The products of creativity clients want from agencies aren’t art and copy but attention and commerce, says Faris Yakob – Burger King is the brand leading the way. 

In the endlessly subjective and, hence, contentious discourse of marketing, nothing has been quite as polarizing of late, politics aside, as Burger King. The recent story is that, having been acquired by famously parsimonious private equity raiders in 2010, BK went on a cost cutting and convention breaking journey. 3G’s famous ‘zero based budgeting’ approach managed to take out 25% of BK’s management and administrative costs between 2011 and 2013. Then, Fernando Machado hailed the king. 

“I had some friends at Burger King and I grew up being a fan of Burger King and the work from [their former agency] CPB – that iconic work from 10, 12 years ago. But they’d been a little quiet for a few years so then I called one of the guys in leadership who was a good friend and I said, ‘I said I think you have an amazing brand and I’d love to help modernize it.’”

He joined in 2014 from Unilever having spent the prior few years looking after Dove, their most creatively lauded brand, in its most disruptive markets, during its most awarded period. He had been named the M&M Marketer of the Year and Adweek’s Grand Brand Genius the year before. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty was held up by the industry like Nike and Apple before it, as the best of what we do. 

However, the industry response to his tenure at BK has been more mixed, with the perhaps somewhat churlish social media commentary bemoaning the seemingly endless series of attention grabbing ‘stunts’ that often call out McDonald’s. The CEO of a network agency flagship office recently reached out to me to ask what I thought because he was torn between admiring the ‘experimentation and all the doing’ but wondering if it all added up to growth. When something has been this oft-discussed it’s hard to come at it fresh but we can start by thinking strategically, by seeing what we can know, and then perhaps what we might want to find out. 

McDonald’s and BK are famous rivals like Coke and Pepsi – and similarly, one is much bigger than the other. McDonald’s market capitalization is by far the biggest of the fast food restaurants, valued at $168bn. It operates 39,000 restaurants in 120 countries, 80% of which are franchises. Being the biggest often makes it harder to grow and growth has slowed since 2014 but they remain the giant. 

BK started franchising a year earlier than McDonald’s in 1954 but has only 19,000 stores, almost all of which are now franchises thanks to 3G (because this reduces operating costs on their balance sheet.) BK has half of the literal physical availability of McDonald’s, which is particularly significant when considering impulse-driven spend. In mental availability terms, McDonald’s commands far greater share of search, spends far more on media and those Golden Arches are the most valuable restaurant brand in the world by far. 

Let’s consider some of the advertising that helped with ‘simplifying’ the Burger King ‘public image’. McWhopper [most awarded campaign in the world that year], Google Home of the Whopper, A Whopper of a Secret, Proud Whopper, Whopper Detour [multiple grand prixs, including Effie] and on and on. I’m sure you can name a few. 

This year we had the epic set piece designed to stir up conversations about artificial ingredients, the gorgeous, repellent time lapse of a Moldy Whopper

It caused an immediate outpouring of commentary, accusing the brand of shock tactics. 

Well, why not? 

Supposedly because you don’t want attention at the expense of longer term negative shifts in perception, or, even worse, something that will actively prevent sales. However, historically speaking, it is hard to find any advertising campaign that has had strong negative effects on sales, despite the current vogue for cancel culture and boycotts. Doing anything is usually better than doing nothing.

The work was named Best in Show at the One Show, with three different agencies sharing the award. There are fisftfuls of awards, they keep coming, the brand is outperforming rivals in terms of store openings, volume growth in stores, share price and so on. Burger King revenues have almost doubled since 2014.

So, what’s the problem? Are these ‘just stunts’? Why is that a problem? One of the impossible to ignore aspects of the current creative strategy is speed and volume. Alongside the big set pieces there are a stream of smaller activations. Just this month they published an appeal in France asking their customers to buy from McDonald’s to support the struggling sector. Right now, if you say "canceled clown" three times in front of the mirror in certain Burger King restrooms in Scandinavia, the lights will dim and a vision of Ronald McDonald will appear. In the USA, customers can claim a free Whopper if they drive by one of the "the scariest places on earth" — five shuttered restaurants once operated by McDonald’s [or Wendy's, or Sonic] on the back of a print campaign that many found distasteful in the current economic climate. It still picked up significant mainstream coverage on CNN and beyond. 

From the outset there has been a pretty clear and sensible strategy articulated by Machado, based on a sober assessment of the brand’s situation: “The biggest risk is to do something that doesn’t get noticed. If I were to compete just with media money, I would lose the war before the first battle starts because there’s bigger players in this category. If I want to get noticed I need to do bold things.” Burger King was the sixth-highest category spender on media in 2013, a long way behind McDonald’s at the top, with Subway, Wendy’s, KFC and Taco Bell also spending more. 

In a cacophonous media environment, as BK learned in its prior advertising heyday with CPB, when you can’t outspend, you focus on amplification. One way is to make advertising considered for its PR potential from the outset. When Ogilvy quipped that he didn’t want people talking about his ads, but rather buying his clients’ products, he was operating in a scarce media environment where acquiring mass audiences was simple. If you can’t afford to win on share of voice, you need a strategy to use advertising differently, looking for untapped opportunities, creative amplification and/or aiming at mainstream [or social] media for uplift. 

Machado is a tireless promoter of his brand and agencies, speaking at conferences and doing interviews, tweeting and generally engaging with the industry in ways that puts his head above the parapet. Can you name another fast food CMO off the top of your head [that isn’t a client or past client of yours]? Burger King was named Cannes’ “Creative Marketer of the Year” in 2017. He recently provided this comment on Twitter, questioning why the advertising industry seems resistant to the king having it his way. 

“I find it funny when people react to an idea we did by saying “but did it sell?” The answer usually is ‘yes’ (even though sometimes that was not even the objective). If you don’t believe creativity drives results, maybe you are in the wrong job. Just saying... #marketing”

He followed that up with a reminder of who still calls the shots, and their approach to wasting money, tweeting “Our largest shareholder is a private equity company. ‘Sell or else’. (That’s a phrase from David Ogilvy)”

From the outside, it seems like Machado has built a series of relationships with creative agencies around the world that allows the brand to approve and activate remarkable work, remarkably quickly. The continual flow of press releases gives BK local salience bumps in between bigger campaigns. Speed works well in environments of ongoing uncertainty, speaking to the agility that marketers are increasingly saying they want. We’ve often said we should light lots of fires and see what works -- and they are flame-grilling apace. 

This is the essence of the strategic approach known as OODA [Observe, Orient, Decide, Act] which was developed on the battlefield. It looks like any strategic process to some degree but it’s predicated on the mandate to decide and act faster than your competitors. By getting ‘inside their OODA loop’ you paralyze them from acting because you keep changing the battlefield. At least, that’s the idea. Is BK inside McDonald’s OODA loop? Are they just being a classic challenger brand, using their larger competitor as a foil? Are they activating ideas outside of standard media, or using media like print and digital in tactical ways that drive salience and/or get customers using new sales channels for BK? 

Machado has an untraditional approach but a much vaunted love of creativity in the service of commerce. Each of these ‘stunts’ ties back to strategy, linked to hero products, new channels or some competitive trolling, with the ultimate goal of disrupting cultural conversations to drive salience. To do so consistently requires pushing into territories people find polarizing. That’s how the news works. 

Perhaps what some industry observers don’t like, beyond obvious jealousy, is the beginnings of a different way to think about campaigns. One that doesn’t run and run with the same creative template across 30 second spots for years. One that requires new ideas every time, tied back to strategy, without the guardrails of media. One that has interesting implications for how agencies manage accounts - and even win them. Reportedly, Machado bought the McWhopper idea thanks to an unsolicited email pitch video from Y&R NZ. Was that idea a print ad or something more? The products of creativity clients want from agencies aren’t art and copy but attention and commerce. 

Whatever he is doing, it seems to be working, commercially, creatively, and culturally, both externally and among the agencies. Perhaps based on what we know, we might seek to find out how that process, and those relationships, work. Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore it, and that’s the point.