Why seeking growth shouldn’t mean hopping agencies – take it from McDonald’s

McDonald’s has been a Leo Burnett client for nearly 40 years. Josh Bullmore, chief strategy officer at the agency, has worked on the account for over a decade. He now sits on its Growth board where he’s helped see the brand through some of its most profitable years and an impressive 7% leap on Interbrand’s Fastest Risers list. For The Drum’s latest Deep Dive he lets us in on why long-term relationships have been central to the brand’s success.

The secret of McDonald’s UK’s long-term, market-leading, mould-breaking, nation’s-favorite-restaurant-creating success? It’s a stool. A three-legged stool to be precise. That’s right. Fifty-three consecutive quarters of growth. More than 2m jobs created. A contribution of over £50bn to the UK economy. And over 3.5 million customers a day. All thanks to a three-legged stool.

Many great businesses remain inspired by the spirit of a founder: think Steve Jobs’s dedication to unconventional thought, WK Kellogg’s belief in the benefits of a plant-based diet or Richard Branson’s buccaneering entrepreneurialism.

For Ray Kroc, McDonald’s founder, business was all about partnership. His philosophy was based on the simple principle of a three-legged stool: one leg was McDonald’s franchisees; the second, McDonald’s suppliers; and the third, McDonald’s employees.

Still at the heart of the business today, the three-legged stool is remarkable for its strength and durability. Suppliers are treated as partners and the business prides itself on long relationships. Leo Burnett’s lasts 38 years. We’ve worked with our lead clients, chief marketing officer Michelle Graham-Clare and chief exec Alistair Macrow, for seven and 14 years respectively – the entirety of their time with McDonald’s. I myself have worked with McDonald’s for over a decade now. Our client-agency relationship is characterized by stability.

After all that time together as client and agency, we have a shared understanding of the brand in our bones, as my long-time creative partner Chaka Sobhani likes to say. Or ketchup in our veins, as franchisees often put it. As a result, we’ve been lucky enough to collaborate on parts of the business that agencies don’t normally reach, including commercial, nutrition and sustainability strategy.

We’ve enjoyed loads of good times and some challenges too, the pandemic being the most notable. Those shared experiences, coupled with the knowledge that we win by sticking together, create a depth of trust and reserves of strength that wouldn’t be seen in most other relationships.

This tried-and-tested sturdiness of the three-legged stool is invaluable. It means it can withstand a great deal of pressure. In particular, it can tolerate tension.

Tension is what makes brands great. The positive, creative tension built by seemingly opposing forces. Apple thrives on the tension between tech complexity and user simplicity. Nike on that between elite and everyday athleticism. Disney’s success rests on its ability to be both classic and contemporary – just check out how current movie smash Encanto effortlessly blends Disney’s classic song-led storytelling with contemporary themes of accepting difference and hip-hop-infused Latin sounds.

At McDonald’s, the strength of our client-agency partnership has enabled us to successfully manage three winning tensions: between timeless and timely; scale and intimacy; and confidence and humility.

Timeless x timely

In an era of ever shorter chief marketing officer and agency tenures, it is hard for client-agency teams to resist the temptation of the hard reset or the dramatic pivot. In a trusting, long-term relationship, on the other hand, you know which parts of the brand to fix and which to flex, when to stick and when to twist. How to be both timeless and timely.

We (by which I mean the client-agency team) have carefully managed the brand’s timeless appeal, creating a beacon of reassurance in troubled times, while also ensuring McDonald’s remains culturally timely, in step and even half a step ahead of customers.

Over the years we’ve celebrated the timeless core menu while promoting timely new ways to get it, such as through McDelivery. In the early days of the pandemic, McDonald’s led the sector by shutting its stores and we ripped up a carefully-crafted marketing calendar. On re-opening, our ‘Welcome Back’ campaign celebrated the return of timeless classics like the Big Mac with timely footage of people’s reactions to the news, shot in just days. And in the future, we’ll be even more timely to customers’ needs, with an ambitious digital transformation plan allowing us to use known customer behavior to predict what will be relevant to customers in real time.

Scale x intimacy

McDonald’s combines the global scale that delivers consistently excellent value with the local intimacy of a network of restaurants run by small business owners, the franchisees.

The McDonald’s Trust Steering Group, which we’re proud to be part of, has embraced this tension within the brand’s bold ‘Plan for Change’ sustainability agenda. In galvanizing colleague and customer support for the plan, we recognized that in the face of the world’s seemingly intractable social and environmental challenges, it is easy for many people to feel powerless. So we are showing people that at McDonald’s, thanks to our scale, all the little things we do as individuals can actually make a big difference. The platform is called ‘Change a Little, Change a Lot.’ We are combining intimacy and scale to deliver change.

Confidence x humility

The third tension we manage is in how we frame the brand’s role in people’s lives. We recognize that while McDonald’s serves millions of people each day in the UK, for each of them it’s just a fleeting, if enjoyable, moment. In keeping with this uniquely big little role that the brand plays in national life, we have developed a creative tone of voice that is both confident and humble. This is particularly apparent in our new creative platform for the brand: ‘Fancy a McDonald’s?’ Much like the invitations of ‘Fancy a pint?’ or ‘Fancy a coffee?’, it means more than just sharing food or drink; it’s an everyday treat, a knowing offer of a little moment of shared release.

Our ability to hold these three sets of opposing forces in positive and creative tension relies above all on the strength of the client-agency relationship. Without trust and understanding it would be easy for them to spin out of kilter to create an incoherent, confusing brand. Instead, McDonald’s brand is currently enjoying its highest ever share of the market – because it is timelessly timely, with intimate scale and a confident humility. It is all thanks to a unique culture of long-term partnership inspired by Ray Kroc’s simple but powerful idea: a three-legged stool.