Q&A with Alistair Macrow, SVP CMO of McDonald’s

Courtesy of an introduction by Blackbook London, Alistair Macrow the SVP CMO of McDonald's joined us for an incredible 'under the hood' Q&A on client / agency relationships and what a as-senior-as-it-gets client looks for in their creative strategists.

 

HEY ALISTAIR, SO CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT BEING A CMO AND HOW YOU GOT THERE?

So I’m lucky enough to be a CMO for communications at McDonalds. It wasn’t a direct journey. I didn’t start as a marketer. I ran shops for M&S and Debenhams. After 9yrs went into regional marketing, then corporate marketing, then worked for Blockbuster doing marketing and running lots of stuff for a while. Then I moved into McDonalds. I’ve been there for 10yrs now. I look after all the marcomms you’d expect plus the digital and business transformation teams. 

My true love is the marketing and strategy side of the business. I gravitate towards that and honestly, to have an hour to speak to young talent in our business is a great way to spend my time. I would be daunted but I’m always in a room with people smarter than me haha!

 

WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE TO AN AGENCY TRYING TO CREATE BETTER RELATIONSHIPS WITH THEIR CLIENT?

It only works if you invest in it. Heart, thought, time, sometimes having difficult conversations. That’s what I mean by investment. And yes each of our agencies performance is measured and remuneration dolled out, but we’re always having a talk about how we perform better together. 

I’ve never seen the benefit of trying to run this biz at lowest possible cost, we’re judged on effectiveness not on how cheaply you can operate. I get that if you run a pitch you get people coming back with amazing creativity but that doesn’t last unless you invest. I know that things change. Agencies are only as good as the people in them. People come and go. But one of my jobs is to make sure that we are facilitating the right environment for the agency to work with us. 

We get lots of people saying “push them. It doesn’t matter if it’s a ridiculous deadline” that’s ridiculous. Now of course there’s a difficult deadlines but only when there absolutely has to be. In the process of making good work there needs to be tension and debates. So respect on both sides is critical. 

And when it comes to it you need to know who has the most to risk on stuff – when it comes to my brand of course I am going to have the final say. I’m taking all the risk. But honestly, whether the ad is shot one way or the other I don’t mind. I defer to the experts.

 

WHAT DO YOU WANT IN A STRATEGIST WORKING FOR YOU?

I hate lazy strategists. It’s really easy to come in and present ideas that have been done in other industries… I mean I know my brand, business and customers so fresh perspectives backed by genuine insight is what I really respect. Client and agency relationships are at the most critical between the client and the strategist. They need to be able to openly challenge each other to develop thinking. So I always get excited get into a good discussion grounded in facts and strategic decisions. I’ve always had a good connection with strategists because it’s easy for me to relate. If the strategy is right everything else can be fixed. We had an agency once that was continually disappointed in strategy but they saved themselves with really good creative every time. But the better work came when we got better strategists in there. Definitely. Made me stop and think, brought a different perspective to my business. At the heart of it is challenge, trust and respect. But everything needs to start with really smart thinking. That’s why I am so chuffed to be here tonight. And the fact you have over 400 people in Group Think is exciting. Indicates an exciting future.

 

WHAT MAKE SOMETHING AN OBVIOUSLY LAZY STRATEGY, OR A STRATEGIST A LAZY STRATEGIST?

They haven’t analysed the thing fully. They’ve looked at things at face value. That really annoys me. 

For a strategist to be confident in their view is important but they need to be able to listen. In your first 5 years as a strategist that’s especially important. And it’s super important in your first years as a client too. But also you need to have excitement in the business you are working on. I mean what do I really get excited by? Someone that really makes me think. Stops me and blows me away and then takes you through it. If they’re doing that then they haven’t been lazy.


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BIGGEST SURPRISE A PLANNER EVER GAVE YOU? EYE OPENER?

A really recent one for us led to great creative work on the café business. For a long time we’ve had a big challenge getting people to buy coffee from McDonalds. We’ve spent 7 years telling people it’s 100% Arabica, rainforest alliance approved, freshly ground etc. and well all the stuff that we didn’t do… But the messaging that connected was our understanding that customers are more pissed off at (or can at least see the funny side of) the pretention around coffee. For us it’s made a huge difference. For 9 months percentage usage has done up by 17%, and awareness of McCafé up 23% and consideration up 22%.

 

FOR JUNIORS AND MIDWEIGHTS THAT LOOK YOUNG HOW DO YOU EARN THE RESPECT OF A SENIOR FIGURE?

I’d hope they had the respect before they walked in the room but appreciate that’s not always the case. But yeah listening is really important. Don’t go into saying things in meetings for the sake of it. I hate that. So I’d rather strategists looked thoughtful and considerate. 

Even if you’re not the one presenting, taking a second to speak back to the client and relay what you’ve understood – that’s a great way of saying you’re smart and that you understand what they’re thinking. 

Also when you know the client is talking shit, don’t tell them straight away, even if they are! Not just from an ego point of view but just from showing that you are open minded. It’s much easier to go into a room with all the answers and defend it, but readjusting in the course of a meeting that earns you respect. That earns my respect. 

 

LISTENING AND OPENESS IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN YEARS?

Yes. Some things become easier the longer you’ve been around, but it’s a difficult job to do something for 30 years and not have developed your own biases. So youth or bringing new perspectives to stuff is a good thing. Actually the hardest thing when you’re junior is the influence skills. That comes with years. 

 

HOW DO YOU WEATHER A STORM WITH AN AGENCY THAT ISN’T HAVING A GOOD TIME?

So look, if the work’s not great, it’s not always down to the agency. And vice versa. That’s the first thing. But yeah, when the relationship isn’t going well with a client then it’s not always the client’s fault. As a client you realise that sometimes it is 50/50 client fault, agency fault.

If I’m brutally honest, it’s really difficult to give feedback on work that’s not great and be honest about it – especially while backing your feedback up with objectivity. 

I’ve never been in a relationship with an agency that’s 100% not working. Honestly when people go “Ahhhh! It’s not working” it’s like only 25% of the stuff that’s not working. You have to see the positive sometime. Every performance review focuses on people’s weaknesses. And getting people to focus on things they don’t like – you’ll never make them world class. I learnt from a psychologist recently the power of focusing on strengths, that’s how you create real world beaters. Moments of brilliance come from being better at something than other people not from being competent across the board. I don’t want people talking to me about stuff I don’t think they’re good at and they don’t think they’re good at. A bit of credit and praise for people’s strengths goes a long way in this industry. 

 

THE VAST MAJORITY OF US DEAL WITH JUNIOR TO MID LEVEL CLIENTS ON A WEEKLY BASIS, BUT WHEN THERE’S A CMO MEETING IN THE DIARY EVERYONE GETS SUPER NERVOUS. THERE’S SOME THINGS YOU DON’T DO WHEN YOU MEET WITH A CMO. EVERYTHING IS WELL REHEARSED. EVERYTHING HAS GONE THROUGH TEN LAYERS OF MORE JUNIOR CLIENTS BEFORE IT GETS TO YOU. WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU HAD SOMEONE PRESENT TO YOU FROM AN AGENCY AND THEY CONVINCED YOU OF SOMETHING YOU DIDN’T THINK?

Friday. I mean there was 3 months in between meetings. Looking to progress something. Had some real challenges about it because I thought they were advertising things that we wanted to advertise instead of what we wanted to achieve as a business. They came back after 3months and they didn’t present something massively different but presented it in a different story and it sold me on it.

However, if you were a senior client would you want the work you are presented with to be completely buttoned down or do you want something with a little bit of wiggle room to let you add your thoughts? 99% of the time I don’t add something. But the fact that I have the ability to give some input makes me feel more comfortable.

I am acutely aware that when I sit down with a strategist they have been spending way more time thinking about it than I have, and I love the idea of leaving the room smarter than when I arrived. The people in my team like the planners they work with to make them smarter.

 

YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT COLLABORATION ULTIMATELY, HOW DO YOU BUILD THAT? IM SURE HIGHER UPS IN AGENCIES ARE TRYING TO BUT AS A CLIENT HOW DO YOU ENCOURAGE THAT RELATIONSHIP?

Enjoying a beer helps. Hahaha. Seriously, you can’t put too strong an emphasis on the social aspect. A night out together, a different energy comes together. It breaks down barriers. Makes you see each other as human beings. ‘Collaboration’ is a word that winds me up. It’s pasted on too many things. All we are talking about is working together. The ‘client’ and ‘agency’ definitions means you’ve both got different things to add. Different perspectives. 

The thing I’ve always found difficult, but incredibly useful, is planning some time without an agenda. You have to be brave, but just to say to your client “There’s this issue, let’s dedicate 2 hrs to trying to crack it where we all bring our thoughts” that’s amazing time. I appreciate that.

 

AGENCY LAND IS FRUSTRATED WITH INTERNAL AGENCIES – WOULD YOU CREATE/USE AN INTERNAL AGENCY?

I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think the business would. From a personal point of view I would only want to bring in something that was really, really routine. We do it with some of our very simple design solutions. Leaflets putting out info. But for creativity it loses some edge. Once you spend ages in one place for years, well, you lose perspective. Things can get stale and I’d worry about that happening in house. Doesn’t mean I’m not interested in cheaper production models and agencies have to have the ability to adapt like this. But cheaper, faster, better that’s the model the world has always wanted. The question for me is do you really want it done ‘better’ or not. And when people aren’t concerned with that I get worried. Cutting quality to make cost savings never made sense to me. I just can’t get excited by that.

 

I READ SOMETHING ABOUT THE VALUE OF MANAGEMENT CONSULTANCIES BEING PUT AT THE HEART OF A BUSINESS AND I’D LIKE TO GET YOUR OPINION ON THAT.

You can see value when people get confused who someone works for. It’s a very visual way of seeing that someone is integral to your business. You should always go to people that give you the best answer and if they sit with you, (and lots of agency folk do come into the office and sit with us), right in the heart of everything that we do because they’re adding value. 

Getting different agencies working together is sometimes hard. I am realistic about that being hard but we are at a good point currently and when agencies are going to each other – that’s when you know it’s all working very well. A group agency presentation in a McDonald’s template with multiple agency logos bottom left is hilarious. I know who has done what. It just shows you’re not working together…

 

SOMETIMES OUR CLIENTS CAN SEEM MERCURIAL, OBSTINANT AND UNAMBITIOUS – WHAT AREN'T WE SEEING AND WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP?

Change is tough. But the unambitious thing interests me. People often come in saying you should take a risk on something without explaining why. For me to take a risk I need to be taken through thinking that shows me why it might work. What’s it seated in? What’s going to motivate my customers and drive that business? So often people also come in with a totally radical idea that doesn’t fit into the big picture. I need to understand how it fits in the framework or breaks the framework and how it relates to the current idea or creates a new idea in the future. On its own, even if it’s brilliant, it doesn’t help me because we have a brand that you need to progress over time. 

Why are they being mercurial? They’re probably just being an arse! 

 

WHAT’S YOUR VIEW, I MEAN WE WORK IN A COMMERCIAL INDUSTRY, IT’S NOT AN ARTISTIC PURSUIT, HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO YOU WHEN YOU HELP PEOPLE CHOOSING TEAMS ETC. HOW IS IMPORTANT IS THAT COMMERCIAL DRIVE WHEN YOU CHOOSE PEOPLE?

They need to be sensitive to it. In McDonald’s, marketeers need to be relatively commercial because we don’t have a commercial department. I want to see people that think it through. When it comes to judging success I expect everyone to understand success on a commercial scale. Yes.

 

WHAT DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU NEED MORE OF IN THE ROOM WITH YOU WHEN YOU WORK WITH AGENCIES?

I am relatively aware of my biggest weaknesses and I will look around the room to plug those weaknesses. 

I always expect the agency to push us one step beyond where we would have gotten anyway. Lift the thinking further. 

One of the worst feelings of being a client is second guessing what clients want to see. You know it happens and why it happens and it’s not just the agencies doing it but also the people in your team doing it… The amount of times I’ve overheard “Alistair won’t like it” I mean – how do you know I won’t like it! Never second guess us.

 

HOW CLOSE DO YOU WORK WITH MEDIA OWNERS GIVEN WE ‘HAVE’ YOUR AUDIENCE?

Closer than ever but not close enough. The reality is that the biggest media owners have been slow to realise the biggest value they can bring to clients. Channel 4 in the past few years have come to us and talked about how we can do stuff better which is great. I’d love to see the big digital media owners doing more. They have so much understanding of our customers to offer, they have more ability than most to help us change behavior but tend to focus on replaying history rather than giving insight to the future. I hate people selling to me when they could be stimulating a thought about my business. We get excited when media owners come to us but being faced with a sales person… it’s annoying when they don’t bring me more than the media agency in terms of solutions.

 

HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE THAT AS A CMO A MARKETING STRATEGY IS WELL IMPLEMENTED ACROSS MARKETS WHEN YOU DON’T WORK WITH THE LOCAL AGENCIES?

Trust issue. There’s two ways of doing it – auditing but I don’t buy it. A brit will never understand the nuances of the Swedish market. Unless they work there for a bit and understand the culture. So you have to trust people are measuring the right things. Many companies just push out the same piece of work across markets but honestly it often misses the mark, maybe by 2 degrees, but in what we do that’s enough to not connect with people. Use a global standard approach and 99 times out of 100 you end up with the common denominator. 

 

GOT ANY FINAL WORDS OF WISEDOM?

Take every opportunity you have to share your thoughts and make people think. If they stop and think the world will move on.