Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval: An interview by Bob Morris

Linda Kaplan Thaler

Linda Kaplan Thaler

Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval are CEO and President, respectively, of advertising agency The Kaplan Thaler Group, responsible for such pop culture icons as the Aflac duck and the “Yes, Yes, Yes” Herbal Essences campaign. They have also co-authored three national bestsellers: Bang!: Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World, The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness, and their latest collaboration, The Power of Small: Why Little Things Make All the Difference. You can read their blog by clicking here or follow them on Twitter.

Morris: At least since the ancient marketplaces emerged, such as the Agora in Athens and the Forum Romanum in Rome, the primary function of marketing has been to create or increase demand. That said, there have been significant changes in how marketers have done that in recent years. Which do you consider to be most significant? Why?

Robin Koval

Robin Koval

Koval: Marketing is, and has always been, about engaging consumers in the right way, in the right place and at the right time – whether that’s in a Forum or on Facebook. Today, as you’ve noted, it’s how marketers connect with consumers that’s changed. And in fact, the digital age has brought us nearly full circle to the personalization and the customization of the old village marketplace. To engage today’s consumers, we need to create a conversation and acknowledge their ability to shape the message and play a role in its distribution – not all that different from the personal selling and word-of-mouth marketing of the ancient Agora. Of course, now it happens at light speed and with the potential for the entire planet to participate.

Morris: In recent years, several people have suggested that advertising is either dead or dying. What do you think?

Kaplan Thaler: When TiVo and DVR first came on the scene, the industry cautiously watched to see what their impact would be on television commercials. But as we’ve seen, ads that entertain, inform and engage consumers are still incredibly impactful. In fact, not only do consumers not fast forward through these ads, but they also post and promote them online. A successful ad posted on YouTube can become instantly viral and develop a following of millions.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, what do you think is the single greatest but neglected opportunity that advertising now has?

Koval: Look at social media today. It’s clearly not a neglected opportunity, but rather one whose power still needs to be fully harnessed. The real breakthrough will come when we figure out how to fully leverage the army of “friends” and “followers” we have created and engage them to become activated activists for our brands. Having one thousand followers is great, but having one thousand followers that each translates a message for your brand into four personal recommendations should be the real objective.

Morris: In The Attention Economy, Thomas Davenport and John Beck assert that attention is “the new currency of business.” Do you agree?

Kaplan Thaler: In today’s world, there are so many ways to reach consumers – audiences are so fragmented – that marketers are constantly fighting for their share of consumers’ attention.

Morris: They also assert, “Ultimately, people will begin to withdraw from the stress of an attention-devouring world, and information providers will begin to focus on quality, not quantity… In the end, the greatest prize for being able to capture attention will be the freedom to avoid it.” Your own thoughts about that?

Koval: We always have to remember that people are giving us something very valuable and precious when they engage with us – their time, which as you say, is becoming increasingly scarce as we live in an over-messaged world.  In exchange for that gift of attention, we have to always make sure we are giving people something of equal or ideally greater value back – entertainment, a value opportunity, or exclusive access.  Consumers are great accountants when it comes to their time.  They know when we’ve wasted it and when we haven’t.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Power of Nice. In it you affirm a number of values that seem both obvious and recommend behavior that requires very little effort. Nonetheless, so-called “common courtesy” seems uncommon. Why?

Koval: Today’s corporate culture glorifies a dog-eat-dog mentality, and most people truly believe the conventional wisdom that “nice guys finish last.” As a result, they tend to overlook or undervalue the nice acts that otherwise might seem obvious. But, as we say in The Power of Nice, it’s important to remember that “nice” doesn’t mean you’re a doormat or a push-over. It does mean you are powerful, respected and ultimately, successful. I think of nice as being the “iron fist in the velvet glove.”

Morris: Here’s what I don’t get. You and your associates are in a ferociously competitive marketplace, New York City advertising. How to conquer that business world with kindness?

Kaplan Thaler: We built The Kaplan Thaler Group not with spears and intimidation, but with flowers and chocolates. Nice is a winning business strategy, and the benefits are clear. By being nice, you’ll get ahead and advance your career. You’ll also grow your business, because people want to do business with you when they like you. Regardless of the industry you’re in, it pays to be nice.

Morris: Presumably you hire only nice people. When interviewing candidates for a position, how do you determine whether or not someone is?

Koval: One of the most telling traits is how they treat the other people in our office. Candidates would be foolish not to put their best foot forward in front of whomever interviews them, but how do they treat the receptionist? And how do they interact with the assistants? Are they respectful, or rude? Pay attention to these interactions, as that’s when people reveal their true colors.


Morris: How do you respond to an employee or client who is rude, inconsiderate, obnoxious, offensive, etc.? Again, can that person be “conquered with kindness”?

Kaplan Thaler: At our agency, we have a policy of limiting the negative. We call it the “yes” sandwich, where we bookend any negative with nice or a “yes.” For example, we once had a client complain about an employee’s unresponsiveness. We handled this with a nice sandwich — telling the employee how valued he was by the company and client, then addressing the problem and finally working with him to outline a solution.

Morris: The title of your most recent book is The Power of Small. In it, you cite several examples of acts of kindness, of “niceness.” How do you explain the fact that, although most people seem to appreciate such acts, few people initiate them?

Koval: The beauty of living in this digital age is that we’re connected around the world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And while that makes a lot of things, professionally and personally, much easier, we also tend to lose sight about what’s right in front of us as a result. We’re all moving so fast – Facebooking, IM’ing and Tweeting — that sometimes we fail to notice the important small details or make the connections that can ultimately help our careers and personal lives.  We have to start “sweating the small stuff” more.

Morris: As a father of four and a grandfather of ten, I realized as I read this book that much of its advice – if shared with children by their parents, grandparents, and other adults — could help them to develop their social skills. Presumably you agree.

Kaplan Thaler: Yes, the smallest gestures can have the biggest impact on your life and your relationships – whether with a friend, colleague or significant other. In The Power of Small, for example, we tell people to make small talk and chat with someone new, to embrace “stranger danger.” So when you’re standing in line at the supermarket or job fair, take off your bluetooth, take out your headphones and talk to the person in line next to you. You’ll be surprised what opportunities come your way as a result.

And small talk can even be life altering. In The Power of Small, we also share the incredible story of how Sandie, a barista at Starbucks, came to be the reason her customer, Annamarie, is alive today. I could tell you more, but no one shares the story better than they do. We have a wonderful video of their journey on our website (, and I encourage everyone to take a look.

Morris: You also explain how and why attention to details has practical value. For those who have not as yet read The Power of Small, please cite a few of those examples. Of “going the extra inch,” for example.

Koval: Yes, in The Power of Small, we share several “Small Changes” that we all can make on an everyday basis. For example:

  • GO THE EXTRA INCH: When you’ve completed a task, a memo, a quarterly budget – anything that you’re just glad to be done with — stop and tell yourself you still have one minute left. Spend just those sixty seconds rereading a troublesome paragraph, or adding up the numbers again.
  • TAKE BABY STEPS: Instead of making a list of big, difficult-to-achieve goals, create an action list and reenvision those goals into “mini-tasks” you can actually accomplish on a day-to-day basis. “Mini-tasks” – successfully completed – can accrue to significant success.
  • MAKE IT BIG BY THINKING SMALL: Make molehills out of mountains. If you have a huge problem that seems too big to solve, chances are you’re trying to solve the wrong problem. Instead, tackle a smaller problem first, and slowly the huge, knotty dilemma will begin to unravel, one thread at a time.

Morris: Since the book was published, have readers shared with you any especially interesting examples of “the power of small” from their own experiences?

Kaplan Thaler: Yes, our readers have been tremendously responsive. Whether it’s online or after a speech we’ve given somewhere across the country, they reach out to us and share how small has affected their own lives. It’s helped people stay motivated in tough times, whether in their personal or professional lives. We’ve heard how small kept an individual’s job search going, and how it helped someone else cope with a loved one’s illness.

Morris: By now I have become convinced of what I call “the invisibility of the obvious.” It seems to me that all of us, each day, have dozens of opportunities to be “nice” and to appreciate what is “small” if we recognize them. How can people become more alert?


Kaplan Thaler: We all can do a better job of appreciating the little things in our lives. For example, try each night to tally up the things that went right today. Did your daughter call to say thank you for helping her get an “A” on her test? Did a client compliment a member of your team? Make a list of five positive things that happened in the course of a stressful day. Appreciate them, and try to do more of those things tomorrow.


Morris: Long ago, I learned that some mistakes (e.g. typos) are much more damaging than others. Please cite a few especially informative examples of how important a seemingly insignificant detail can be.


Koval: Yes, it’s the little mistakes that can spell disaster.  So take a breath and add a minute to proofread that résumé, email or portfolio. One “small” typo speaks volumes about you.  And once it is e-mailed, there is no delete in cyber space — you’ll enter the “spell-check hall of shame” for all eternity.  And I know this just as well as anyone. Our agency created the Aflac duck, and as a result, I type the word “duck” a lot. Well, I used to have the Blackberry Pearl, where the “u” and the “i” were on the same key. Let’s just say proofreading an email to the Aflac client saved me from making a very racy mistake.


Morris: Mistakes are inevitable. Everyone makes them and some are worse than others. I am among those who believe that an especially serious crisis that results from a major mistake does not develop character, it reveals it. When one occurs, let’s say in client service, there is a unique opportunity to demonstrate one’s strengths, to “shine,” to “rise to the occasion,” to “make it right,” etc. Do you agree?


Kaplan Thaler: Definitely. We all make mistakes. But it’s how one handles those mistakes that reveal what we’re made of, and are the most telling about our character.


Morris: Which question do you wish you had been asked during this interview – but weren’t — and what is your response to it?

Koval: Well, I would just add that the amazing thing about small is that it can change the world – whether it’s something we do to help an individual, community or country across the globe. Each and every one of us has the power to leave this place in a better state than the way we found it, because our small day-to-day actions and decisions, combined together with the actions of millions others, can transform the world. We think it’s an incredibly powerful and empowering message.

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Kaplan Thaler and Koval invite you to visit these Web sites:


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