Linda Kaplan Thaler

Kaplan Thaler, 52, always wanted be a star. After 16 years’ creating some classic ads—most notably for Toys R Us—she decided to star in her own show, opening The Kaplan Thaler Group in 1997. (BCom3 bought the shop two years later.) Creatively, reviews have been mixed. In 1998, Advertising Women of New York gave the Clairol Herbal Essences campaign, in which shampooing becomes an orgasmic experience, the Grand Ugly award. This year, however, the agency won the Grand Good for a Girl Scout spot in which a daughter upstages her father in physics.

Interviewed by Kathleen Sampey

Q. How does it feel to have won both the Grand Ugly and the Grand Good?

A. I felt like a winner both times. Either way, our work gets noticed. In the case of Herbal Essences, it’s one of the most successful campaigns of all time.

Do you think your agency’s work for Clairol and Aflac is unfairly judged by your peers?

Judgment from the industry is not on my radar. We do advertising for the larger culture.

How did it feel to pitch an account as big as the $170 million Capital One, which McCann-Erickson ended up winning?

It was our most exciting business pitch by far. … In the interim, we did some fabulous work, which will soon be on the air.

What was your most recent creative coup?

Being invited into the Procter & Gamble agency roster when they bought Clairol.

What’s the biggest misconception about your agency?

That it’s a woman’s agency. We probably have more men than women here.

What inspired you to get into advertising?

I was working Off-Broadway in the road company of Stop the World, I Want to Get Off. I was very anxious to become a star of something. But I also wanted to eat. My dad knew somebody at Grey who helped me put a book together.

Who had the biggest influence on your career?

Woody Allen for his impeccable ability to find similes between obtuse connections. If you look at something like the Aflac duck, there doesn’t seem to be a connection between it and an insurance company. It’s a bridge between two dissimilar things. Woody Allen makes observations like, “Not only is God unattainable, but try getting a plumber on Sundays.” It’s making grandiose connections to life’s minutiae. I’ve seen every film about 20 times. He used to live in my building. Then he moved out. I don’t know if it was something I said, since we never spoke.

What was your first ad?

It was in 1978 for Kodak’s Colorburst camera. It was a smiling dolphin that Dick Van Dyke took a picture of as the dolphin burst out of the water. I had only been at the agency [J. Walter Thompson] three weeks when we sold it.

What work are you most proud of?

The pro bono work I’ve done for Rwanda refugees, UJA and the Red Cross. I’m proud of Toys R Us, Aflac. We like to create big-bang advertising that gets out to the public.

What’s the last book you bought?

The Diamond Cutter. It was written by a Tibetan Buddhist monk [Michael Roach] and describes his business practices. It’s the most influential book I’ve read for my career.

What is your biggest fear?

That the world has the wrong impression of America. We need to correct it. Fast.

What is your biggest accomplishment?

Michael, age 11, and Emily, 7. I couldn’t have done it without my husband.

You helped create Heineken’s “True conversations” campaign as an ecd at Wells Rich Greene in the mid-’90s. What was the thinking behind it?

We decided to emphasize the iconic red star for that campaign. The first spot featured [the voices] of a husband and wife, and the wife admits she didn’t know who wrote Moby Dick. Someone in the agency overheard that exact conversation. We didn’t show people in the spots. I have a Jewish frugality gene. It was all voiceovers. We saved on the residuals. We also used Mary Matalin and James Carville but didn’t show them. One of the lines was, “Politics is cruel. Marriage is crueler.”

You’ve composed jingles for several of your clients. Do they pop into your head or do you have to labor over them?

Writing the melody is the easy part. The lyrics are much harder. The hardest part is distilling your idea down to that hook line. I wrote the Toys R Us melody on a toy piano in a cabin in the middle of Massachusetts in February 1981. There was nothing else to do there, so I started playing it.

What instruments do you play?

I’m best at piano. But I also play flute, guitar and banjo. Actually, my best instrument is the computer keypad.

What other productions have you acted in?

I was in the touring company of Hair in 1973 and got thrown out because I wouldn’t take my clothes off. When I auditioned, they said I wouldn’t have to, then changed their minds. Just before the show opened, I decided not to and they threw me out.

If you were given a chance to play any famous part on the stage, what would it be?

A woman in advertising. The inherent comedy of our business would create one hysterical show to rival The Producers.