Q&A: Aflac CMO Herbert

NEW YORK 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 Coca-Cola 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?

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 one-dimensional. 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. …All the research we have suggests it’s a memorable and likeable piece of communications without any wear out at this point.

Adweek: If you’re going to explain products involving catastrophic illness or disability, it might seem flip to use the duck. Do you agree?

Herbert: No, however, the way we would go about explaining specifics would change his role. There is no specific formula for use of this specific character at this point in time. My group is not bound by a specific formula that anyone’s declared yet. Different communications pieces will change from time to time.

Adweek: Which ad campaigns that you’ve worked on are you most proud of?

Herbert: I was a real big fan of the work we did on Kraft Macaroni & Cheese when we opened up our advertising to the kids’ market for the first time. That was about 1989 and we were working with Foote Cone. The target was mothers with kids and then expanded to one specifically targeting kids. The work took a category and a brand that was over 50 years old and introduced it to a brand new market. It drove sales increases that hadn’t been seen on that brand until that point. From a Coke standpoint, I was very involved in bringing the idea of “Coca-Cola Real” back into the organization. It was an acknowledgement to consumers that they talked about the brand like that for a long time. The work talked to them in their language about something they’re in love with.

Adweek: What is the one big lesson you learned from working with Sergio Zyman both at Coke and at the Zyman Group?

Herbert: What Sergio does brilliantly is think about potential next steps that the competitor might make and whether to engage, how to engage or not to engage. Overall, in the time that I’ve been with him what I’ve learned most is just the idea of how to think about competition in a different way and how to execute across a number of different scenarios that may occur.

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 an awful lot of sense as long as they are target specific. What you won’t see is the duck ending up in any children’s marketing efforts because we just don’t sell a lot of policies to children. There is a role for him in some more sophisticated and adult tie-ins.

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

Herbert: 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. So the [Aflac] group will be looking to other folks for help, but that doesn’t mean we’ll trade the folks who have contributed to our success.

Adweek: Do you like a strong-willed agency or one that puts faith in your creative judgment?

Herbert: Yes to both. I want the agency to give credit to the fact that there are people in the company that spend every minute of their waking hours on the brand and services in a way an agency simply can’t by the way they’re structured. I look for an understanding that the brand team will lead the process. But any leader is only as good as the people he’s got under him. I expect the agency to push where appropriate and try to get the best work out the door.

Adweek: Do you expect an agency to execute your ideas or are you more interested in being told when you’re on the wrong track?

Herbert: I’ve never been in an agency situation where either of those black and white situations have been the case. You work together to get the best work and correct each other along the way.

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 I’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.

This is an expanded version of an interview that ran in the Oct. 16 print edition of Adweek.