Burger King CMO Fernando Machado on why bespoke agency models don't work

Fernando Machado of Burger King talks with The Drum's Katie Deighton

Burger King’s chief marketing officer has spoken out against the bespoke agency model, believing it's not conducive to producing the best work. Speaking to The Drum, Fernando Machado reveals the approach he champions instead and how it has reignited the creative spark the brand had previously lost.

The creation of ‘bespoke agencies’ to service the world’s biggest advertisers has been on the rise in the last few years. WPP has Team WBA for Wallgreen Boots Alliance, Team Red for Vodafone and Team Air for Emirates. Burger King rival McDonald’s relies on Omnicom’s We Are Unlimited for dedicated creative services in the US, while even FMCG giants Unilever and P&G are experimenting with how to pool dedicated media and creative teams into an integrated offering.

But, the model is under a spotlight. And one that's burning brighter following the news yesterday (8 October) that one of the longest serving examples of this set-up, WPP's Global Team Blue for Ford, would be broken up.

However, for Machado, the creation of what he describes as an “internal agency” is not a long-term solution.

The CMO likened the personalities of brand-side and agency-side marketers to rival animals in explaining why he thinks a bespoke agency team wouldn’t sit comfortably.

“If I create an internal agency, it’s like we’re dogs, then we hire six cats. Six months later, we say, ‘these cats are fucking annoying’,” he explained in a talk with The Drum’s Katie Deighton at The Drum Arms pub in New York City during Advertising Week - before the Ford/WPP announcement was made.

“Agency people are different,” he went on, adding that it's the separation and distinction between the two that allows creative ideas to flourish.

Machado – who has led Burger King’s marketing efforts for five years – said his approach to hiring agencies is to focus on the people within them who its internal team will work with day-to-day.

"I never did a pitch in my career, ever,” he said. “I never hired agencies, I hired people…who I knew would be able to help. They bring ideas to us. We want unique, different stuff.”

This focus on the ‘people’ behind the brand, rather than the agency, is why he reached out to CP+B’s leaders after he joined as he sought to reignite its creative spark.

In the years leading up to his appointment to the top job, a revolving door of CMOs saw Burger King and the MDC-owned ad agency split after a seven-year partnership, which produced work such as the legendary Subservient Chicken and Whopper Freakout campaigns.

“It’s really amazing to see that work…then we had a downfall,” he said, speaking frankly of the drop in quality of the brand’s advertising in the years before he arrived.

Burger King’s agency roster now includes David Miami in the US, David Sao Paulo in South America and most recently BBH London in the UK – which it hired without a pitch – as well as its in-house team.

But on joining, Machado reached out to veteran Burger King creatives, including the brand’s former president of global marketing Russ Klein, plus Chuck Porter and Andrew Keller from CP+B, to better understand what made Burger King’s advertising history and how it could influence its future.

“Many of the things CP+B did were way ahead of the time,” said Machado. “We keep innovating the bar from there.”

He added that the brand changed directions, galvanizing around another proposition until it eventually circled back to the ‘Proud Whopper’ campaign.

That campaign saw Burger King introduce a burger wrapped with the colors of the rainbow. Hungry consumers wanted to find out what was so different about the new Whopper, but when they opened the wrapper, they found the same burger.

The message on the wrapper read: ‘We are all the same inside.’

Under Machado’s steerage, the burger chain took home 24 Cannes Lions awards this year for its Scary Clown Night and other works. The CMO said that while he’s always seeking the right, modern articulation of his brand, he won’t change heritage brand assets just because he can.

“I’m not the biggest fan of our logo,” he admitted. “But [I] haven’t changed it. We brought the King back, but we’re using him the right way. People always ask, ‘why don’t you make the King less creepy?’ No, the King is creepy. We value the perfect imperfect. We try to avoid changing things for the sake of changing things.”

Campaigns that work at scale

Some of Burger King’s most successful campaigns didn’t cost a lot, coming in at a smaller scale and going viral because the brand was willing to take a chance.

“The best ideas that we have didn’t require a lot of investment. They were so good they took off. We didn’t put any money behind [them],” Machado said, adding that simply a social media push was sometimes all it took for campaigns that cost only several thousand dollars to generate millions of impressions.

‘Google Home of the Whopper’ for instance only played for one night but garnered millions of impressions. He reckons there is “very little downside to playing the game” of taking chances on lower cost campaigns that take risks.

That said, risk is constantly there, and Burger King has run into issues. The Russian corporate account for Burger King had to backtrack after running a social media campaign offering free Whoppers and a monetary reward to women who managed to get impregnated by footballers.

In that instance, Machado took it down almost immediately. His advice from that time?

“Try to do the right thing but be transparent [when something goes wrong]. If we don’t talk about it, it will go wrong again,” he said.

Burger King still has no problem poking fun at McDonald’s. But Machado crucially points out that the strategy is “trolling but no bullying”.

“We can troll, but don’t be assholes,” he said. “We’re empowering people to make fun.

“We have guidelines and questions you should ask yourself [for franchisees]. We try to help people understand the boundaries. We try to see things as positive-neutral-negative. And when someone doesn’t understand our jokes, it’s neutral.”

Perhaps the secret sauce to a viral Burger King campaign is the pace at which it’s creative. Machado believes his team to “run at the speed of pop culture”

“Nothing we do takes more than three months,” he said. “That process that allows good people to shine.”

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