4 Timeless Business Lessons from Obvious Adams

Obvious Adams: The Story of a Successful Businessman” was first published as a short story in the Saturday Evening Post in April, 1916. (Free PDF here).

It’s been reprinted in book and Kindle format a couple of times, perhaps most notably by Forgotten Books in 2012.

At only 70 pages I breezed through this little book and if you work in business, especially marketing, I highly recommend it for you as well.

Too often we make things much harder than necessary. We try to get “too cute” when in reality we just need to identify what’s essential, articulate it as clearly as possible and then execute in the most straightforward way possible.

Here are four great reminders from the book.

1.) The best answers are usually the most obvious ones.

After sitting spellbound through a talk from the president of a famous advertising agency, Obvious Adams determines he would like to work for the man.

So what does he do? He made an appointment and went and told him.

I have decided that I want to get into the advertising business and that I want to work for you, and I thought the obvious thing to do was to come and tell you so.

The President thought Adams lacked alertness–that little up-and-comingness that is necessary in advertising. He originally told him he wasn’t cut out for the advertising business and told him as much. Later that evening he got to thinking…

How many of us have persistency enough in following out our ideas of what is obvious? The more I thought of it the more convinced I became that in our organization there ought to be some place for a lad who had enough sense to see the obvious thing to do and then to go about it directly, without any fuss or fireworks, and do it!

Adams got the job.

Throughout the book, people react to Adams’ pitches with common one sentiment: “Why didn’t I think of that?”

You know you’re close to the right answer when you can explain it to anyone, they all get it, and they all react with wide-eyed, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

2.) Bring solutions; do the work first.

Adams started at the agency in checking and filing.

  1. First he recommended to his boss a way to change their method that would save about a quarter of the time and handling and make errors almost impossible.
  2. The new plan worked well and so he told his boss the new that someone else at two-thirds of his salary could take care of his work, and wasn’t there
    something better for him? His boss smiled and told him to keep working.
  3. So he started writing copy in the time he’d freed up and also at home on his own hours. He finished an ad for the California Peaches Association and left it sitting on top of his desk. When the copy chief saw it, he shared it with President.
  4. The President asked his boss, “Could you get along without Adams, Mr. Wilcox?” he asked. Mr. Wilcox smiled. “Why, yes, I guess so. He told me the other day that someone at two-thirds his salary could do his work.”

And just like that Adams was promoted to the copy department.

This is something that takes most of us a couple of years in the working world to truly learn. No, dare I say most people never learn this approach.

In a world where outsourcing and automation punishes anyone who is merely good, merely obedient and merely reliable, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to bring solutions and ship great work, often before you’re asked.

3.) Know your audience

This seems easy enough, obvious even, yet like everything else we tend to over think this one as well.

Or we try to make everyone our audience, which effectively makes nobody our audience.

In one instance in the book, a paper mill President wanted to know how to market their bond paper.

Adams learned that the mill’s paper was made of selected white rags; that the purest filtered water was used in the making; that it was it dried in a clean loft; and, most surprising of all, it was gone over sheet by sheet and inspected by hand.

These things weren’t known in these days. He told the mill President that he should tell people these things.

The President was unimpressed.

What I wanted was some original ideas. Every one knows these things about bond paper. Every good bond paper is made this way.

Adams wasn’t deterred.

Mr. Merritt, we aren’t any of us paper-makers, and no one has ever told us these things. I know there is nothing clever about these advertisements. They are just simple statements of fact. But I honestly believe that the telling of them in a simple, straightforward way as qualities of your paper, month after month, would in a comparatively short time make people begin to think of yours as something above the ordinary among papers. You would be two or three years at least ahead of your competitors, and by the time they got round to advertising, your paper would already be entrenched in the public mind. It would be almost a synonym for the best in bond paper.

Are you advertising to paper makers or paper users?

4.) Thinking is hard

When Adams was asked, “Why don’t more businessman do the obvious?” he responded:

I have decided that picking out the obvious thing presupposes analysis, and analysis presuppose 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.


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