Last month, Kaplan Thaler, 51, was named Ad Woman of the Year by the Advertising Women of New York - a recognition of both her agency, which has grown from $25 million to $225 million in billings in four years, and an ode to the woman herself. When Kaplan Thaler took the stage at the awards luncheon, batting back tears after a six-piece band had performed a medley of her jingles, she opened with a question: "How did I get here? What prodigious finger of fate propelled me to this podium?"
She's an unlikely CEO, as she's the first to admit. Until her late 20s, she was an East Village actress, musician, children's song writer and teacher with a B.A. in psychology and a Master's in music. She shunned the business world until a student, Stuart Pittman, who's now an art director at KTG, urged her to parlay her gift for snappy tunes into ad jingles. She found writing for advertising "better than 2 a.m. shows at Bonnie and Clyde's," and she eventually landed a copywriting gig at J. Walter Thompson in New York, where she remained for 17 years, working on accounts like Burger King, Northwest Airlines and Clairol. It was during this time that she wrote her first national jingle, for Toys R Us, on a toy piano. "When it first broke, I remember hearing a 4-year-old singing the song at a bus stop and the mother was screaming at the kid, 'Shut up!' And I thought to myself, This is it! I've made it."
Despite the daily hassles of running an agency, Kaplan Thaler still thrives on the hands-on work. She wrote the over-the-top lyrics to a current Coldwell Banker spot, a sexy tango between brokers and clients, directed by Bob Giraldi and set to a score by her husband, musician Fred Thaler. Years after she broke the taboo on humor in women's hair care (with a spot for Nice 'n Easy, featuring Julia Louis-Dreyfus coloring a woman's hair on a bus), Kaplan Thaler continues to produce female-centric advertising for Clairol and Pilot pens that's just left of politically correct. "Women haven't been able to laugh at themselves since women's lib," she says. "Herbal advertising is basically saying, 'You had a bad day. You deserve to lighten up. Here's a little advertising. We all know that shampoo gets your hair clean. Have a good time.' "
It must be noted that Kaplan Thaler's ads are not universally liked - the Herbal Essence orgasm was ranked one of the least popular commercials by USA Today's consumer poll, for example, and the Kodak Moment has evolved into sarcastic shorthand for cheesy behavior - but they do get results. Sales of Herbal Essence shampoo have skyrocketed, and AFLAC's talking duck has decisively put the insurance provider on the public's radar. Kaplan Thaler's advertising is so successful, in fact, that holding companies were wooing her after her first year in business. The decision to sell to MacManus in 1999, now BCom3, was simple, she says. "I didn't want to be alone in this world."
Despite the success of her agency, Kaplan Thaler never set out to be an entrepreneur. In fact, she never even understood the drive toward leadership. "I never wanted to be class president," she says. "I could never figure out why anyone wanted to be the head of anything. I never had a passion to 'succeed.' I just had passion."