How collaboration became McDonald's golden rule

Collaboration is the foundation of strong communications practices. Prior to the Allison+Partners-hosted roundtable, McDonald's VP of US comms Ben Stringfellow and senior director of US marketing Julie Wenger spoke to PRWeek about their philosophies and strategies to ensure effective collaboration with all partners.

Gideon Fidelzeid: Though on different teams, you work together a lot. What are the secrets to working harmoniously with internal departments while ensuring each has a prominent role?

Julie Wenger: The same things that make for a great relationship in life make for strong collaboration – things such as trust and open-mindedness. I value Ben, [senior director of US comms] Heather [Oldani], and their team not only for their perspective on communications, but also their valuable opinions on marketing matters. The realization others can have worthwhile thoughts on your area is crucial to collaboration.

Ben Stringfellow: In addition to the emotional and behavioral components of collaboration, there is also the reality and practicality of weaving in the customers’ voice and needs. Ultimately that trumps any functional area’s perspective. Aligning what you need to accomplish for your customers at the very beginning of any project is necessary. Your consumers are another vital stakeholder group with which you collaborate.

Fidelzeid: Please specify an initiative where collaboration played a key role in amplifying its impact.

Stringfellow: The ongoing Our Food, Your Questions program started on October 13 across paid, owned, and earned media. We kicked off a comprehensive effort in which we are inviting customers into the conversation about our foods, specifically looking to address misperceptions and clarify information about various aspects of our offerings.

Our two teams share and reference a lot of the same data, so we know where our opportunities are. This particular effort needed to be done in the most holistic way possible. We knew that couldn’t happen through a PR campaign alone.

A driving factor behind the program is this idea of a road trip where we actually bring consumers in, take them on a journey, and show them firsthand the story about our food. That idea came from one of our smaller agencies a couple years ago. It was more in the context of a "what-if day." We would invite people to pitch us a new business idea and say, "If you had no constraints, boundaries, nor budget limits, what would you recommend we do?"

It was a great idea we felt we could make even bigger, but it required every internal and external team to sit down and figure out what this could look like through all those different lenses.

Wenger: The way this particular campaign has evolved from inception truly demonstrates how a great idea can come from anywhere. The embracing of that philosophy is the foundation of effective collaboration that can truly drive business-changing programs.

Fidelzeid: In a proprietary PRWeek/Allison+Partners survey, we asked respondents who came up with their last truly successful big idea? Thirty-eight percent said it was built collaboratively, 35% said the PR agency, and 15% said the client. Focusing on the PR agency figure and given the fact McDonald’s works with numerous firms, please share your thoughts on this.

Stringfellow: Every brand is responsible to create an environment where you allow, encourage, and create space for anyone to come in with those ideas. The size of the idea is directly proportional to how much permission and empowerment is given to come up with it.

We all live in a world of constraints – be it time, budget, whatever. It’s very helpful if you can at least theoretically remove those in order to encourage idea generation. Time and again, just giving people permission has truly led to some incredible campaigns. It doesn’t matter where the ideas come from. It’s where we collectively take them that matters.

Wenger: Both internally and with our agencies, we always reinforce the belief that we only get from our agency partners what we give. We cannot allow ourselves to create too much bureaucracy, process, and constraints that inhibit our agencies from coming to us with really good ideas. We’re constantly challenging ourselves to have those "what-if days" and allow for that creativity from all partners.

Stringfellow: More and more, we try to facilitate sessions where we bring our PR and ad agencies together in the ideation phase. They look to us for cues on how collaborative the agencies will be with each other based on how collaborative our internal teams are from a functional standpoint. Collaboration isn’t just the right thing to do. We must be role models to ensure our agencies work well together.

Fidelzeid: The PRWeek/Allison+Partners survey revealed some inhibitors to effective collaboration, with "lack of true alignment among parties" and "budget restrictions" being the most common responses in terms of in-house teams. Does McDonald’s encounter that? If so, how do you tackle it?

Stringfellow: That lack of alignment is a factor, but it’s more about how you manage through that and set up a structure and process to minimize it. For example, some programs we work on will specifically divide up the budget allocation so there is a paid media component for which the marketing team essentially owns the allocation of that with a lot of input cross-functionally. Then in terms of some of the activation components, we own the budget for that and marketing provides a point of view along with our agencies on how we do that. If you structure things in a way where there are built-in clear roles and responsibilities, it kind of forces alignment.

Wenger: Especially in today’s challenging business environment, everyone needs to be galvanized around the same goal. To get there, you must establish clarity and make sure everyone is comfortable with the objective. A key facilitator is to be very clear on who owns what. However, even though there is clear ownership, that ownership is in terms of accountability and getting the work done, but there’s still input and collaboration into how the work takes shape. That’s an important distinction.

Fidelzeid: How can you tell if an agency will be a good collaborator if you haven’t worked with them much before?

Stringfellow: There’s certainly a bit of gut feeling, but you can definitely get a sense during the selection process. We speak with other clients who have worked with the firm. In fact, it is often among the very first questions we’ll ask. Agencies absolutely develop reputations for being either strong or weak collaborators.

Wenger: During the selection process, you need to look if an agency has a real threshold for flexibility. You want partners who will really lean in to a bit of ambiguity and risk-taking. Those are the types of traits you can spot in a selection process that lend themselves very well to collaboration.

Fidelzeid: In the spirit of collaboration, Ben and Julie are asking each other to identify what has most surprised them about working with the other’s team.

Stringfellow: One of the things marketing does particularly well is measuring direct business impact and always using that as a screen for decision-making. Within PR and communications, a major challenge is we don’t yet have such robust and tangible metrics to help us measure impact. Working with marketing helps us see how effective it can be to use measurement as a screen and lens to make decisions.

Wenger: We sometimes get caught up in the really cool, creative ideas, but the PR people will bring it back to the customer every time. In addition, I am impressed at how the communications team always seems to have a well-rounded perspective. And not just about PR programs, but about issues happening both in our industry, as well as outside of it. This makes them wonderful thought partners.

Fidelzeid: How can collaboration among internal and external partners help stem a negative business tide such as a sales slump?

Wenger: In this environment, there will always be colleagues who dig in and become more insular, while others look to collaborative processes to make everyone stronger. At McDonald’s, it has truly become a company-wide philosophy to move toward the collaborative end of the spectrum. Our Food, Your Questions is among the many programs where it has proved incredibly empowering to see the change and results you’re able to achieve through collaboration. Tough times, including sales slumps, demand collaboration.

Stringfellow: For any organization in the current environment, there is no time for lack of collaboration, territorial issues, or drama. We must operate as efficiently as possible, with the ultimate target being what our customers need and want. That’s the prize. That’s the end game.

Wenger: Without exception, every time I have struggled to solve a business issue or get a group aligned around business priorities and then went to have a conversation with colleagues outside my discipline, I always walk away wondering why I didn’t do so five days ago when I was losing sleep over it.

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