Mark Mulhern, CEO of the agency, We Are Unlimited, on creativity in the modern age.
When McDonald’s put out a request for bids on its digital business back in 2016, global powerhouse Omnicom responded with a proposal that would drive connectivity and efficiency. The result of that successful pitch was We Are Unlimited, a collection of different pieces from across the Omnicom ecosystem blended into a single, standalone agency. From TV to trayliner, they serve all of McDonald’s marketing needs. We sat down with Mark Mulhern, CEO of We Are Unlimited, to talk about the creative process, client relationships, and jumping on the right trends.
Talk to us about We Are Unlimited’s approach.
Our model is especially well-suited to marketing organizations with McDonald’s scale—the kind of companies uniquely challenged with having to drive ever-greater connectivity in their own businesses and awareness of how all their marketing is working together. The scale presents us with a few opportunities: First, a chance to assemble a team that’s big enough to have its own center of gravity. There’s enough people on this team, and enough disciplines, that it has the capabilities and feel of a multi-client agency. (We Are Unlimited is now at 200 employees.) Second, a client of this size presents an incredible span of responsibility, from TV to YouTube, from fantastic social extensions to in-restaurant experiences.
One of the wonderful things about McDonald’s as a progressive marketer—as a company in the midst of a really ambitious transformation—is that it gives us a good variety of campaigns to work on. [McDonald’s is] a single, large client, but it has many facets, and the teams here have the opportunity to rotate and do fresh things. Because on the one hand, you might be creating the work for the new signature crafted burger that just went in to market last week, but then you’re quickly having to swing your attention around to asking how to get consumers to order via mobile.
What’s your approach on the creative process and getting to great ideas?
Great ideas really happen at the intersection of your consumer’s needs, the brand, and cultural context. If you can bring those three things together, you have a winner. Take our recent “Speechless” campaign. We had a great product in a new, 100% fresh beef burger. We had this brilliant consumer insight that a great burger leaves you speechless, and we were able to bring it to life with cultural relevance by using fantastic celebrities (like Charles Barkley and Gabrielle Union) that really resonated with people. That’s a good example of where we brought the three things together. You need to always start in one place, it should be the consumer insight. But while data can give you a great hypothesis, it’s not going to give you the answer. You also need to sit in a restaurant and see what happens when a customer eats a great burger—that can be your “aha!” moment. We’re lucky to live in an environment that has a lot of data, but you just can’t underestimate the value of a practiced mind in spotting trends.
The data will often hold the answer, but the data will often not come out and tell you the answer. That’s where human talent just makes all the difference.
What should a modern brand look like?
Brands have always been about connection, but the nature of connection is changing. First and foremost, people have to notice your brand and need to emotionally connect, to care about what you’re saying. A majority of advertising is kind of ignored and not remembered, so getting noticed is critically important. McDonald’s has a true belief in that emotional connection—that this brand has an unparalleled opportunity to engage people. Everyone remembers their first McDonald’s experience, everybody remembers their first Happy Meal with their kid. The second connection is around how we can reach people in an incredibly diversified world—in social, and TV, and in conversation. It’s taking the best from the past and really carefully thinking about the future. I think that’s what brands mean today. Creating a meaningful connection wherever the consumer is.
What have you learned over the years about the right relationship with a client? What does that look like?
Clients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Any client today is working in a rapidly changing environment, which is, especially for established players, incredibly challenging to their business and their growth ambitions. So, you have to be their partner and bring the same commitment to solving those problems that they have. Once you’ve established that connection and the trust that comes with it, then it’s about your expertise as an agency to understand the consumer journey, and how you create these connections—both emotional and tactical—that will drive their growth. Growth is really what everybody’s in search of, and our goal is to partner with them to deliver that growth.
There’s been a lot of change in the agency world over the past few years. Consultancies making moves, lots of acquisitions. How do you respond to that trend?
Consultants are always going to have a set of skills and experience around helping clients transform from deep within their businesses. And, for a certain type of project, for a certain type of management team and brand, using a consultant who has the capability to execute work can get the job done. But agencies like ours have this deep center of expertise around connecting with consumers and the art that that involves. Consultants are always going to be able to value and identify the science, but the great part of what our industry can still do is creating emotional connections and getting people to care about and remember a brand.
How do you identify the right trends?
The first thing you do is follow the consumer. Let’s talk about McDelivery and the Uber Eats integration with McDonald’s. There is a huge behavior shift there: staying in is the new going out. Consumers are wanting things on their terms, at their time, and they’re willing to pay a premium to get that. The Uber Eats business is very successful in the U.K. and people are getting McFlurries delivered to the park, and are willing to pay for that convenience. That’s a trend where you can follow the consumer behavior and give your product to the consumer on their terms.
“Great ideas really happen at the intersection of your consumer’s needs, the brand, and cultural context.”
It’s been the same with mobile ordering and payment, which is a remarkable consumer experience. They’ll actually drop the food out to you in the parking lot, you don’t even need to walk into the restaurant.
As a CEO, how do you measure success for yourself in your role?
One of my key jobs is to set the vision and the goals for the organization. My goal is for We Are Unlimited to be the home of world-class, business-driving, connected creativity. We want to be recognized for our efforts. We want to have a clear sense about how our work is working in-market in driving sales, and we’re working with a business where the impact of our work can be very quickly understood and felt. And with connected creativity, it’s about maximizing all the elements across the consumer journey, whether it starts in mobile and then continues into the restaurant or starts on TV and ends with delivery.
We measure success in three ways. First: how good is our work in driving our client’s business and being recognized by the industry as impactful? Second: client satisfaction. As is the case with many agencies, we have a survey that gives us numerical scoring, but also verbatims—we pay great attention to listening to that and reacting to the opportunities they present. The third thing is agency satisfaction. Are we creating an environment that is rewarding and exciting to work in? It’s easy to get lost in focusing on the outputs of our industry, but what really matters is creating a great home for the best talent in the market.
How about finding talent?
My biggest criterion is that the person needs to know what great looks like. Whatever role that you’re hiring for, that person has to have a track record of success. It doesn’t all have to be great, but I’m looking for people that have tried something six times, messed it up four of those times, but boy, did they get it right on tries five and six. Good talent also needs to be able to attract other great talent. We all know many people who are great individual contributors, but you need good managers. And lastly, they have to able to roll up their sleeves and dive into the details: Code, or PowerPoint charts, or a script—we all know people who have become sort of professional managers. They’ve been too senior for too long. The nature of our business doesn’t allow for people not to be close to the front line, and so I need people who can really step in and lead by example at a moment’s notice.
Who are some other thought leaders that executives should be paying attention to?
One person I really admire is Scott Galloway, a professor at NYU and the author of The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. I admire his ability to see the world very clearly. He writes a wonderful Friday email called “No Mercy, No Malice.” It’s about his personal vulnerability. His ability to lay out his life, his learning, and his failings so powerfully is truly inspirational. He’s been successful and done so on his terms.