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Burger King’s Five Tips For Marketers On How To Suck Less

Burger King CMO Axel Schwan and head of brand marketing Fernando Machado outline how brands can make their relationship with ad agencies–and the resulting work–better.

Burger King’s Five Tips For Marketers On How To Suck Less

If you talk to anyone in advertising long enough, often the root cause of any terrible ad is traced back to (or blamed on) the client.  The idea that clients suck is an ad industry stereotype of the highest order. On Friday, fresh off being awarded the Cannes Lions Marketer of the Year award, Burger King chief marketing officer Axel Schwan, and head of brand marketing Fernando Machado, took to the stage for a presentation called “How To Suck Less As A Client,” to outline five ways brands can make their relationship with ad agencies–and the resulting work–better.

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Understand You Brand

Machado said that for Burger King, it boils down to two key questions. “We always ask ourselves: What makes our brand different? And what are our values and personality? And basically, that’s it,” he said.

The brand is known for its creative risk-taking–from 2004’s Subservient Chicken, to the creepy King, to hacking Google Home–and Schwan says that there’s no safe way to be edgy as a marketer. “Over time we’ve learned we are actually, as a brand, at our best when we are real, fun, and a little bit edgy–you see, client mistake–we are not a little bit edgy,” he said. “That is like being half-pregnant. So when we’re at our best, we are edgy. Period.”

Machado said that mediocre filler is the closest thing to failure. “Every time we became a little bit vanilla, a little bit generic, a little bit contrived, we failed,” he said. “We failed to land our brand message. We failed to cut through, and we failed to deliver business results.”

Nail The Brief

Machado outlined the three ingredients to writing a good brief. “First, know your target audience really well,” he said. “Second, you need to uncover a powerful insight. And third, you need to have a really sharp articulation of what you want to communicate. Do not overcomplicate. If you do, you won’t be able to capture the fair share of the creative mind.”

Then he outlined the simple brief they gave agency DAVID Miami in 2014 for what became the award-winning Proud Whopper campaign. “We briefed the agency to bring to life the fact that we welcome everyone,” said Machado. “It was just, let’s show that BK welcomes everyone. That was it.”

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Study. Plan. Research.

Schwan said clients should access and use as much research as possible, but don’t let it dominate the decision making process. “Research is a critical part of studying, but what we don’t believe in is simply doing everything the research institutes tell us to do,” he said. “Good clients, in our experience, use research to inform their views and to take responsibility to make their own decisions.”

The biggest risk is not taking one

Over the years, as Burger King has had a number of ad hits, Machado says that his peers in brand marketing often ask if there’s any fear in executing ideas that do seem a bit risky at the time.

“We are not afraid sometimes, we’re afraid all the time,” Machado said. “If you’re not afraid it probably means the work does not have enough voltage. We’re always afraid. As a client, if you’re interested in doing good work, the important thing is not to be fearless, the important thing is to be brave. To do it even though you are afraid.”

The ultimate question to taking a risk is, what’s the worst that can happen? The news cycle jumps quickly from one thing to another. “PR cycles are short and frequent, and tend to last between 48 and 72 hours,” said Machado. “The worst thing that can happen is not really much. If you completely f**ked up with your campaign, the nightmare will probably last for 24 hours. People move on.”

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In fact, forget a PR disaster, Machado said the worst thing that can actually happen is to go unnoticed. “Every time we hit 2 billion impressions, we know it will become a meme,” he said. “That’s the game we are playing. When you’re creating a meme, you’re creating waves of pop culture.”

Work as one team

Schwan outlined two components for how to build an effective internal team, and how that relates to outside agency partners. “The first is having a marketing team all around the world for Burger King that can work as one team,” he said. “If you are to take one thing, and only one thing out of this whole presentation–do you really seriously want to suck less as a client? Then don’t be a client, be a partner. Treat your agency as a partner. They are an extension of your own team.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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