Robin Koval Says Millennial Activism Will End Smoking

Truth Initiative

Robin Koval has never been afraid of a challenge. In fact, she seems to view her life as a series of leaps from ledges. A former advertising executive and a four-time author, Koval's latest leap has her telling the truth about all of big tobacco's dirty little secrets.

"A little fear is good for the soul, I think," Koval says. In 2013, she left her comfortable job at the helm of one of New York City's largest advertising agencies to join a nonprofit initiative preparing for a relaunch in Washington, D.C. She calls her position as president and CEO of the Truth Initiative a "leap off the ledge, but one that I thought I had to do."

The Truth Initiative advocates and works for a tobacco-free society. Earlier this year, Truth petitioned Walgreens to stop selling tobacco products in its pharmacy and convenience store locations. The petition received more than 5,000 signatures, and Truth even organized a rally outside of Walgreens' shareholder meeting.

"We own stock so we were able to get somebody in the room at the [Walgreens] shareholder meeting to actually ask the question of the board members," Koval says.

As it turns out, Truth wasn't the only group to pose such a question. Walgreens Boots Alliance executive chairman James Skinner reportedly chalked the decision to sell cigarettes up to consumer choice, but he did note the potential for change. "We've reviewed this on a regular basis, and it's always up for a review and decision down the road," he said.

Although they haven't convinced Walgreens to stop selling tobacco products (yet), Koval, her team, and other anti-tobacco advocates have enjoyed some noteworthy successes in recent years. When the initiative's truth campaign started in 2000, 23 percent of teens smoked cigarettes, Koval says. Now, that number has apparently reached an all-time low of just 6 percent, according to an average of data on teen smoking rates from the University of Michigan. While recognizing that her job isn't done until that population reaches zero percent, Koval remains optimistic.

"I really believe that this is the generation that will end smoking, and that is incredibly empowering," she says. "My job as CEO is, sometimes I think, to be the biggest cheerleader for that."

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As cheerleader, Koval encourages millennials to take leaps of their own into advocacy and activism. Truth's Youth Activism Fellows program gives a group of 18-24-year-old participants the resources and support they need to carry out projects, such as creating a tobacco-free campus at Howard University and removing tobacco products from bars and clubs in Orlando, Florida. There's also a program for high school students.

"When a young person takes what we say and repurposes that, it's so much more powerful than what we can do," Koval says.

To truly create a tobacco-free youth, though, Truth may need all the power it can get. It's up against big tobacco companies that know how to creatively target their messages. And according to Koval, they're not just targeting — they're profiling.

"If you're poor, if you live in a community that is not as well accessed, if you belong to certain population groups, you've got a target on your back and the tobacco industry knows that," she says. She's referring to the statistic that African-American neighborhoods can have 10 times more tobacco ads, on average, than other neighborhoods. "It's not happenstance," Koval says.

Truth Initiative

If anyone can understand the advertising strategy of big tobacco, it's Koval. Before leaping into the nonprofit world, an earlier jump landed Koval a successful career of her own in advertising. In 1997, she co-founded the Kaplan Thaler Group (now Publicis Kaplan Thaler) with her business partner, Linda Kaplan Thaler. Over time, she grew that "little agency in a brownstone" with six employees into a billion-dollar global company, creating such recognizable advertising campaigns as the Aflac duck.

There's more to be learned from Koval's various career leaps than that it pays just to simply take those scary steps. Surely, it also matters how you take them. Within a corporate, competitive industry, the women-owned agency she founded was known for its niceness, she says. "Instead of pitchforks and spears, we like to say we did it with flowers and chocolate," she says.

In fact, The Power of Nice became one of four books that Koval has co-authored with Kaplan Thaler. The book is based on the idea that the old adage about nice people finishing last is untrue, Koval explains. As she puts it, being mean "always comes back to haunt you." She notes that the power of being nice is even more relevant in today's world, where so much of what you say can be chronicled and picked apart online. (I'd argue that it's also relevant thanks to today's divisive and often mean-spirited political climate.)

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It's not often that you hear a powerful CEO credit their success to politeness. Then again, it's also not every day that you hear someone say that eliminating tobacco from American youth culture is doable. Koval's goals are as high as the ledges she leaps from, but as she puts it, "If you're not willing to risk failure, you're never going to move forward."

Perhaps the best insight Koval imparts is to see those lofty goals as feasible. That's how she looks at her current mission of ending tobacco usage. "If you think of the big challenges in the world, there are ones that we hope will be solved but will never be solved," she says. "What's so unique about this challenge is that we can ... they can be the generation that ends smoking."

Whether it's ending smoking or landing a dream job, leaping from within a comfort zone to unknown territory can be daunting. But, it can also lead to a successful business, a lifelong business partner, and a newfound passion for advocacy. In other words, leap off the ledge. Become an activist. Find your passion. Oh, and always tell the truth.