McDonald’s marketing boss on agency relationships, digital disruptors and fake views

10 years since joining, Alistair Macrow is focused on making sure McDonald’s has a “customer strategy”, whether in its marketing or approach to digital and tech.

It is exactly 10 years since Alistair Macrow joined McDonald’s as UK marketing director. The move from Blockbuster to the fast food chain “was a fairly obvious one”, he says, due to the brand’s scale and societal importance.

“You find yourself involved in the social make-up of the country. We are serving the best part of 90% of the UK population over the course of a year. You know you have an impact on people’s lives so it was a move I could make pretty comfortably,” he explains.

Since then, he has managed to climb the ladder to become the brand’s chief marketing and communications officer. In that time, the brand has been on a mission to turn the business around. The 2004 documentary ‘SuperSize Me’, which saw American Morgan Spurlock eat nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days, tarnished the brand, and sales in the UK were slipping fast.

The fast food chain realised it had to change the messages it was sending out and aimed to “consistently communicate the truth” behind its food. Macrow says the the decision was made to “be brave” by addressing the myths that saturated social media head-on – such as the idea that its Chicken McNuggets were made with beaks and chicken feet. Its latest campaign launched last week looks to convince consumers about the quality of its beef.

“We sell incredibly affordable food, and people make assumptions. We noticed with social media growing and becoming more powerful, it’s been easier for people to spread these myths. Some of the things we found have been, quite frankly, crazy. But once it’s been viewed a couple of million times by people, that starts to become real in people’s minds,” he explains.

“For us to continue to make progress in getting people to trust us, we needed a new language and to challenge [these myths] head on, rather than just telling good stories. We thought it was a good idea to put those myths out there and then answer them.”

Focusing on tech

And its communication approach seems to be working. According to McDonald’s, it finished 2016 with the highest trust rating it has ever seen, more than doubling over the course of a decade. The UK business has also seen a turnaround, having delivered 43 consecutive quarters of growth. But the US is a slightly different story, with comparable sales declining 1.3% in the US in the fourth quarter of 2016.

Macrow says the growth record is due to its heavy focus on the customer and refreshing its strategy at the right time. For example, the brand is currently in the midst of rolling out its ‘Experience of the future’ programme, which will see all its UK restaurants get a hi-tech make-over, including table service and digital self-service kiosks.

“Businesses all over the world get excited about one shiny new trend, but we never felt that way. We have to consistently perform across all different areas, which includes having the best new food, ingredients and restaurants. We want to use tech to make real changes and the customer experience better,” he explains.

Nevertheless, the company has spoken a lot about its recent focus on new tech. Last year, McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook even admitted the brand was “behind” when it comes to technology, and it seems desperate to catch up.

McDonald’s is currently trialling delivery with UberEATS in Florida, and will also be putting a heavier focus on its mobile app to enable order-and-pay and kerb-side check in.

“I think we are making steady progress, but the journey is never considered done. We always think about the customer experience first, and I believe we need a customer strategy, not a digital strategy,” explains Macrow.


Championing open agency relationships

Last week, Procter & Gamble marketing chief Marc Pritchard made an urgent plea for the industry to clean up the “murky” media supply system.

When asked for his thoughts on the matter, Macrow says the speech was “pretty dramatic”, but that it tackled some important issues. He insists that responsibility is at the heart of how McDonald’s does business, and that it has always had a very transparent relationship with its agencies in the UK.

“It’s part of the joy of having long-term partners. We already have viewability clauses in all of our deals and we’re cautious that we do understand where these things can break down. The reality is, if you’ve been with a media agency for a long period of time, the contract might not be fit for purpose as the world has changed,” he explains.

McDonald’s switched its advertising account to Omnicom in the US last year, which led to headlines suggesting the agency would have to work on a ‘payment-by-results’ basis.

In the UK, the brand is still working closely with Leo Burnett London – which it appointed as its main creative agency in 1981. Macrow claims most of the articles he read on the new Omnicom contract have been pure “speculation”, and insists that it simply reflects “a new way of working” where the agency is put at the heart of the business.

If I was asked whether I’d be more excited about five million likes or an increase in restaurants sales, I’d pick the latter every single time.

Alistair Macrow, McDonald’s

“They will have data at the centre and digital running through it. We were ahead of the curve in the UK, as the way we work with our partners is very integrated. Leo Burnett and [media agency] OMD are joined at the hip – there won’t be a day where at some level they’re not working together,” he says.

Pritchard’s speech also touched on the fact that brands often serve digital ads against “unreliable measurements”, with Facebook admitting it miscalculated the number of completed video views, the total organic reach for business Pages and the amount of time spent with Instant Articles last year.

Macrow says the business tries to stay level-headed about the matter, and admits there has always been a concern among marketers that digital ad fraud takes place.

“The key is to be aware of it and to do everything we can to identify where things don’t look right. I don’t believe in clicks and likes being the ultimate measurement of anything. If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. If I was asked whether I’d be more excited about five million likes or an increase in restaurants sales, I’d pick the latter every single time,” he says.

This year, McDonald’s is looking to close the gap between its business and brand performance, by increasing trust among the British public and regaining its crown as the UK’s most loved burger company.

Macrow concludes: “We want to be relevant to more people on more occasions. We need to continue to move brand metrics, and our brand work will allow people to reappraise the brand and view us through a different lense again.”