It was now the fall of 1915. By this time I had a considerable amount of valuable experience behind me.
I had reached the age when most students had graduated from college—23. All this time I had continued my studies, delving into many subjects, including philosophy and psychology, but my “major,” of course, had been journalism, advertising, selling and merchandising, along with business management. This study had been combined with intensive “field experience” in contacts and dealings with businessmen over most of the United States, discussing business methods and problems with them.
Practical vs. Theoretical Education
This education was far more practical than theoretical classroom instruction out of textbooks usually written by professors utterly lacking in practical experience. Nevertheless, I frequently wondered, in those days, how my education would stack up with that of most college graduates. Later I was to find out.
You will remember, as recounted in the earlier part of this autobiography, that at age 18 I had faced, and answered, the question of going to college. I had chosen the advertising profession. There were no worthwhile courses available in advertising in the colleges and universities at that time.
On the advice of my uncle, Frank Armstrong, leading advertising man in Iowa, I had decided on a course of self-study combined with active experience. I had, except for deviations from my goal, chosen the jobs that would provide the training I needed for the future, rather than the jobs which paid the most.
Then I purchased books, and borrowed books from public libraries, besides subscribing to the trade journals in the advertising field, Printers Ink and Advertising & Selling. I read a great deal of Elbert Hubbard’s writings, and continually studied and analyzed the best advertisements in newspapers and leading magazines. Also, I read a great deal in certain general magazines, such as the Quality Group of those days, especially World’s Work. I confined my reading in magazines to informative and thought-provoking articles, resisting fiction almost altogether. Fiction is the lazy man’s reading. Like the movies, and today’s tv programs, it is merely a ready-made daydream, inducing habits of mind-drifting.
These years of self-assigned study, enforced mental activity, contacts with successful men in many varied fields, coupled with the practical experience that had been mine, had produced an education and training superior to the average college education.
As president of a liberal arts college with three campuses on two continents today, I can say that this intensive education from the university of hard knocks and practical experience in application has made possible a college offering today’s students a sound and practical education acquiring the true values! And supplying the “missing dimension” in education.
Moving to Chicago
My work on the one-issue special bank building number of the Northwestern Banker had been converted into a regular job as advertising solicitor, on a 40 percent commission basis, with a drawing account.
Right here I hope I may interject a success principle of which the vast majority seem totally unaware. Here was a temporary job, doing a special one-month edition of a small-class journal. But it offered larger opportunities. Those greater possibilities were visualized and acted upon! The temporary job was turned into a steady job as advertising solicitor for one sectional bank journal. And it led from these to establishing a successful business as publishers’ representative in Chicago.
This is the quality, rare among people (but why should it be?), called vision. This job on one sectional journal later was developed into a business as publishers’ representative for nine bank magazines. Most men are never able to see any possibilities of expanding their present jobs. They do merely what they are told—what someone higher up thought out and laid before them. Or they use deceit to jerk the rug out from under the man above them.
The Bible says that if we do only what we are commanded—what is expected of us—we are “unprofitable servants” to be cast out “into outer darkness.”
Most people go to one extreme or the other. While the big majority never think beyond their present jobs—never think out ways to do the job better, or to develop or expand their own job into something bigger, or to be preparing themselves for the better jobs ahead and promotions to them, a minority go to the opposite extreme. They are always trying to do the job ahead—or the boss’s job—without adequate ability, preparation or experience, and only throw monkey wrenches into the gears, causing damage, lacking wisdom and judgment.
Most men never seem to realize how the application of some of these principles makes all the difference between employee and employer; between mediocrity or failure and success.
Back to the story. I had now developed the opportunity into a job. But the field in Iowa was too limited. The nation’s advertising headquarters centered in two cities—New York and Chicago. After a month or two of developing a few accounts in Iowa, chief of which had been the Lytle Co. and the Fisher Co., I moved into Chicago.
I made my home at the old Hotel Del Prado, a South Side residential hotel on the Midway, adjacent to the University of Chicago. The one personal friend I had in Chicago at the time was Ralph G. Johnson, manager of the Merchants Trade Journal’s Chicago office, and I moved into Del Prado because he lived there.
The old Del Prado has long since been torn down, and a new skyscraper Del Prado erected on the lakeshore. The old one was a sprawling three- or four-story frame building, well maintained as a first-class residential hotel. Most cities have residential hotels, and I learned that they are a most satisfactory type of residence for single people, whether young or old.
Very soon I came to know most of the residents of Del Prado. The hotel provided a weekly Wednesday night dance for all guests. The dining room was cleared to provide the dance floor. There were spacious lobbies and lounge rooms. There was a sort of unwritten law among guests which dictated that if one desired social contact, he would find almost any of the other guests receptive and friendly; or if he preferred privacy, or to sit alone in the lobby, no one would intrude.
I lived at Del Prado almost two years—until a certain Iowa girl came to Chicago to become my wife. This privilege of living in a large metropolitan residential hotel was one of the cultural and valued experiences of all those formative years. It supplied one of those social-cultural influences which many college students receive by residence in a fraternity house—but without some of the evils of frat life.
I soon observed that the most popular girl at the Wednesday night dances—or chatting in the lobbies at any other time—was Miss Lucy Cunningham. Miss Lucy, as everybody called her, was a white-haired maiden lady in her 70s. She was especially popular with all the single young men. A few University of Chicago coeds lived at the Del Prado with their mothers. But often these attractive and intelligent young coeds were forced to play the role of wallflowers during a dance, while Miss Lucy was always in demand!
She was a charming conversationalist, witty, intelligent, well educated. We fellows spent many an exhilarating evening hour chatting with her in one of the lobby rooms—usually three or four young men around Miss Lucy. That was long before cigarette smoking became habitual with the female sex. In those days it was not generally accepted as being “nice” for a lady to smoke. Prostitutes smoked, but not “nice” women. Miss Lucy, however, was a “nice” woman who was a little ahead of her time. She was “nice” all right, but she dared to do what she wanted. Miss Lucy smoked cigarettes! Whenever another guest walked past the grouping of sofas and lounge chairs where we were sitting with her, she would casually hand her cigarette over to one of the fellows, who would hold it until the way was clear again. Probably not many, except a number of the young men residents, ever knew her addiction to smoking.
I didn’t like to see her smoke. It has always seemed disgusting to me to see any woman smoke. But, remember, I was young then, and fancied I was quite “broad-minded” about such things. I was not naive. No one is wholly good or bad, and I liked Miss Lucy for the things that were good about her.
Besides, I myself smoked in those days. You’ll remember how I “swore off chewing” tobacco at age 5. But I had taken up pipe smoking during those long and frantic night hours at Wiggins, Mississippi, as an aid to staying awake while I worked over the books. I had smoked, moderately, ever since. However, I will say that I was never a heavy smoker. Never more than one cigar a day, or three or four cigarettes in a day. That’s the reason I did not have the battle many men have had in breaking the habit when I saw that it had to be broken. My battles with myself were in other directions.
An Office of My Own
The first time in my life I had an office of my own was in Chicago. On arriving there from Iowa, now representing the Northwestern Banker, I opened an office in the Advertising Building, at 123 West Madison Street, in the heart of Chicago’s Loop. This location was only a half block off South LaSalle Street, which is the “Wall Street” of Chicago. Most of the great banks and investment houses (of Chicago) are located on this street.
The Advertising Building was occupied solely by advertising agencies, publishing firms, publishers’ representatives, or those of allied lines in the advertising field. The Ad Club, a division of the Chicago Association of Commerce, had its club rooms there.
The name of this tall but slender skyscraper has been changed at least twice since then. Not many would remember it as the Advertising Building today.
Actually, I did not quite open an office, as yet. The fourth floor of this building consisted of one large general room, with a tier of private offices forming an “L” around the far side and the rear of the floor. This large general room was filled with a number of desks. At first, I rented merely desk space in this open room. It was about two years before my business expanded to the point where I required, and was able to afford, a private office; and then I rented one on that same floor. Altogether I maintained office facilities on that same floor for seven years.
At the entrance of this desk-space room was a telephone switchboard and a receptionist. She served all tenants on that floor, taking telephone messages when tenants were out. Through this entire seven years of my tenancy there, the same alert, quick-thinking receptionist remained at that switchboard. Her name was Olive Graham. She had an astonishingly remarkable faculty. She could remember every telephone number that had been given to her for days, and precisely when the call had come in.
On one occasion, a man attempted to alibi his failure to call me by claiming that he had called and left his telephone number for me to call. I took his telephone and called our switchboard—Randolph 2-100.
“Olive,” I said, “Mr. Blank says he called me three days ago, when I was out, and left his number, Blank 8-693, for me to call.”
“No, Mr. Armstrong,” replied Olive promptly. “No Mr. Blank called three days ago, and no one left the number Blank 8-693.”
That was positive proof. Olive was never mistaken. Mr. Blank was forced to admit he had not made the call. How that girl could carry hundreds of telephone numbers in her mind I could never understand. I never knew her to miss.
Advertising Tractors to Bankers
Some little time after setting up my own headquarters in Chicago, I had what might appear to be a most absurd “brainstorm.” Those on our present staff and our architects well know that these “brainstorms” have a way of continuing, even today.
They may seem ridiculous or absurd at first thought. But more often than not they have proven to be very practical and worthwhile ideas. You see, while I was touring the country as the “Idea Man” for the Merchants Trade Journal, my job was to look for ideas—practical ideas—ideas that had been put to work, and had proven successful. That experience taught me the value of ideas.
In the aptitude tests given prospective employees by one large corporation, one of the questions was: “Do you ever daydream?” Ninety-nine out of 100 applicants, if they were putting down the answers they supposed the company wanted, rather than the actual truth, would most surely have answered “No!” Actually, the company was looking for men who do daydream in a certain manner. Not the kind of daydreaming that lets the mind stagnate and drift without thinking—but the kind of thinking daydreaming that utilizes imagination—that thinks up ideas, and then mentally puts them to every test to see whether they will work!
To climb the ladder of ultimate success in accomplishment, one must exercise vision and, supplementary to it, imagination—the kind of active, practical thinking that produces sound and workable ideas! The college in which I was trained taught me these things. The average college education, however, fails to inculcate anything of this nature.
This “brainstorm”—or idea—was the selling of large advertising space in the bank journals to farm tractor manufacturers. Certainly no one had ever heard of such an apparently preposterous idea before. But it worked, and it paid the farm tractor industry in a big way—and, incidentally, it put me above the $50,000-a-year income class (in terms of today’s dollar) while still a youth in my 20s.
However, that idea required time to develop.
At first, my work in Chicago confined me primarily to the solicitation of advertising from banks and investment houses which had not previously used space in the Northwestern Banker. Although I was required to call on, and render any desired service to the financial institutions which were already advertising in the Northwestern Banker, I received no commission from any of this, but only on such new accounts as I developed myself.
This journal was already carrying the advertising of many of Chicago’s large banks and bond houses. But there were still others.
What a ‘Correspondent’ Bank Is
One might wonder why the larger Chicago banks should carry advertising in journals read only by other bankers. The answer is that these larger banks in Chicago and New York do have something to sell to other banks.
They are, in a sense, bankers’ banks. Virtually every bank in Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota and Nebraska kept a goodly sum of money on deposit in at least one Chicago bank. This was a system used by banks to facilitate the clearing of checks.
Have you ever wondered how checks you send to people in other states are cleared?
Suppose, for example, you live in Fort Dodge, Iowa. You owe a bill to a concern in Muncie, Indiana. You mail the Muncie firm a check on your local Fort Dodge bank. The Muncie firm deposits the check in its local bank in Muncie. The Muncie bank either pays the Muncie firm the amount, thus cashing your check, or it credits the amount to the firm’s account in the bank.
But, now, how is that bank in Muncie, Indiana, going to get the amount of the check from you? When you wrote out your check, drawn on your Fort Dodge bank, you represented that you had that amount of money on deposit in the bank in Fort Dodge. The check is merely an order for your bank in Fort Dodge to pay to the firm in Muncie, Indiana, the amount of your money written on the check. Now when a bank over in Muncie, Indiana, pays this amount of money to this Muncie firm, the Muncie bank must have a way to collect your money from your bank in Fort Dodge. How?
Banking procedures have undergone some change, and today the Federal Reserve system is used by member banks to a great extent in the clearing of checks, and the correspondent system to a lesser degree.
But in those days it was done primarily through this correspondent system. Most banks scattered over such states as Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin have a Chicago correspondent. That is, they keep a sum of money on deposit in a Chicago bank, for the very purpose of clearing checks. So the Muncie bank has a Chicago correspondent. Also the Fort Dodge bank has a Chicago correspondent, although it may be a different Chicago bank.
Here is how the system works. The Muncie bank sends your check to its Chicago correspondent bank. On receipt of your check, this Chicago bank credits the amount of your check to the account of the Muncie bank. Now the Muncie bank has been reimbursed for cashing your check. If your check was for the amount of $100, it has $100 added to the amount it has on deposit in the Chicago bank. Now this Chicago bank must be reimbursed. Through the Chicago Clearing House system, it sends your check to the Chicago bank that is the correspondent of your Fort Dodge bank, which has an adequate amount of money on deposit with its Chicago correspondent bank. This bank in Chicago thereupon debits the account of your Fort Dodge bank $100. In plainer words, it takes the $100 out of the money on deposit by your Fort Dodge bank, which is paid through the Chicago Clearing House system to the other Chicago bank which is the correspondent of the Muncie bank. And finally, the Chicago correspondent of the Fort Dodge bank sends your check back to your bank in Fort Dodge, notifying your bank that it has taken this $100 out of the money they had on deposit. Your bank stamps your check paid, taking your $100 which it had on deposit, thus reimbursing itself for the $100 which its Chicago correspondent took out of its money on deposit there. And at the end of the month you receive a statement from your bank showing they have deducted this $100 from your balance on deposit, and enclosing the canceled check.
This is all not so complicated as it probably sounds. I have taken space to explain it so simply that a little child can understand it. But I thought it might be interesting to my readers, most of whom probably never had any understanding of how checks are cleared from one part of the country to another.
Attending Bankers’ Conventions
My work now brought me into contact with many of the nation’s leading bankers. Solicitation among Chicago’s larger banks and security firms made it necessary to cultivate personal acquaintance with those officers directly connected with the correspondent accounts. This often included one of the vice presidents, and in some instances the presidents.
Certain phases of the banking business are not generally known by the public. One of these is the personal acquaintances and contacts maintained among men of the banking fraternity.
Each state has its state bankers’ association, with its annual bankers’ convention. These state conventions are well attended by presidents, vice presidents, cashiers and even some assistant cashiers, especially those whose jobs are connected with the correspondent business. Each state is divided into groups, and each group holds its annual group meeting.
Then on the national level, there is the national aba (American Bankers’ Association) convention each year, well attended by presidents and top-ranking vice presidents of the nation’s largest banks.
At these annual conclaves, bankers, so dignified and formal at home and before customers in their own banks, really “let down their hair,” as the saying goes. They familiarly call each other by their first names.
To a large extent, this correspondent business between banks is conducted on a personal acquaintance basis. Although there were two outstanding national magazines in the banking field, these localized sectional bank journals maintained a personal contact and hold on their banker subscribers that was not possible for a national magazine.
There were seven principal sectional or regional journals, all published by men of outstanding personality. These publishers attended most of the group meetings, and all of the state and national conventions. They mixed personally with the bankers of their districts—who were the readers of their publications. The most eagerly read pages of these monthly journals were the personal gossip pages. All these sectional journals published a great deal of personal news about individual bankers in their districts. The bankers of each section, who knew most of the other bankers personally, were naturally eager to read any personal news items about bankers they knew—and about themselves!
Since I was now the advertising representative of perhaps the leading one of these sectional bank journals, I began to attend several of the state bankers’ conventions, and most of the aba conventions.
In this manner I began to form personal acquaintance with hundreds of prominent bankers—another important factor in my education which had some influence in preparing me for the real job ahead.
In Chicago were many manufacturers of products sold to banks. Of course I solicited advertising from these.
The Tractor Brainstorm
I do not remember just how this idea came to mind about selling large-space advertising to the manufacturers of farm tractors. But in some manner, through personal contacts with scores of small-city and country bankers, I had come to realize that tractors, in those days, were sold for cash—there were no easy-payment plans or financing terms offered. The farmers were forced to borrow the money from their bankers in order to purchase tractors. My conversations with bankers had indicated that bankers were not, as yet, “sold” on the idea of the farm tractor.
So, in order to get all the facts, I made an extensive survey. That experience in conducting the surveys at Richmond, Kentucky, and Lansing, Michigan, had shown the value of fact-finding by survey, obtaining information from a representative portion, based on the law of average.
This farm tractor survey was made primarily by mail through questionnaires. These questionnaires were sent to a thousand or more bankers, and a representative number of farmers, and a third questionnaire to scattered local dealers who sold tractors. Simultaneously, I went out on a personal tour of several states, personally interviewing bankers, tractor dealers and farmers.
This survey unearthed some startling facts, which tractor manufacturers had never realized about their business.
The officers of the average bank in the Northwestern Banker territory owned eight farms. Many had come into this farm ownership through foreclosure of mortgages. Of course they did not farm, themselves. These bankers either employed managers to operate them, or rented them out. Multiplying our circulation by eight, I learned that I had a farm-owner circulation to sell at a lower cost per page per thousand circulation than the farm papers.
But the principal reason farm tractor manufacturers needed to buy advertising space in a banking journal was to win the favor of bankers so that they would readily loan money to their farmer customers for the purchase of tractors. The bankers were proving a very serious sales-resistance factor. Whenever a farmer would come into a bank to borrow money for the purchase of a tractor, the banker, calling him by his first name, would ask: “What do you want the money for, John?”
And when he learned John was about to buy a tractor, he discouraged John. At first, when I presented these facts to tractor manufacturers, they scoffed.
“Why, Mr. Armstrong,” they would object, “if the bank they do business with refuses the loan, the farmers simply go across the street to another bank and borrow it there.”
“Apparently,” I replied, “you do not realize the personal relationship between country bankers and their farmer customers. The country banker is a sort of ‘father confessor’ to his farmer customers. They come to him with their problems—ask his advice. Do you suppose these bankers are so stupid that they would turn down a loan in such a manner that their farmer customer would be offended and go to a competitive bank? I have interviewed scores of bankers on this point. The banker who feels his farmer customer ought not to spend the money for a tractor doesn’t refuse the loan—he merely talks the farmer out of wanting it. He will talk to farmer John something like this: ‘Well, John, my advice would be to go a little slow before you go into debt to buy that tractor. As you know, John, I own eight farms myself. And I’m not at all sold on the practicality of tractor farming. In my opinion, the tractor hasn’t arrived yet. It’s still in the experimental stage. Now I know, John, that tractor salesman has probably put up a pretty slick argument. Of course he’s interested in getting a big fat commission for himself. But I’m interested in your welfare, John. Now, of course, if you decide to let that salesman talk you into it, we’ll loan you the money, but my advice is, don’t do it! You raise your own feed for your horses. But you’ll have to buy gasoline to feed the tractor. I don’t think it would pay.’”
In soliciting the advertising of tractor manufacturers, I soon found that their advertising managers could not buy it because they were given a definite appropriation for definite fields—the farm journals and the farm dealer trade papers. They had no appropriation for bank magazines, and they lacked authority to change company policies.
It became necessary for me to go direct to the presidents of factories in the tractor industry.
This, again, was an experience that afforded personal contacts with several multimillionaires. Among them was the president of J. I. Case, Mr. Wallis; Mr. Brantingham of the Emerson-Brantingham Co.; George N. Peak, president of Moline Plow Works, who later became prominent in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s nra; General Johnson, vice president of John Deere & Co., also later head of one of President Roosevelt’s nra activities.
Representing Nine Magazines
My one biggest obstacle in this farm tractor field—and also in soliciting manufacturers of items sold to banks—was the limitation of our circulation to one five-state region. These big advertisers in the Chicago district advertised on a national basis.
Also, because of this, I encountered stiff opposition from the advertising agencies. Advertising agencies serve the advertiser, who is their client, but they are not paid by their clients. They are paid by the publishers, on the basis of a 15 percent agency commission on all billings.
The agency position was this: It took just as much time, and effort, for them to prepare a page ad for our little sectional bank journal with some 2,000 circulation and an advertising rate of $40 per page, as for a page ad in the Saturday Evening Post with a page rate in those days, of $5,000 (much higher in later years!). The agency would make only $6 for its work on a page for us, compared to $750 for the same amount of effort for a page in the Post.
I began to realize that I could sell big-space advertising much easier for a large national circulation than for one small sectional journal.
This brought about another “brainstorm.” Although there were two leading national magazines in the banking field, they did not provide a sufficiently complete national coverage. The seven leading sectional journals completely dominated their respective fields. The only possible complete national circulation in the banking field could come only by using these nine—the seven leading sectional journals and the two national magazines.
But there was still a major difficulty. These various bank magazines had various page sizes. Agencies usually send ads out in plate form—already set to type. The necessity of making plates of so many sizes would discourage agencies.
So, about a year or a year and a half after moving to Chicago, I had worked out a proposition to set myself up as an independent publishers’ representative in the bank field.
These publications, by whatever methods, had found it cost them 40 percent to get business. I proposed to represent all nine magazines, and myself to finance all solicitation, and send them advertising at a reduction to them of 25 percent in cost of obtaining business. In other words, I was to have exclusive representation, on a 30 percent commission basis, but the magazines were to pay me the entire year’s commission in advance on all 12-time yearly contracts, upon receipt of signed contract from the advertiser. They were all to adopt a standard magazine page size.
But there arose one overpowering obstacle in my path.
Clifford DePuy, about this time, had acquired a second of these seven leading sectional bank journals—the old St. Louis Banker, the name of which he changed to the Mid-Continent Banker. He objected in loudest tones to my representation of any other publications. I had been his exclusive Chicago representative, and he was determined to keep it that way.
I, on the other hand, had become determined to expand my field. I maintained that I could send Cliff a great deal more business as the representative of a complete national circulation. He didn’t think so. We really clashed on this issue.
But, before this issue was finally settled, I had met a certain very attractive young lady out in Iowa.
I think the time has come to relate a different phase of these life experiences—my dating girls and the romantic side of life from the beginning up to the time of marriage.