazine page, which it nearly filled, “run that and put your copy in that bare left-hand corner.” Nowadays you often open a magazine and find a face almost as large as your own smiling out at you-and you see it, too! So, you see, Adams was really the Griffith of the advertising business, with his “close-ups.” Both of them merely did the obvious thing.

Adams also discovered that advertisements did not always have to shriek out their message in two-inch type. He proved that people would read a four-page advertising story, set solid in small type, if it were made interesting and dramatic like any other good story. Quite an obvious way to tell about your business, too, when you come to think of it.

You may be surprised to learn that Adams is not a particularly interesting man to meet-rather boresome, in fact. He has none of the attributes commonly ascribed to genius; he is not temperamental. Since those early days he has been through many hard-fought campaigns, counseling here, directing there, holding back occasionally, making mistakes now and then, but never the same one twice. He has nursed numberless sick businesses back to health and rosy bank accounts through his skill in merchandising.

He has helped businesses to grow from loft rooms to great plants covering acres. He has altered a nation’s breakfast habits. He has transformed trade names into dictionary nouns. But, for all his experience and reputation, he is rather uninteresting to meet-that is, unless you should catch him some evening in his home, as I did, and he should sit in the comfortable living-room in front of the fireplace puffing contentedly on a good cigar and soliloquizing.

It was in response to my question: “How did you come to acquire the name ‘Obvious’?” that he told me some of the incidents I have just related.

“I wasn’t born ‘Obvious,’” he chuckled. “I had ‘Obvious’ thrust upon me in the old days by Mr. Oswald. I never stopped to think in those days whether a thing was obvious or not. I just did what occurred to me naturally after I had thought things over. There is no credit coming to me. I couldn’t help it.”

“Well,” I pressed, “why don’t more business men do the obvious, then? The men in your office say that they often spend hours trying to figure out what you are going to propose after they have decided what they think is the obvious thing to be done. And yet you fool them repeatedly.”

Adams smiled. “Well,” he said, “since I had that name wished upon me I have given considerable thought to that very question, and I have decided that picking out the obvious thing presupposes analysis, and analysis presupposes thinking, and I guess Professor Zueblin is right when he says that thinking is the hardest work many people ever have to do, and they don’t like to do any more of it than they can help. They look for a royal road through some short cut in the form of a clever scheme or stunt, which they call the obvious thing to do; but calling it doesn’t make it so. They don’t gather all the facts and then analyze them before deciding what really is the obvious thing, and thereby they overlook the first and most obvious of all business principles.

Nearly always that is the difference between the small business man and the big, successful one. Many small business men have an aggravated case of business astigmatism which could be cured if they would do the obvious thing of calling in some business specialist to correct their vision and give them a true view of their own business and methods. And that might be said of a lot of big businesses, too.

“Some day,” he continued, “a lot of business men are going to wake up to the power and sanity of the obvious. Some have already.

“Theodore Vail, for instance, worried over the telegraph equipment that stood practically idle eight hours out of the twenty-four, and he conceived the night-letter idea to spread out the business over the dull hours and make more new business. What could have been more obvious?

“Study most of the men who are getting salaries of upward of one hundred thousand dollars a year. They are nearly all doers of the obvious.

“Some day I expect to see grand opera stop advertising deficits; it is going to cease advertising opera stars, too—to be promptly held up in return by these same stars—and advertise opera. It is going to do the obvious and advertise to the people who do not now go to opera. Then the balconies will be full and opera will pay for itself, as it should.

“Opera is going to come to realize that it has a legitimate merchandizing problem—like hotels or books or steamship lines—and that it will respond to legitimate merchandising methods.

“Why, I even look to see the time when our municipalities will wake up to the fact that they are overlooking the obvious when they allow our great libraries, upon which we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, to run along year in and year out only half fulfilling their mission, when a paltry two or three percent of the total appropriation spent in sane newspaper advertising to sell the library idea—the library habit, if you please—to the people would double the usefulness of our libraries to their communities. What a wonderful thing to advertise—a library! Or a great art museum!
“The day will come, too, I think, when our railroads will get over their secrecy about fares.

They will get hundreds of thousands of dollars from people who do not travel now, but who would if they realize how little it costs to travel comparatively short distances. They will publish the prices of their tickets from city to city in their time-tables—not between all stations, to be sure, but between the larger places. Now instead they put their fingers to their lips and say in a whisper things such as ‘Ssh! We charge an extra fare on this train, but we are not going to tell you how much it is—and you’ll never guess! ‘Ssh!’ Why, I know a man who lived in New York for five years, and all that time he wanted to go to Philadelphia to see the city, but he never did, because he thought it cost much more than it does. He lacked the imagination to ask; but asking should not be necessary. Some day the railroads are going to do the obvious and advertise to that man. And there are hundreds of thousands of him.”

At this point Mr. Adams looked at the clock. Then he excused himself while he called up his garage and ordered his car. He was leaving on the night train for Chicago to tackle a difficult situation that had developed in the business of a large client, a big breakfast-cereal manufacturer out West. They had sent for the great Adams, medicine- man of business. He would be able to prescribe the remedy.

As we rode in to the city in the luxurious limousine he sat deep in thought.

I sat and thought, too. What was the secret of this man’s success, I asked myself. And then I recalled the little boy’s composition on the mountains of Holland. He wrote:

“The Mountains of Holland”
“There are no mountains in Holland.”
That is the answer, I decided. There is no secret—it is obvious!

John