Take Five: Linda Kaplan Thaler
Advertising Hall of Famer, author, and motivational speaker Linda Kaplan Thaler played a leading role in some of America’s most famous advertising campaigns, including the Aflac duck and the “Yes, Yes, Yes” commercials for Clairol Herbal Essences shampoo, and she has also produced jingles such as “I Don’t Want to Grow Up, I’m a Toys R Us Kid” and “Kodak Moments.”
Winner of the prestigious Matrix award, the Advertising Woman of the Year Award, and the first woman to win the Clio Lifetime Achievement Award, she spoke virtually on June 2 to an audience of Madison businesspeople during our annual IB Presents program, sponsored by Edgewood College and EZ Office Products. After an informative, entertaining presentation on a career full of advertising and business lessons, she took several questions from those in attendance. Her answers are provided below.
Sometimes, [advertising] ideas take a while to catch fire and sometimes they never do. How long do you let something fail before you pull the plug?
“Yes, that’s an interesting question. I think you do need to give some things time because you’ve got to understand the first thing on their [the consumers’] mind is not our product. My old boss used to say, ‘When you’re doing advertising, throw a pie in somebody’s face, but then you have to sell them on the whipped cream.’ You really have to understand that it is not their first priority to pay attention to your brand, so you do need to go with it for a while.
“But I do think if you keep throwing that spaghetti against the wall and it’s not sticking, you have to be willing to go in other directions. I will tell you, though, that even with the Aflac duck, that wasn’t our first idea. We had many other ideas we thought would be great, and so we just held on, and we saw, you know what? Good is the enemy of great. In the focus groups, people would say, ‘Oh, that duck, I love him, or I hate him, but he made me laugh.’ I always say to people, never listen to what anybody says until they say the word ‘but.’ You know, ‘I love my husband and he’s wonderful, but I think he’s having an affair with somebody.’ Those are the things that are important.
“So, you have to think very carefully when you ask people what they really think about something, but if something is not gaining traction, you have to be willing to take a risk and go out and do something else.”
For businesses whose marketplace is predominantly local or regional, how will we be driving sales differently in three years than we are now? And how should we be preparing now so we can ace this in the future?
“Yeah, I think the pandemic, as horrible as it was, it taught us some really valuable lessons. And that is, this idea of thinking not five steps ahead, but 10 steps ahead. I do think it’s important, so just assume that the world is going to be more virtual and it’s going to be more far-reaching, and that you can be selling baby gloves in Oshkosh, but you do have the opportunity to sell them to the whole world because the whole world is now your competitor. Amazon has shown us, and Alibaba has, that your competition is kind of everybody out there.
“On the positive side though, you can get a niche. I always tell people that even if you have something that is good for 1% of the population, 1% of the population around the world is maybe 78 million people. So, that is the important thing to think of — that you don’t have to worry about getting too small in who your demographic is because you now have the whole wide world as your oyster.”
We use creative sessions with those in our clients’ targeted circle. What is your creative process?
“Our creative process first is to include everybody. When we do ideation, it’s everybody. It’s the executive assistants. It’s the graphic designers. It’s sometimes the guys in the mailroom. It’s everybody because I do believe everybody has that in them … I do believe you need to create very short timelines. A great professor at Yale once said … ‘If it wasn’t for deadlines, nothing in this world would have ever been done.’ And so, we think our best when we have deadlines. Our people, if something was due in two weeks, we would tell them it’s due in four days. They kind of knew in a way. They caught on to it, but it got them to think faster.
“I also believe that working in an environment, in small spaces, and this is just a very physical thing, [but] don’t ideate over a big table. You’ve got to sort of invade somebody else’s space in a way, and sometimes you need people to be uncomfortable. You can have a meeting where everybody is sort of standing up so that people think, I’m going to come ideate so I can get out of the room already. But it’s creating a small amount of discomfort. And by the way, we ideate more when we’re moving — I don’t know why it is — which is why when we go for a long walk, we come up with more ideas.
“We also ideate a lot in the shower, and this isn’t just because of Herbal Essences, but there is a reason for it. I can go on and on with this, but when hot water hits your head, the University of Mexico found that we ideate more because the blood vessels open inside our brain. And so, more neuropathways are moving. So, there are lots of little tips to do this, but the biggest one is to not say no. The biggest one is to adhere to this ‘yes, and …’ theory, and I will tell you that time and time again, when people feel comfortable enough to throw out an idea that is totally crazy and sometimes bad, we often will turn the telescope around and go wow! That doesn’t work, but if you turned it around, this might work. That’s how a lot of ideas come about, when somebody has a bad idea and we just turned it on its end.”
The fear of failure is so hard to overcome, so how do you convince more conservative, risk-averse business leaders to try something that’s outside the box in their marketing?
“Yeah, this is the biggest worry that everybody has with clients. First, it’s great to show them examples, and time and time again, you’ll see examples of the companies that are most successful are the ones that really take a risk. I talk about the Aflac client, and [CEO] Dan Amos said, when he’s coming up with new ideas that have to do not just with the advertising and marketing, but new ideas for insurance things, usually it’s not ready, aim, fire, but it’s ready, fire, aim. He said because we don’t have the time now to think about things for a long time and see how it’s going to work in the marketplace, we kind of get out there.
“And I really encourage people to get out there. Even if it’s not right, you know what? You can tweak it. You can move it. But if you’re the first one out there, then you’re already playing more of the A-game. I also say to clients, as I said before, if you stand still, you are going under, and I think that’s been very powerful. I know one of the ways we got the Red Lobster account is that we looked on one of their websites and somebody had written they were disappointed with whatever it was, one of their shrimp dishes or something. Instead of [Red Lobster] sort of caring about that, what they [the customer] got was an email that said, ‘Oh, call the 1-800 number.’ And I said, ‘You know what? You could have lost 10,000 consumers that way because they are reading about it from their friends that it’s a terrible place to eat.’
“So, you’ve got to imagine that the whole world is kind of watching you. You have to impress on your clients that doing nothing or being vanilla — vanilla is a great flavor but so what? I’m not going to go out of my way for vanilla. But if you give me cherry mango with a scoop of, I don’t know, pistachio, I’m going to pay attention to that.”
Do you have any experience working with nonprofits? Would your message be the same or anything different or in addition to anything you’ve already communicated this morning?
“Yes, it’s interesting. I’ve done a tremendous amount of work on nonprofits. We love working on nonprofits, love the good causes and stuff, and it’s very hard. In the real world, you’re competing for a share of wallet. In the nonprofit world, you’re competing for a share of heart. We are so besieged with advertising and marketing about everything. It’s one of the reasons the ALS challenge, the Ice Bucket Challenge, to me was so brilliant. It’s because it had nothing to do with the actual disease, but it had to do with something that really cut through with why are people putting ice buckets over their heads? Think about it. And the message was unless you give money to ALS, we’re going to throw an ice bucket on them. And not only did people have buckets thrown on them, but then they also gave money to it. So, they broke through.
“We had an example of something that for the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, which has been fighting not just anti-Semitism, but hate crimes of all sorts: white, Black, gender identification — you name it. And we were asked a couple of years ago to come up with something, and I know in the nonprofits, there is usually no money, and they said there is no money in this. But come up with something viral that everybody will watch. But OK, you know how many things are on YouTube that nobody ever sees?
“The client said, ‘Well, maybe if you mentioned all the people that died because of hate crimes.’ Martin Luther King and Anne Frank and Yitzhak Rabin, who was the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated [in 1995] and who was the first one who really created some sort of peace treaty, and all these people. And my thought was, wow! It was going to be no because boy, that’s going to be one depressing video. And then I thought, again, turning this on its end, I said ‘Well, that’s pretty depressing, but what if we turned it around? What would the world be like if all those people had lived long and fruitful lives?’
“And if you go onto YouTube and just put ADL Imagine and we walked up and said what would that be like? And someone said imagine if Yoko Ono gave us the song “Imagine,” and she loved the idea so much that in perpetuity, she gave us the song with John Lennon singing — for nothing. And we put this on YouTube. It cost basically nothing because it was just screening in newspaper headlines and Anne Frank winning another Pulitzer Prize and 20 years of peace with the Palestinians and the Israelis and all of these, and within one week, it got a million views … Again, thinking out of the box and thinking of something that you would never see, you would never see about what these people would have been like if they lived.”
When someone puts a creative ad or social media idea before me, how do I know which one will be effective before I invest in it?
“I always talk about my life in 30 seconds with advertising. It does condition you to understand and appreciate a gut reaction. A gut is not just an impulsive whatever. Our gut, our whatever you want to call it, our primordial thing that’s in the back of our brains, has an IQ of about 100,000, right? It has been honed, it has been nurtured for thousands and probably millions of years. And it’s in the back of our brain, but it has physical manifestations, and one of the things that I know is when I hear a good idea, I get goosebumps. People would always say to me, when they would show me something, or I would show something to a client, I’d say, ‘Does it give you goosebumps?’
“Why is that? Because of the first primordial reactions we had was when something new was coming. Our hair would stand on end, and so that’s what happens when something is disrupting us that much. We go whoa! And that whoa, we really have to examine it because if you push it away and say well, that was my first instinct, very often that first instinct tells you something and you need to pay attention to it. I found that [out] whether it was with the Aflac duck or Herbal Essences or even the Toys R Us song, writing that song, which is basically nothing more than a bunch of product benefits that I put into a song because I said the biggest advertisers are going to be the kids, so we’ve got to get the kids to sing this. And basically, it was just a string of things they had at the store, but it was done in a way that was tuneful. And when my boss heard it, the first thing he said was, ‘Well, it’s a lot of fun to listen to, but is it going to sell?’ And I said, wow! It’s a lot of fun to listen to, and that was basically kind of, that could be free media. They didn’t call it free media or earned media back then. And I said, yeah, but imagine, you think it’s cute but … imagine if kids thought it was cute. What would they be doing? They would be singing it and that is free advertising.
“And sure enough, the first week that it ran, we got messages that kids across the entire country were singing the song. One woman wrote to me, and she said, ‘I’m very upset with you.’ I wrote back and said what are you upset about? We didn’t have email back then. And she said, ‘Well, you wrote this song, ‘I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys R Us Kid,’ and I keep telling my kid to eat his broccoli and when he says why, I say because you want to grow up.’ And he turned to me and said, ‘Well, I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid.’ I said, well, you can’t please everybody.
“But yes, that first reaction is very, very important and you have to mine it and figure out OK, now why did I get that reaction? What is my gut trying to tell me?”
You’ve talked about some of your most successful advertising campaigns today. Is there a good story about a campaign that you put together that failed? And were there lessons that you learned from that?
“Well, I would say it failed maybe because the client took it off the air too quickly. And that was — I’m embarrassed to say this — we did a campaign for Office Depot. We did a campaign for them, and we said you know, Office Depot can really give you a hand in doing all sorts of things, and the idea was that there would be an Office Depot box, right? And the supply guy would walk around with the box and a hand would come out, which was sort of magical because you couldn’t see where the hand was coming from, right? It would magically come out of the box. And if the guy needed a pen, it would come out with a pen. If someone needed paper, it would come out with paper. And it was hysterical and a very bizarre look to people, which was interesting. You can imagine.
“By the way, I think presenting is one of the biggest things that people mess up on. It’s that when you are presenting to a client, it’s like theater, right? And my roots were in theater. You have to be very entertaining. And so, we actually did a magician’s act, and had the hand seem to come out of nothing but the box, and we won the business, and they did the campaign. The campaign was on all of one week and everybody was talking about it.
“But then, [Tonight Show host] Jay Leno decided to do a parody on it, and you know that when someone does a parody — and a lot of our brands have been parodied, whether it’s Swiffer or whatever — when you parody, it means the culture knows about it and you know you’ve created something … That parody was completely hysterical and completely ah, we lost the business the next day. [laughs] It’s like, ‘I said this [parody] wasn’t my idea.’ They said, ‘No, we can’t have parodies like that.’ I said, ‘But I didn’t come up with a parody.’
“But anyway, yes, I’ve had things that got off the air because, well, Bertolli olive oil, it was the noodles that were making a smile because it had the oil and it was very cute, and ultimately the client felt their brand deserved something a little bit higher echelon. And I always praised Dan Amos at Aflac because I don’t know any other insurance client — this was before the [GEICO] Gecko or any of that stuff — I don’t know any insurance client that would have ever bought that idea. And so, I always say to clients, ‘We can’t create something, a bang idea, unless you’re a part of it, unless you’re willing to go with it.’ And so, I do think a lot of brands, it’s the leadership out there, whether they’re willing to take risks. And I always love to show examples and say to clients, ‘This guy took a risk, and that guy took a risk, and let’s do it now.’”
What is the No. 1 piece of advertising advice that you would give a small business with a limited marketing budget?
“I would say that’s how we started — we had no budget at all — and to be fearless and to say, ‘I’m going to come up with an idea that’s going to blow your socks off.’ And I don’t care if you’re doing something in your local area with a billboard … Try to get those examples out there so that other people can do it, and that’s what happened with us. People began to notice things because we were doing this outrageous kind of stuff.”
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