Who owns the AFLAC duck? | Bruce Turkel

My friend Andrew Jaffee writes the kinds of articles that make me wish everyone could read them and that I had written them. I can’t do much about the latter but can at least help with the former by posting his brilliance. You can find more at Andrew’s blog.
When NY ad agency Kaplan Thaler won the Aflac account ten years ago it was given an interesting challenge: Make employers subscribe to Aflac as a premium auxiliary health plan for their employees.

Most agencies would have rushed to come up with a B2B solution. But Kaplan Thaler had a better idea: How about going direct to employees with a big-budget TV campaign and get them to “ask about it at work,” in other words bug their bosses to take on Aflac as an added benefit.

Today few people in America don’t associate the name Aflac (the company until recently was formally called the American Family Life Assurance Co. of Columbus, Georgia) with that intrusive duck which became the singular icon of the campaign.

Awareness is sky high, but more important Aflac has enjoyed double digit sales growth almost throughout the entire period – at least up until the 2007-2009 recession, which resulted in companies cutting back in benefits across the board. But there has always been grousing inside the company that many people responded to the duck – but didn’t have the faintest idea what the duck would do for them.

In recent years the Aflac campaign tried to be less entertaining and more descriptive: Aflac pays cash benefits to people who are unable to work due to sickness or injury. But a lot of people just enjoyed the way the duck got in the way.

Sales recently have been way down with Aflac as with almost everything else employers are asked to give away. So the decision was made by Jeff Charney, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Aflac, to call a review in order to solicit ideas.

Charney enlisted the services of a first-rate search consultant, who immediately learned that Kaplan Thaler wouldn’t be defending. That’s written in stone at the agency and is probably a good policy. [The agency won’t be suffering having recently won the Wendy’s account; the lead agency on NAPA Auto Parts; and is now a finalist in the rush for Ikea.]

Time will tell whether the new agency, the Zimmerman Agency in Tallahassee, Fl., will be able to get the sales meter zooming again.

“We wanted to make sure we have the agency that could portray the duck in the most relevant way,” said Charney, complimenting Zimmerman for a new campaign – that appeared on giant billboards in Times Square-that drove people first to one site, youdontknowquack.com, and then to another, knowquack.com. Zimmerman has come up with elements that include an Aflac presence on Facebook, YouTube, a line of duck clothing (?); a Quack energy drink, commercials during NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics; and on and on. It almost wears me out just listing where you’re going to be asked if you know quack.

But wait a minute. Go back a frame. Charney wants to portray the duck – and therefore Aflac -“ in the most relevant way.” Aflac is a brand owned by American Family Life. No question about that. But what’s intriguing and what hasn’t been spelled out in the NY Times coverage of Zimmerman’s win is who owns the duck.

You could say, “Well, eh bien, the duck is generic is it not?” Sort of, I think the IP lawyers would tell you. But not when you ad that voice and its other attributes. (Wikipedia credits the famous voice for the duck to Gilbert Gottfried. The idea for the voice supposedly came over lunch when one of the agency’s creatives kept saying, “Aflac. Aflac.” And realized the name sounded to him like a duck’s quack.).

Anyway the duck is a package of IP. Some agencies have been able to resist client demands that anything they produced for a client in connection with the advertising belongs to the client. That’s too bad. Normally the advertising, and perhaps any advertising the agency produces after the icon first appears, should be the client’s.

Or so says the Association of National Advertisers. But some would argue as I have in my book, “Chasing Big Ideas,” the IP rights to characters, graphic ideas, etc. should reside with the agency. If the client wishes to use it after leaving the agency-a rights fee should attach. And even while the client is with the agency, if the client wishes to use the agency-created icon in any medium other advertising, further payment should be made-at least I believe so: You make that duck into a line of clothing or an energy drink, you pay.

It’s hard to be firm with a client who is dangling a multi-million dollar assignment and playing hardball. It starts with agencies early in the pitch process establishing the own ground rules. You want us, with our dynamite ideas and new thinking, then there are certain things we demand.

Jay Chiat is the last guy I knew in American advertising who would have walked after winning an account if the terms weren’t right or the client tried to change the deal. There ought to be plaque put up to honor his orneriness.

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