Q&A: What It’s Like to Run an Entire Agency Dedicated to McDonald’s

Unlimited CEO Brian Nienhaus plots the future of fast-food marketing

Brian Nienhaus talks about Unlimited's work with Mickey D's.
Mason Adams

Adweek: What’s it like to run an entire agency dedicated to one client—McDonald’s—after holding more traditional account roles?
Brian Nienhaus: For me it’s been very exciting, which doesn’t mean there aren’t moments when you want to bang your head on the wall a little bit. But it’s very heartening to see that what was just PowerPoints and some innovative ideas one year ago has really come to life in the people we’re hiring, the structure we’re building, the tech that we’re investing in and the process we’re implementing in the agency.

There was a lot of debate about performance-based stipulations in the McDonald’s contract after WPP dropped out of the review.
There was an [Omnicom CEO] John Wren quote from some of the earliest meetings: “We don’t take on clients that we don’t make money on.” Our goals are very well aligned with McDonald’s goals: As its U.S. business does well, we do well. I think it’s a really smart and progressive approach … My KPIs are very similar to [CMO] Deborah Wahl’s.

Can you explain Unlimited’s “Cortex” unit for the layman? 
It’s a collaborative, data-informed strategy team [with] about 34 members. The goal is for us to have the most complete and dynamic view of the McDonald’s customer and segment ever assembled … We will have the rigor of a CPG six-month cycle, but we’ll do it at the speed of McDonald’s.

What do its day-to-day operations look like?
Four days a week, we have a session in our social studio room. The Cortex gathers with creative as well as clients and goes through an assessment of what’s happening in culture, with the competition and with the brand over the last 24-36 hours. After the session is concluded, we make decisions on what sort of content we’re going to go develop. Here’s one example: There was a crew member in the Indianapolis market who found a specific toy [for an autistic child]. We developed [related] content, amplified and optimized the message in the market using the Cortex. It’s people, process and technology.

Does Cortex collaborate with other McDonald’s partners like multicultural AOR Burrell Communications?
The multicultural dimension is very important, because McDonald’s really is the most democratic brand. Regarding Burrell and Alma DDB [and Asian market shop IW Group], we have strategists who sit in our space on the Cortex team every day making sure those segments are understood and that their thinking is imbued into our work.

How does the larger approach compare to DDB’s Flex or Publicis Groupe’s Power of One, wherein teams from different agencies come together on a pitch or piece of business?
Flex inherently has some of the pieces of Cortex, because it was created within Omnicom. But it’s a smaller integration model. The thing that makes We Are Unlimited unique is the idea that all of the agencies that come together to support it are aligned both financially and strategically for the brand. It’s one P&L, all orchestrated under Unlimited, and that’s an important change in how we think. There is no vying for a bigger piece of the pie.

So this approach could theoretically apply to any large client.
We’re building it at scale around a McDonald’s need, but we will eventually take it to other places/clients as well. Ultimately the output is famous advertising, and I mean that in the broadest sense of advertising—not just what appears on broadcast TV.

This story first appeared in the March 20, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.