Humor – Think Aflac Duck – Is Key to Kaplan Thaler’s Success

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The New York Sun

In the 1970s, Linda Kaplan Thaler was fired from her job as an actor in a road show production of “Hair” after she refused to take off her clothes onstage.

She taught music for a short while, and then began writing jingles for advertisers after her father introduced her to friends at an ad agency.

Ms. Kaplan Thaler ended up working for 20 years at J. Walter Thompson and other agencies. In 1997, she launched her own company out of her Manhattan brownstone.

That company, the Kaplan Thaler Group Ltd., is now the fastest growing agency in America, with $1 billion in billings and 175 employees. Among her many blue-ribbon clients is Clairol, Aflac, Trojan, US Bank, and Revlon.

In a world where people are bombarded with 5,000 messages a day, her secret has been to bring together the worlds of advertising and entertainment.

“It’s about the e-factor, the entertainment factor,” Ms. Kaplan Thaler said in a recent interview with The New York Sun. “People will follow the funny. We are an … entertainment culture.”

She said humor has always been an important part of selling, citing as an example stock market brokers who always open their daily client calls with a new joke.

Advertisements must be funny to be memorable, Ms. Kaplan Thaler said, and music is also key. That she and her husband are accomplished musicians and composers has helped her create entertaining presentations, known as “pitches,” to win clients’ business.

“We had to pitch Panasonic for a shaver and realized that the message could be that guys don’t like to shave. So eight of us sang a parody called ‘Shaving sucks’ and the client hired us,” she said. “We call advertising the theatre of persuasion.”

One of her team’s most entertaining and enduring campaigns involved a formerly obscure Georgia insurer, American Family Life Assurance Co. The agency came up with a mascot for the company: a duck that quacked the company’s acronym, “Aflac.” Sales and consumer awareness jumped immediately.

“We’ve staged quack attacks on shows, delivered live ducks to hosts,” she said. “Actor Ben Affleck brings up our campaign, and that he’s subject to quack attacks on talk shows. He’s done so many bad movies he ends up talking about the … duck to change the subject about his career.”

In addition to being funny, Ms. Kaplan Thaler said, ad agencies must do more than ever for the companies that hire them.”We used to do a 30-second TV spot and a couple of print ads for clients,” she said.”We still do that, but now we have a second job and a third job and a fourth job. Today we will produce a 30-second and 15-second television ad; a 60-second radio and 30-second radio ad; billboards; print ads; online banners; Webisodes; content integration, and brochures.”

Ms. Kaplan Thaler’s agency is a reflection of herself: an eclectic mix of backgrounds that employs musicians, actors, artists, a stand-up comic, novelists, potters, and painters.

“We use the entertainment industry model. There are no titles, no layers, no vice presidents,” she said. “We swarm, with our various skills, around a project, like writers on a show. We gather, brainstorm, go away, then gather again.”

Thus, her agency would be well positioned for what she believes is the next “convergence” in the industry: agencies and their clients becoming content-providers. This trend is an outgrowth of what’s known in the trade as “product integration” or “product placement,” but goes beyond paying a producer money to use a certain brand of car or cola in a movie made for TV.

For instance, her firm and sister agency MediaVest (both are independent units of the Publicis Groupe, the world’s fourth-largest agency holding company) worked with writers and producers of a show called “What I Like About You” on behalf of Clairol’s Herbal Essences.

“The show’s episode was about a contest to pick an ‘Herbal Girl,’ and the main character competed. There was Herbal Essences signage everywhere throughout the program, and ends with the star watching an Herbal Essences commercial,” she said. “We have someone in Los Angeles doing these deals.”

Not surprisingly, Mrs. Kaplan Thaler, a diminutive and sunny mother of two teenagers, is funny herself.

“I had my first child at 41 years of age and my second at 44, which makes me the only woman I know who gave birth to grandchildren,” she said. “Kidding aside, this business is in a state of flux, but if you keep your humor, and your kids are fine, nothing can bother you.”

The New York Sun

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