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Management in Practice

How Can Marketers Get a Message through the Noise?

In the digital age, a cacophony of competing media and devices has compressed marketers’ opportunity to reach consumers. Linda Kaplan Thaler, former chairman of Publicis Kaplan Thaler, says that to make an impact, advertisements must be funny, concise, and intensely focused.

When the game gets slow, check out the commentary on Twitter. If social media is quiet, perhaps Netflix has what you’re looking for. Eighty-seven percent of all consumers use more than one device—TV cellphone, laptop, tablet—simultaneously, according to Adweek. People drift along in an informational torrent, raising complex questions for the advertising world.

“It used to be that you had a 30-second elevator speech” with TV commercials, said Linda Kaplan Thaler, former chairman of Publicis Kaplan Thaler, in an interview with Yale Insights. “But we marketers don’t have that anymore. The average attention span is now eight seconds.” To cut through the noise, advertisements must be “incredibly disruptive, incredibly entertaining,” she said. “The central idea has to be abstracted into a very short sound bite or visual bite.”

Thaler, who has designed some of the most recognizable ad campaigns in recent decades, pointed to her firm’s creation of the Aflac duck. When she started collaborating with Aflac, which sells insurance, the company’s brand recognition score was around 12%. Focused on this low rating, Thaler pitched a duck that repeats the company name over and over and over. “You have to throw a pie in someone’s face, then sell them on the whipped cream,” she said. The first day that the advertisement aired, Aflac had more visits to its website than over the course of the prior year. In a short period of time, name recognition shot above 90%.

Alongside the intensifying competition for attention, “the biggest challenge people are having is how to monetize” digital storytelling, Thaler said. “This is a problem that is ongoing, that everyone is struggling with, and the way it works for advertising agencies is that clients often don’t know how to pay us.” As a 2014 Forbes column notes, creating content takes a fixed amount of money, “but the benefits are much less tangible and much less directly measurable.” This problem persists, said Thaler, and often leads to undervaluation of marketing work.

On a personal level, the expansion of digital media proved an inspiration for Thaler’s newest book, Grit to Great, coauthored with Robin Koval and published in 2015. “I was so sick of hearing about the new YouTube sensation,” she said, or about the contestant on The Biggest Loser who loses 40 pounds over commercial break. “That isn’t how it happens.” Instead, Thaler and Koval argue, success takes hard work; it takes sweat equity. From this core idea, they created the acronym GRIT, which stands for guts, resilience, initiative, and tenacity. “It isn’t about that ‘it’ factor—about being born brilliant or beautiful,” she said. “It’s about that ‘grit’ factor.”