Advertising luminary Linda Kaplan Thaler talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about her career, where she gets her best ideas and her new book, Grit to Great.
Linda Kaplan Thaler is the talent behind some of America’s most iconic ad campaigns, including “Kodak Moments,” the “Yes, Yes, Yes” totally “organic” experience for Clairol’s Herbal Essences shampoo and the Aflac Duck. Her unforgettable “I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid” tune is on Forbes magazine’s list of the best-ever advertising jingles. Named one of Advertising Age’s “Most Influential Women in Advertising,” her numerous awards include Advertising Woman of the Year from Advertising Women of New York, the Women’s Leadership Exchange’s Compass Award and the Girl Scout’s Woman of Distinction Award, among others. She was also the first woman in advertising to be honored with the New York Women in Film and Television’s Muse Award and, earlier this year, she was inducted into the American Advertising Federation 2015 Advertising Hall of Fame.
Kaplan Thaler is also a best-selling author and TV personality. She hosted the “Making It Big” reality series on Oxygen in 2005, featuring young professionals vying for their dream job, and she also appeared as a judge on Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice.” Her latest collaboration with coauthor and business partner Robin Koval, Grit to Great: How Perseverance, Passion and Pluck Can Take You from Ordinary to Extraordinary, is already a national bestseller. Ariana Huffington has named Grit to Great one of the five books she’s gifting this holiday season, and The Washington Post also featured the book in the recent article “A gift of knowledge will not be sent back.” Kaplan Thaler and Koval’s previous titles are: Bang! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World, The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness, which debuted on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists, and The Power of Small: Why Little Things Make All the Difference.
Today Kaplan Thaler is chairman of Publicis New York, the U.S. flagship within the Publicis Worldwide Network. Clients include Procter & Gamble, Citibank, Nestle, L’Oreal, Merck, Pfizer, Cadillac and Wendy’s, among others.
Opportunist: Advertising has historically been a male-dominated field. Did you encounter any obstacles when trying to break into the business?
Kaplan Thaler: I was fortunate because I worked for Jim Patterson at J. Walter Thompson. Everyone knows him as James Patterson, the famous author, but back then he was advertising executive Jim Patterson. He was a tough boss and brilliant in advertising because he understood the power of a great idea and demanded the best. He was completely gender blind and didn’t care who a great idea came from. I worked for Jim for almost 20 years before I started my own company in 1997.
Opportunist: How did you grow your tiny, home-based agency into a billion-dollar operation with major national accounts?
Kaplan Thaler: First of all, we didn’t aim to do that. As Michael Bloomberg said, I’ll never be the smartest person in the room but I’ll outwork everybody. Robin and I set out with a mindset of what can we do for this particular business or pitch that is over and above? Within three years we became one of the fastest growing agencies in the United States. The business grew and grew and grew. Today Publicis New York has more than $3 billion in billings and over 800 employees. It has been a wild ride!
Opportunist: What do you believe set your agency apart?
Kaplan Thaler: Robin and I aspired to be the exact opposite of many examples we saw in the industry. We decided to lead with flowers and chocolates and we encouraged people to collaborate. We used to joke that we had enough estrogen in our place to make Arnold Schwarzenegger ovulate. [Laughs]
Our philosophy was to over-prepare and overwork. If you think you have a presentation now, spend another 30 minutes or an hour on it and make it better. When we were pitching the Wendy’s account against 50 other agencies, they said they gave it to us because they couldn’t imagine anyone working any harder. We had our people train to prepare the food and work at different Wendy’s restaurants around the country. We even had sleep-outs where we worked through the night.
Harry Truman said you can accomplish anything in your lifetime as long as you don’t take credit for it. You have to be willing to collaborate and share the credit when working with a team because if everybody feels they own it they will work harder to make it better. We didn’t even have titles. If you were brilliant and worked better alone, that was great. Maybe you were a terrific leader but not the best creative. Your role was to help other people do their work better. It’s been a good process for us. When we merged with Publicis we tried to continue that as well.
Opportunist: From your experience, would you say women are too hard on each other in the workplace?
Kaplan Thaler: There are a few outliers but they are going by the wayside. I can count on one hand the number of women who make it difficult for other women, but I can give you 100 examples of incredible mentors. Geraldine Laybourne, founder of Oxygen Media, is a prime example. She’s such an inspiring, successful woman—she also created Nick at Nite—and is one of the kindest, gentlest people. She’s always helping somebody and mentoring other women.
Opportunist: How has the advertising industry changed since you started out?
Kaplan Thaler: Oh my goodness. There has been an incredible evolution in that every day you walk into a different company. It’s because the pace of technology is exponential. When I started in the business we spent weeks or months creating the perfect TV advertisement seen on three networks by 98 percent of the population. Now, of course, it’s so fragmented. We don’t talk about TV anymore; it’s video content. A piece of video or film may be viewed on TV or your watch or Hulu or a broadband network. The communication has to be so much more powerful because we don’t know exactly where people are going to pick it up. We may think a particular demographic is going to be doing their search this way for this product but you cannot always guarantee that. That makes it exciting and scary at the same time. [Laughs]
Opportunist: Where do your best ideas come from?
Kaplan Thaler: My best ideas come from taking two things that don’t seem to go together and making them go together. Selling shampoo and not going with the expected benefit of beautiful shiny hair and instead talking about the process of washing hair and the totally ‘organic’ experience. We created the Aflac Duck with that annoying quack because the company had a problem with awareness and it was very hard for people to remember the name Aflac. The duck was supposed to be this sweet little duck but when the guy sitting on the park bench cannot remember the name of the company and the duck keeps saying Aflac, the guy thinks he’s annoying and throws the crumb at the duck. We thought what if the duck kicked the crumb back in the guy’s face? I thought that was genius because it was funny and unexpected. It also gave the duck personality. He was frustrated that nobody could hear him. I call him the ‘underduck’ because, on a subliminal level, people identify with this duck. You rail against a society that doesn’t hear you; you fight back. Once the duck kicked that crumb back we decided it had an ornery personality. It was a hugely successful campaign. Aflac went from 3 percent to 96 percent awareness. It was an idea that could be expressed through any medium. That’s the essence of great branding. It’s powerful whether you encounter it on TV or a web banner or by hearing the quack on the radio.
Opportunist: Can you tell us more about this ‘grit’ factor that you and Robin Koval talk about in your new book?
Kaplan Thaler: Grit is an acronym for guts, resilience, initiative and tenacity. Those four words really are the secret sauce to people who are uber-successful. We looked at research by the University of Pennsylvania that says only 2 percent of people born prodigies, virtuosos or with a Mensa level IQ ever accomplish anything worthwhile in their lifetime. A disproportionate amount of people who are brilliant are unsuccessful whereas people who have suffered from disadvantage or struggled in their early career are successful later in life. Colin Powell was a C student. Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school three times. The great Michael Jordan couldn’t make his high school varsity basketball team and was going to give up when his mom said, ‘the hell you are … you’re going to get on the court and practice daily.’ These people weren’t born with what we call the ‘it’ factor or brilliance—they were born with the ‘grit’ factor.
Opportunist: Do you have to be born with it to be a success?
Kaplan Thaler: No. The great thing about grit is that you don’t need to be born with it. You can develop it when you’re eight or 88. The grittogreat.com website features a quiz developed by psychologists and researchers that people can take to get an idea of what their grit level is. Over 1,000 people have taken it so far. You can also get the book there.
Opportunist: What do you hope readers take away from your book?
Kaplan Thaler: Grit to Great seeks to empower people and let them know they have the potential to do almost anything they imagine. And I do believe it’s a great book for kids and college students. There is a misnomer believed by Millennials who think they must make it, make it, make it by the time they’re 29. The fastest growing segment of the population in the world today is people in their 100s! So this mad rush to accomplish everything in your 20s is completely absurd. You only lose brain cells if you stop using your brain. One of the biggest problems in the workforce is that people leave it between age 65 to 70. Per capita, that’s where the most bang for the buck is because emotional IQ is at its best. Retirement was an unheard of expression until the 20th century. It was created as a marketing ploy during the industrial age when people had to get out of the workforce. Before then, you worked until you couldn’t work anymore. Sherry Lansing, former CEO of Paramount, says you shouldn’t be retiring—you should be rewiring. IDEO, one of the leading design companies in the world, has a 93-year-old working there and developing products. We need to rethink the belief that everything has to be done during youth. Picasso did some of his most creative work in his 80s.
Opportunist: Speaking of emotional IQ, as someone who worked with Donald Trump what are your thoughts on his controversial campaign?
Kaplan Thaler: I can’t say I worked closely with him because I didn’t work with his organization. Our agency put his wife, Melania, in an Aflac commercial years ago. It was very funny. When I was on ‘The Apprentice’ and he found out he was so nice talking about our agency.
As a marketing person, I always find it interesting to see how people brand themselves. There’s such a clutter of candidates out there in the Republican Party and they’re all struggling—except Donald—with how do I disrupt things and how do I become a sound bite? It’s very hard to become a sound bite when you have one person who is really utilizing that media territory. He hasn’t spent much money on advertising because it’s free media and he doesn’t need to at this point. I think it behooves the other candidates to make themselves different and compelling with their unique voice. It’s necessary if they are going to get heard. Unfortunately, we live in a world where the crazy, wild things that people say usually get the most attention.
Opportunist: We understand you worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008. What, if anything, would you recommend she do differently this time?
Kaplan Thaler: I think she’s awesome. This is a woman who is over-prepared in all the best ways. She’s doing everything right and being open and honest. She works incredibly hard. She walks into a meeting and knows her stuff—there are no cue cards there—because she has such mastery of whatever the subject is and has an incredible work ethic. She has incredible grit. She’s the grittiest.
I think Hillary will do well and continue being herself. Seeing that softer side of Hillary now that she’s a grandmother is fantastic. She’s a powerful woman and yet compassionate and empathetic. She’s the kind of leader we need, especially in the world we live in today.
Opportunist: Who gave you the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Kaplan Thaler: My husband when I was thinking of starting my company. I was scared and I asked him if I should do it. When he said, ‘Of course you should do it,’ I asked if he was worried I was going to fail. He said ‘I’m not worried you’re going to fail; I’m worried you’re going to get too big. I know you and the people you’re hiring.’ Boy, he nailed that one. [Laughs]
Opportunist: What advice would you give someone entering advertising today?
Kaplan Thaler: Today I wouldn’t start an ad agency. I would create something else—maybe a content creation company—because the notion of advertising is so transformational now. There’s such a confluence of entertainment and advertising that it’s kind of hard to tease them apart. Even when we started our company years ago we called it an advertising and entertainment company.
Opportunist: When you think back on all your accomplishments, which ones brought you the most happiness?
Kaplan Thaler: There are two. My 20-year-old daughter, Emily, who is attending New York University, and my son, Michael, who is getting his Ph.D. at Harvard. They were my best accomplishments.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
Follow Linda Kaplan Thaler on Twitter: @lindathaler2