Aflac’s First CMO Defends Its Loyalty To The Duck

For the first time in its 51-year history, insurance provider Aflac has hired a chief marketing officer, Jeff Herbert, 46. Herbert, who started earlier this month, held executive marketing positions at Kraft, Campbell Soup and The Coca-Cola Co. before joining The Zyman Group in Atlanta in 2004. Last week, he met with the agency that created Aflac’s iconic duck, Publicis’ Kaplan Thaler Group.

Adweek: Why did Aflac decide to add a CMO to the marketing team?

Jeff Herbert: They have to date been managing [rapid growth] without folks that have a significant marketing background. They want to move their brands from awareness to a broader relevance and have marketing contribute to more of the sales results than they have in the past.

Adweek: The duck is great for name recognition, but he doesn’t exactly explain what Aflac is all about. Can you get across the facts without losing the duck?

Herbert: In the past, when we’ve cast the duck to help with awareness, he did a really good job. Somewhere around 2003 we watched our numbers and saw that some of the key message points of Aflac, like paying money directly to you or helping with bills if you’re disabled, weren’t coming across as well. More recent commercials had the duck facilitate that discussion. The numbers regarding understanding among consumers skyrocketed. There’s nothing to lead me to believe the duck is unidimensional. He can do many things for us.

Adweek: Does it concern you that there are people out there who don’t like the duck?

Herbert: No, it doesn’t. The reality is that whenever you use spokescharacters they can be polarizing. You can’t please everybody. That’s why we do the research. If we had seen that significant numbers of consumers didn’t like the duck, it would have led us into a different direction, but we’re not seeing that. Now that doesn’t mean his role may not change from time to time. But he’s been very good to the corporation, so we’re very loyal.

Adweek: More than 90 percent of Aflac’s media spend goes to TV, but viewer attention is shifting away from that medium. How are you going to follow those viewers?

Herbert: Closely. We had a conversation with our CEO [Dan Amos] the other day. During the last five years, Aflac went from a very small awareness base to a very high one. To do that quickly, TV was a good vehicle for us. Now that we’ve achieved that, there are a lot of different target groups and messages that other media will help us with.

Adweek: But why hasn’t Aflac diversified its media yet?

Herbert: Because TV was working. If it’s not broke, don’t adjust it. But right now, the strategy behind the media mix that they’ve been using with regard to achieving their goals you can’t argue with. As we take it to the next level, you’ll see a lot more diversity in our buys.

Adweek: Two years ago, the Aflac duck had a cameo in the kid-targeted Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Do you have plans for more branded entertainment?

Herbert: The duck is a celebrity in and of itself, and I think appearances and tie-ins make [sense] as long as they are target specific. What you won’t see is the duck…in any children’s marketing efforts because we just don’t sell a lot of policies to children.

Adweek: Are you satisfied with what Fitzgerald + Co. and The Kaplan Thaler Group have done on Aflac?

Herbert: I’ll always be looking for good ideas from people who can help us, but I have no intention of taking the business away from people who have helped our success so much in the past. I believe that good work deserves loyalty. At the same time, we’re going to be trying to market on more fronts than we have in the past.

Adweek: One past agency executive described you as being skeptical of agencies’ motives. Do you agree with that characterization?

Herbert: No. I am not skeptical of agencies’ motives. From time to time I am concerned by their operating model. As I get older and remember the relationships I’ve had with agencies, I realize these days there are more and more pulls on their profitability. Because of the high cost of running an agency and clients moving to paying for specific work as opposed to commissions, the notion of a full-service brand partnering agency is harder and harder to find. I’m not suggesting that we need to go back to commissions, but I do get concerned about agencies suggesting that they want to be full brand partners, but having a cost structure that makes that prohibitive.

Adweek: What’s the solution?

Herbert: If I knew, I’d open an agency.

Adweek: Other descriptors we’ve heard about you are “decisive,” “opinionated” and “doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” Accurate?

Herbert: I try to be decisive. I am definitely opinionated, but I find a bigger fault in people who take my opinions as fact and don’t push back. I enjoy and gravitate to people who are willing to engage me in smart strategic discussion. As for suffering fools, I have a pet saying: “If you’re stupid, you need to tell me.” By that I mean if there’s something you don’t understand, tell me so that I understand that I need to help you.

Adweek: How would you describe your management style?

Herbert: Cooperative and fast moving. I like to try a lot of different things. I like to enlist ideas from a broad group of people, see if they work and, if they don’t, get out fast.

To read the full interview, go to