Jeff Jones on LinkedIn: Stating the Obvious

September 3, 2014 - Article reads in
Jeff Jones on Obvious Adams

In the third of a series of LinkedIn Influencer posts, Target’s Jeff Jones, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, shares key insights that shaped his career. Read on, below.

I remember sitting in the infamous Leo Burnett Creative Review Committee meetings, or the CRC, in the early 1990s listening to people offer their feedback on the advertising ideas being presented. Twenty or so people gathered in a smoke-filled conference room, commenting on the work as creative teams listened impatiently, oftentimes frustratingly. The most junior person commented first, moving one-by-one to the most senior creative leader in the room – the CRC Chairman.

My heart raced with the idea of going first. Even worse would be following colleagues who always sounded so smart. And then, sitting in awe, as the CRC Chairman found a way to so simply capture the essence of the feedback and play back the comments with clarity, specificity and genuine enthusiasm for the work. It was an oddly educational forum and I learned a tremendous amount from all of the CRC Chairmen, but especially Bob Welke. He was a master.

Years later, I sought a creative partner to help me lead a fledgling acquisition made by Leo Burnett. I found Steffan Postaer who reluctantly said “yes” and we launched LBWorks, which became too successful for its own good and was ultimately shuttered. I learned many things during this venture; Steffan and I both agree we over-played our foil against Leo Burnett. What Steffan doesn’t know, and regrettably I’ve never told him, is that more than all of our success together, his greatest gift to me was the courage to be obvious.

One day Steffan handed me this small, leather-bound book titled, Obvious Adams, a book originally published in 1916. It was a gift from his father Larry Postaer, the legendary adman and co-founder of Rubin Postaer, better known today as RPA. I read the book in one night and returned it to Steffan. I’ve tried every year since then to give the same gift. I bought hundreds of paper back copies of Obvious Adams and I’ve handed them out to my colleagues over the last decade or so.

The book’s takeaway is that ideas we sometime deride as “obvious” can have enormous power. The main character, Oliver Adams, goes from grocery store clerk to star advertising copywriter to agency vice president all because of his ability to see the obvious, state it plainly, and act on it.

This simple insight has guided me throughout my career and it is a big reason I’ve come to value transparency, humility, and authenticity. They weren’t well-worn buzzwords when the book was  published, but they’re important traits for anyone looking to make a difference today. Three particular themes from the book stand out for me:

Start with the Obvious

There’s a certain tendency in business to overthink a problem and breeze right past the most obvious solution. Just like I felt in those early days of CRC meetings. And looking back, sure enough, the most valuable input often came from one of the less-experienced staffers. The reason? Young people who were seeing things with fresh eyes were better at stating the obvious. It’s the reason I challenge myself and my team to look at things with an open mind and fresh perspective.

Always Ask “Why?”

Like many curious young kids, I drove my parents crazy asking “why?” Clearly as a toddler, I didn’t realize the power of this question in today’s business world.

Not only is “why?” the first step in learning, it’s the start of a question that’s an invitation to others. And asking “why” is extremely different than asking “how?” – the first is about meaning, purpose – and explores the potential of an idea. “How?” jumps to practical and can halt the creative process.

I encourage my team to treat questions as an invitation, not a challenge. It’s an opportunity to be understood, and to share your thinking. Plus, being able to answer “why?” several times shows a strong sense of courage and conviction.

Don’t Try to be the Smartest Person in the Room

As a leader, there’s nothing I want more from my team than a willingness to speak from their gut and say what’s on their minds. It’s hard to do that if you’re concerned about looking good. The irony is, when the whole room is trying to say something “smart,” everyone ends up making the same, safe remarks.

These lessons apply regardless of your title or tenure, and I believe that, even in today’s insight-a-minute online culture, this century-old book still resonates. I have benefited greatly from the gift of obviousness and I’m hoping it will continue to be shared.

Follow Jeff Jones on LinkedIn

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