As McD's contest opens, the big idea is everything

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mcdonald's plan to revitalize the maturing fast-feeder hits a pivot point late this week as 10 of its agencies present new marketing themes to management around the notion that the chain is "forever young."

Two weeks ago, McDonald's Corp.'s Chief Marketing Officer Larry Light and President-Chief Operating Officer Charlie Bell heard the first offerings from the agencies in response to a series of brand summits in February. The winning idea will serve as a communications platform in the U.S., where the chain spends $450 million annually, and internationally, where it will be customized by local agencies.

"It's really not a shootout in the traditional sense. The idea is to see all the ideas," said Bill Lamar, senior VP-marketing for McDonald's USA. But the marketer's shops privately said the agency with the big idea may land more business at McDonald's. Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett Co. is the chain's national youth agency and Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide the national adult agency since winning back the lead assignment following a fierce creative shootout in 1997.

'nervousness'

"We've been led to believe wherever the idea comes from, we'll be involved in the mix," said one roster agency executive. "But there seems to be a nervousness around the system. Anybody can come up with a one-off idea that's brilliant and you could lose your business."

There is also concern that McDonald's could adopt the model of Coca-Cola Co., where WPP Group's Berlin Cameron/Red Cell created and executed the brand campaign "Real" while initially Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, remained agency of record-only later to lose the domestic account to Berlin Cameron.

When asked how work will be assigned should Burnett or even one of the other agencies deliver that great idea, Mr. Lamar was circumspect. "Until I cross that bridge," he said, "I don't know what the outcome might be."

fortifying the team

Presentations are set for April 11 and 12 and will continue through early May. Burnett, will partner with Publicis sibling Frankel, Chicago. DDB will partner with roster promotion shop Havi Group's Marketing Store, Oak Brook, Ill.

DDB last month galvanized its team with the surprise addition of Jim Ferguson as a creative consultant on the McDonald's pitch and he's already been working on ideas, said insiders. More than 100 creatives are contributing ideas from the agency, which also has made itself indispensable by providing countless value-added services in the past year.

Marketing Store is one of the more stealth players, having picked up roughly half of the Happy Meal business and adult promotional assignments after the collapse of Simon Marketing.

As the youth agency, Burnett has more resources for the women and kids targets than DDB. The agency has also been on a creative and new business roll, thanks, in part to put its super-sized creative department. This pitch marks a true test of the new sibling relationship between Burnett and Frankel, which also is on a new-business run and has revitalized its executive ranks.

The fast-feeder has already identified some ways in which it can appear more youthful. Company research shows that young men like McDonald's food, but want to feel more "cool" about eating it, according to Neil Golden, VP-U.S. marketing. Since young men are very interested in entertainment and sports, the company is considering more targeted music and sports promotions.

Mr. Lamar admits to a sense of urgency despite the company's desire to allow the pitch process to work. "If I see something next week that is great, we will move to start working on it, even if we hear another idea that is better. But I don't want to make a final decision until I see everything."

new vision

This week, Mr. Lamar will also outline to delegates at the American Association of Advertising Agencies in New Orleans his new vision for McDonald's, while CEO James Cantalupo today unveils to analysts his strategy to put a younger face on the chain.

Among the topics Mr. Cantalupo is expected to cover are plans that, in effect, turn back the clock, including a return to earlier food preparation methods along with cost-cutting efforts that could include layoffs.

McDonald's is so anxious to change its image it's launched a pilot image campaign that includes a "McDonald's & You" brochure to "communicate the fabric of McDonald's in a meaningful way," according to a spokesman. If successful, the campaign may roll out nationally.

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