By Susan Josephs
Linda Kaplan Thaler Growing up, Linda Kaplan Thaler had no plans to become a leader. Rather, she was the type of schoolgirl who wrote the skits that helped other people become president of the student council. "My interest was always in the creative," she says. "I started my own company out of happenstance."
As the CEO and chief creative officer of the seven-year-old Kaplan Thaler Group, ranked as the fastest-growing advertising agency in New York, the 53-year-old lives and breathes the philosophy of carpe diem. The creative dynamo behind marketing icons such as AFLAC's talking duck, the "I Don't Want to Grow Up" song for Toys-R-Us and Clairol's Herbal Essences ("Yes! Yes! Yes!") shampoo campaign, Kaplan Thaler credits her long list of achievements and numerous awards to "not having a vision, a five-year plan and other traditional business tenets. These are not conducive to creativity," she says. "It's so hard to get your message across in today's world, so what you create has to be a big bang, which means the old rules do not apply."
In her recent best-selling book, Bang! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World (Doubleday), Kaplan Thaler also espouses what might be described as core Jewish values for running a successful advertising agency. Essentially, she believes that acting like a mensch is good for business. "In my company the only way people can get fired is if they degrade or insult someone else," she says. "It's crucial to have a set of ethics and morals in the workplace; you should have a sense of tzedakah and be nurturing to the people who work for you."
Raised in a middle-class family in the Bronx, Kaplan Thaler graduated from City College of New York with a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in music. "There I was, studying serious musical composition, and everything that came out of me sounded like a Broadway diddy," she recalls.
She spent several years working as an actress and touring with regional theater companies. That's when her father, thinking his daughter "should actually be getting paid" for her work, tapped a connection who helped her land a job as a junior copywriter at the J. Walter Thompson ad agency. Kaplan Thaler stayed there 17 years, running major accounts such as Pepsi, Kodak and Burger King. Ultimately, "there was a glass ceiling," she says. "It was an old, established agency that wouldn't a consider a woman at its helm."
At 27, Kaplan Thaler took her first trip to Israel. "I had always felt Jewish up here," she recalls, pointing at her head. "That trip changed me."
With her composer husband, Fred Thaler, Kaplan Thaler created a series of pro bono films for the United Jewish Appeal that have helped raise millions of dollars. She loves speaking at UJA events, where people know her song "Keep the Fire Burning," and feels gratified by the "chance to give back."
Other than continuing to do pro bono work and spend time with her husband and two children, Kaplan Thaler has no idea about her plans for the future. "All I know," she observes, "is that I'm one of those strange people who loves, loves, loves what they do."