True Grit: Linda Kaplan Thaler on the Importance of Sweat Equity

Disruption, Hard Work and Going Beyond Client Expectations Are Vital to Success

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Linda Kaplan Thaler, chairman of Publicis New York, steered many iconic campaigns, including the famous "Yes, Yes, Yes" ads for Herbal Essences in 1994.

Ms. Kaplan Thaler, who was named one of Ad Age's 100 Most Influential Women in Advertising for her innovative work and diverse, public career, talked on the phone about her experiences and her upcoming talk at Ad Age's Small Agency Conference in Boston on July 30. The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.

Linda Kaplan Thaler
Linda Kaplan Thaler

This year, Ms. Kaplan Thaler was inducted in the Advertising Hall of Fame for accomplishments including founding the Kaplan Thaler Group in 1997, and she cowrote a book with Robin Koval, "Grit to Great: How Perseverance, Passion and Pluck Can Take You from Ordinary to Extraordinary."

What do you think of the Publicis Kaplan Thaler name change to Publicis New York?

I was very much part of the decision, and I just felt that the timing was right. Kaplan Thaler merged with Publicis, and that merger created an awesome company with a tremendous amount of global, local and national clients. Publicis New York then became the flagship office of Publicis worldwide. Because we are winning more and more new global business such as Cadillac, it makes sense that we have one name: Publicis.

What habits do you recommend for people in advertising?

There's this notion that everyone has to be a Mark Zuckerberg and make it before they're 25. Life is not a sprint; it's a marathon. The goal could take five, 15 or 30 years. I also beg people to stop dreaming about what they want to do. ... When you look at people who are dreamers, they rarely put in the effort to wake up, stop dreaming and put in the work every day.

Your Herbal Essences campaign was considered risque during its release. Does a campaign have to take a risk to be successful?

It has to be disruptive. It has to be yin when everyone is yangin'. I say to clients, the worst risk you can take is no risk at all. It takes some understanding and empathy with the client. You have to convince them that it's worth it.

From the beginning [of Kaplan Thaler Group], we thought we should say yes to everybody. Get the gig first. The grit was very much in the now. What do we need to do today? If somebody is asking for something, how can we go above and beyond that?

Can you tell me about your talk at the Small Agency Conference?

We will be talking about my background as a middle-class girl from the Bronx. I switched careers to advertising -- didn't start until I was 28. And then I started my own agency 17 years ago. I'll talk about some of the things I did to grow the business. Now, [Publicis New York] has a billion dollars in billings and over 800 employees. It's kind of a rags to riches story.

My new book talks about the common perception that you have to be incredibly talented or brilliant to make it. Research has shown that virtually all successful people were all normal growing up. They didn't have "it" factor, but they did have the grit factor. Thomas Edison was considered an idiot. Colin Powell was a C student, Steven Spielberg was rejected from a few film schools. Many make the assumption that you have to have brilliant creative juices. It helps, but it's not everything. Very few make it to the top. The ones who do have sweat equity.

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