Just two weeks before DDB in Chicago presented McDonald's with its ideas for a global marketing theme, Ferguson rejoined the shop as evp, creative consultant on the account. During the 1990s, Ferguson, 50, won acclaim for his McDonald's work at Leo Burnett and then DDB, even expanding one spot into the 1994 film Little Giants for Steven Spielberg. Four years ago the Texas native moved to Young & Rubicam in New York as ecd, but he quit in March after Michael Patti came in as CEO and worldwide cd. Of his exit, Ferguson says only, "You reach a point where it's time to move on." At DDB, he'll play a key role in translating McDonald's new "I'm lovin' it" for a worldwide audience.
Interviewed by Trevor Jensen
Q: What role can advertising play in turning McDonald's around?
A: It can still bring back the brand; it can still bring back the feel-good aspect of McDonald's. People cheer for McDonald's—there's too much in their life that's connected to that brand. Everybody's got a great memory of McDonald's, and those memories tend to override some of the negatives. Everybody has a kid, gets married, goes on a first date—how you tell those stories and relate them to the generations is the challenge.
What impact did you think you could have coming in right before DDB's critical presentation to McDonald's?
Don't they call them relief pitchers? Coming in late in the game to win the game for 'em. Not just to hold the tie.
What would you be doing if you weren't in advertising?
I was a sports writer for a while. I really enjoyed it. I've always been a writer. The older I get, I want to open a steak restaurant where you fry steak in a lot of butter, in my hometown of Hico, Texas. Remember The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the place where Jimmy Stewart worked? I want to open a little place like that.
Following Little Giants, was going into screenwriting full time ever an option?
It's very lucrative [but] there's no satisfaction in Hollywood. You send an original script, 20 people work on it. There's no sense of ownership. The way to make money out there is to rewrite. I don't want to take someone else's ideas and rewrite them.
What inspired you to get into advertising?
It's all I've ever wanted to do, from the time I was a kid. Why that is I'll never know. You go back to Life magazine—I'd see the ads as a kid, I'd say, "I get it, that's funny." Those Volkswagen ads, you'd look at 'em and say, "That's really clever. I think I can do that." My criteria were very simple when I got out of high school: I wanted a job where the coffee was free, the air conditioner worked, and I didn't sweat. You sweat a little bit in this business, but the coffee is free and the air conditioner works.
What's the most disappointing creative trend you've seen lately?
There's not a lot of depth in advertising—it's like the joke of the week.
What's the smartest business decision you've made?
I left Leo Burnett knowing someday they'd probably go public, and I came to Y&R after they went public. Don't ask me. You're not talking to Alan Greenspan.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
Be prepared to work hard. The thing I see is guys getting out of portfolio centers, and they think they're going to be handed the next project and be the next superstar. Have the patience of Job, wait it out—it'll come. People ask me, What is my key to success? You may have beat me on the first or second meeting, but you're not going to beat me on the third or fourth. I'll keep coming at you. I'm coming at you like a fucking badger.
What do you think you accomplished at Y&R?
We took a pretty mediocre product—I think we had a good one out there when I left.
Name one person you're dying to work with.
Larry McMurtry. I'd like to just sit around and learn from this guy.
How does being a Texan inform what you do?
You can get away with more. [Clients] see you as a little bit more of a cowboy, somebody with an opinion. It's worked well. I don't hide it. Everyone I talk to knows where I'm from pretty quick.
What's your biggest fear?
I think it's what all creative guys fear: You'll be found out you're not that good. Snakes. I hate snakes—human and the crawly kind. That's when I'm not a real nice guy.
Are there a lot of those in this business?
Of course. Anytime you get into a competitive field, people look to take advantage in some way. But my biggest fear is probably locking myself out of my hotel room naked.
How do you turn around a big ship like Y&R—or McDonald's, for that matter?
Joe Pytka probably had the best terminology. He said that every day they're going to put you in the boat in the North Sea, and you're going to paddle out, and you're going to find the Titanic. You're going to take one deep breath, swim to the bottom, blow some air in the hull. You're going to get in the boat, you're going to row back to shore. The next day you're going to row back out there—you got to find it again, they're not going to tell you where it's at. You're going to take a deep breath, swim to the bottom, blow some air in the hull. They want you to raise the Titanic off the bottom of the sea. It's tough. But it's fun.