Peter Sterling

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Peter Sterling escaped banking for the Golden Arches in July 1990 after helping the burger giant start a finance program for franchisees, when he was a VP at Bank of Boston. "Banking wasn't the place to be in the 1990s," he reflects.

Fast food was.

By 1995 Mr. Sterling had moved into a marketing finance role; he assumed the media director post in August 1999. Since then, the 44-year-old has taken a decidedly hands-on approach to the $600 million domestic media budget of the world's largest fast-feeder.

"He's picked up on the nuances of the media business," says John Muszynski, chief investment officer of Bcom3 Group's Starcom Worldwide, Chicago, a McDonald's agency.

Being a relative outsider gave Mr. Sterling the freedom to break from tradition, particularly in the upfront market. "He is willing to rewrite rules if it makes sense for business," says Mr. Muszynski. "He doesn't want to do what has been done in the past for the sake of what's been done in the past."

In making the transition from counting beans to eyeballs, Mr. Sterling saw that various McDonald's agencies felt the system discouraged them from bringing him their brightest ideas. "We had become a tonnage player," says Mr. Sterling, who began actively meeting media reps and going to bat for new ideas.

"I go out and meet with our largest media partners so [agencies] don't feel like they're battling an uphill battle on their own," Mr. Sterling says, asserting the networks have noticed. "They have begun looking for opportunities to showcase our brand in a clutter-free environment."

An early adopter of new technology, Mr. Sterling is directing his attention to newer media formats, including reality TV. He recently struck a favorable deal for "Lost" on General Electric Co.'s NBC-TV.

Another example of being way ahead of the curve: his addiction to his BlackBerry wireless e-mail device. "You can tell when you're losing him in a meeting when the BlackBerry vibrates," Mr. Muszynski says with a laugh.