Why it Pays to Pay it Forward

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Linda Kaplan Thaler
Linda Kaplan Thaler

There's a well-known saying that “nice guys finish last.” But Linda Kaplan Thaler is a living example of how nice guys—or rather nice women—finish first. Kaplan Thaler, chairman of the integrated ad agency Publicis and coauthor of The Power of Nice, shared her amiable anecdotes at the 2014 Direct Marketing News Hall of Femme event in New York.

When Kaplan Thaler founded the Kaplan Thaler Group in 1997, she didn't have a vision. So, she decided to start with one ethical, yet often unpopular, word: nice. “I'm not going to lead with pitchforks and spears,” Kaplan Thaler said. “I'm going to lead with flowers and chocolates because that's the way to creativity.”

Nice, Kaplan Thaler said, is often misconstrued for being a doormat or forever pouring champagne. But doing something nice is the equivalent of throwing seeds that bloom into new opportunities, she said. She provided eight principles of nice that can produce even nicer results.

1. Be nice to everyone. Richard Davis, president CEO of U.S. Bank, had whittled his agency choices down to the final few. When he went to visit the Kaplan Thaler Group, he asked the security guard to direct him to the right floor, Kaplan Thaler said. The security guard told Davis how the agency's employees were always getting him coffee and even visited him when he was in the hospital. By the time Davis reached the Kaplan Thaler Group offices on the 29th floor, he knew it was the agency for him, she said. 

“‘If they're this nice to the security guard, I can only imagine how they're going to treat my people,'” Kaplan Thaler said summarizing Davis's words.

Sometimes a small gesture has big payoffs. When Kaplan Thaler Group was asked to head marketing for Aflac, the supplemental insurance company only had a 3% brand awareness rating. But a quick quack of genius--the introduction of the Aflac duck--boosted the brand's awareness up to 96%. Kaplan Thaler said that she later called up Aflac's CEO and asked him why he gave her agency the account. According to the story, the executive said that Kaplan Thaler had actually been recommended by his best friend Bruce—a man she had taken out to lunch early in his career who had always wanted to repay her.

2. Think before you act. “Negative comments are like germs,” Kaplan Thaler said. “If I tell you that I don't like [your] watch it's going to take five compliments before you'll even trust me again.”

It's easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment. But before sending an angry email or posting a negative comment on social media, marketers should ask themselves if they want their words on the front page of The New York Times, Kaplan Thaler said. If not, refrain from hitting “send.”

3. Stop starring in your own movie. Instead of focusing on how marketers can shine the spotlight on themselves, marketers should focus on how they can shine the spotlight on their clients. “As you go through life, don't expect applause,” Kaplan Thaler said.

4. Don't talk too much. Silence is golden—literally. Closing the mouth and opening the ears can help marketers focus more on their clients' agendas and less on their own. “You can't absorb any information when you're talking,” she said.

5. Don't discount the value of small talk. Small talk can be painstakingly awkward. But Kaplan Thaler said that five minutes of chatter before or after a meeting can be prime time to pick a client's brain. “Every time you don't engage in conversation with someone, it's a door that's closed that could have been opened,” she said.

6. Sweeten the deal. “It's all about the customer” is a leading marketing mantra. However, not enough marketers apply this mantra to their own customers—their clients. Kaplan Thaler advised marketers to do what they can to make their clients comfortable—such as asking about their kids or remembering their favorite beverage.

7. Bake a bigger pie. In today's competitive environment, everyone is trying to get their own piece of the pie. Rather than fighting to get their own slice, Kaplan Thaler encouraged marketers to just “bake a bigger pie.” Instead of trying to come up with a bunch of competing concepts, come up with one solid idea and make sure that the whole team is behind it, she said. 

8. Get some GRIT. Everyone experiences failure, but it's how you handle that failure that determines your level of success. Michael Jordan didn't stop playing basketball when he didn't make his high school varsity team, and Steven Spielberg didn't give up his love of film after being rejected from film school three times. They all had what Kaplan Thaler called GRIT—guts, resilience, initiative, and tenacity—and it's something that all marketers need today.

“Be nice,” she concluded, “And have GRIT.”

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