The Niceties Of Nice

Growing up in the Bronx, I certainly learned my share of four-letter words, but none more powerful than N-I-C-E. It’s a word whose power is vastly underrated and whose image desperately needs an extreme brand makeover. There is a deeply rooted belief in our culture that in order to succeed, you have to act like a bloodthirsty medieval warrior, and that niceness is for the weak and the naive. That’s why people buy books like Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office and Leadership, Sopranos Style. That’s why reality shows encourage contestants to “eat their young” in order to survive.

It takes courage to be nice. It takes bravery to give kudos to your competitor, especially in the advertising business. It takes creativity to manage a difficult employee with kindness (and no, not just the creatives). As every agency can attest, we can spend hours feverishly creating new business pitches, pouring over details and brainstorming campaigns that will “wow” prospective clients. But the fruits of all this effort can be lost in an instant if your team overlooks one important detail—being nice.

A new business consultant told us a story about how an ad agency vying for a huge account along with two other hot shops was summarily dropped, even though this agency’s presentation was the best one. It turned out that when the prospective client arrived at the airport, an executive from the agency neglected to help her with her bags. The deal was lost right there. Talk about lost luggage!

When we started The Kaplan Thaler Group, we never made a conscious decision to be a “nice” company. We just knew that to be successful we had to start with a set of ethics and moral behavior. We somehow knew that kindness and consideration would be the building blocks for achieving our dreams. But we never imagined this often neglected wisdom would lead our tiny little agency to $1 billion in billings in under a decade. Or that some of the nicest seeds we’d sown in the past would flower for our benefit years later.

Here’s a perfect example. About six years ago, I received a call from a company in Columbus, Ga. The name of that company was Aflac. At the time, Aflac was, and still is, an extremely successful Fortune 200 company, but its name awareness was quite low. We didn’t have a clue as to who they were. But we called them back, because that’s our agency policy. Everyone gets a returned call, e-mail or letter.

We pitched the account and one of our brilliant creative teams, Tom Amico and Eric David, came up with the Aflac duck campaign, and we won the business. Aflac went on to become one of the most recognized names in the country.

So you’re thinking, OK, you called Aflac back. Well, was that really so nice? Lots of companies call prospective clients back, large or small. You’re right, but the good deed started many years before that.

Once we had the business, I asked our client how they found us. They had gotten our name from a man named Gerry Lukeman, whose research firm tested the Aflac commercials. This perplexed me to no end, because I had never met Gerry.

So I called Gerry and learned that he got my name from a friend in Connecticut who recommended me. This gentleman was the former owner of a business I had worked on in the 1980s. But I had never worked with him, so why did he recommend me?

Then it hit me like that HeadOn ad. Fifteen years ago, I had taken this man out to lunch!

Why? Because I knew he was retired and cared deeply about the business I worked on. After all, this company was his baby. I felt I owed him the courtesy of a lunch, because he deserved my attention and respect. It was a simple gesture. I’m not Mother Teresa here; I just thought that an hour out of my life was not too much to give to someone who deserved it.

Little did I realize that this meal would be followed 10 years later with a dessert sweeter than I could ever have imagined. A phone call that would change the destiny of two companies. Now that’s the power of nice. Spread the word.