Deborah Wahl was named senior VP-chief marketing officer for the
U.S. on Wednesday -- the first female to hold that position at the
company. She has spent the majority of her career at automakers
including Ford, Toyota, Lexus and Mazda. She was CMO at Chrysler in
2007 and 2008, before joining homebuilder Pulte Group in 2009. At
McDonald's, she'll report to U.S. Chief Brand and Strategy Officer
On why McDonald's turned to an outsider, a spokeswoman said,
"The management team determined she was the best candidate for the
But executives familiar with the business said that hiring an
outsider may demonstrate to franchisees that the chain is looking
to make real changes. That person could also build new
relationships with frustrated franchisees.
McDonald's typically does not recruit senior executives from
competitors, but the auto industry is similar to the fast food
industry, at least operationally. Both industries have franchise
models -- corporate at the top with local operators. Instead of
franchiees, the auto industry has dealers. Both dealers and
franchisees typically operate with local or regional co-ops, and
often contribute to a national advertising fund. Corporate in many
cases has final say over national marketing.
McDonald's has been at odds with franchisees for nearly a year.
McDonald's rejiggered its 2013 marketing calendar to heavily
promote value and dollar-menu items in an effort to get more
customers in the door. Many franchisees complained that the increased value
promotion and aggressive couponing of premium items like the McWrap
chipped away at profits. In October, McDonald's announced its
Dollar Menu & More, which gave the chain the felxibility to add
pricier items to its value menu.
One executive noted that hiring a CMO experienced with a
franchised model is a "sign that [McDonald's] is coming to grips
with the need for material change. This tells you how stark the
situation is with the owner-operators."
In a memo to McDonald's owner-operators regarding Ms. Wahl's
hire, Mr. Newell wrote: "Her innovative and digital thinking plus
strong roots in national and local traditional marketing tactics
served her well most recently as CMO of homebuilder Pulte Group.
She also spent 20 years in the automotive industry with successful
brands like Lexus, Toyota and Ford. Her background working with
auto dealers gives her a first-hand appreciation for our franchise
model. ...I've gotten to know her well over the past few months.
She brings fresh new thinking that I'm confident will help
kick-start our momentum, with a focus on growing sales, [guest
checks] and cash flow."
Ms. Wahl, who begins in early March, comes to the chain at a
time when it's fighting to grow sales. The company enjoyed more
than nine years of global positive sales until October 2012, when
it posted its first decline. McDonald's sales in 2012, while up
3.3% in the U.S., have been decelerating since.
Third-quarter 2013 U.S. same-store sales rose 0.7%. Global
same-store sales were up 0.9%.
Ms. Wahl's appointment also comes just two months after the
chain began pressuring its agencies to step up their
marketing. Ad Age reported that the chain was also looking at
outside agencies for potential projects, though the company denied
it was considering adding new agencies.
Ms. Wahl isn't the first senior executive to be recruited from
outside in recent months. In October the chain recruited Yahoo and
Amazon executive Atif Rafiq as its first chief digital
officer -- another executive with little fast food experience.
Don Thompson, who took over the CEO role in July 2012, is a
nearly 24-year veteran of the company. He succeeded Jim Skinner,
who had been with the company for more than 40 years. Jan fields,
who was president of McDonald's in the U.S., started her career as
a crew member in the '70s. She left the company in late 2012 and
was replaced by Jeff Stratton, who started as a crew member in
Marketing executives at McDonald's are also typically longtime
employees. Neil Golden, whom Ms. Wahl replaced, had been at
McDonald's since 1989 before leaving at the end of 2013. Mr. Newell
joined McDonald's in 1989.
One notable exception in McDonald's marketing past is Mary
Dillon, who was the chain's global CMO from 2005 until 2010. She
was previously president of PepsiCo's Quaker Foods Division.