The marketing genius behind Burger King’s McWhopper, Proud Whopper and Moldy Whopper, RBI’s CMO, kicks off our new series of interviews inspired by The Talent Business
The Talent Business is the world leader in executive search for businesses fuelled by innovation and creativity. Its experience of partnering CMOs around the world on their transformation agendas during this period of unprecedented challenges inspired this new series of interviews. Titled ‘Crucible Moments’, we will be exploring times within marketing leaders' careers when they were tested in ways that dramatically exceeded the scope of any prior situation.
Kicking things off is Fernando Machado, chief marketing officer at Restaurant Brands International, which owns Tim Hortons, Popeyes and, of course, Burger King.
“For the first time in my whole career I was not itching to do the next thing.”
The fieriest crucible moment in Fernando Machado’s career was not preceded by a sense of unease, of a yearning to try something new. No. It was preceded by a strange feeling of contentment. For an enthusiastic and driven optimist, this cosy comfort with his job and an inability to look to the next horizon felt weird. Really weird. Something had to change.
Throughout his career, Fernando Machado has always been driven by the desire to take on challenges that no one else wanted. From the moment a young engineering student working on the shop floor of the Omo factory in Brazil saw a presentation from one of Unilever’s marketing team, he embraced the chance to take on unglamorous assignments with struggling brands, and followed that need wherever it took him. 18 years at Unilever took him to Cuernavaca in Mexico, miles from the bustle of Mexico City or the beaches of Acapulco, to head up skincare for Latin America. It took him to Vaseline, a Cinderella brand that was forever seeing plans cut short and its budgets shifted to bigger brands - but where he fought to get work made. And eventually he found himself at Unilever’s global HQ in London’s Blackfriars, VP of global brand development of Dove, where he’d helped the brand soar to creative heights. Success after success followed, including the category-defining Real Beauty Sketches. Internally he was respected, supported and, in some senses, fairly protected too. But after nearly four years, Fernando had lost his forward momentum.
“For the first time I thought, well, maybe I should look outside to accelerate my learning curve, put myself out of my comfort zone,” he says.
Fernando thought about the kind of company he’d like to work with, a brand that he admired but which needed help to fulfil its marketing potential. Advertising and marketing aficionado that he was, he called the home of iconic campaigns the Subservient Chicken and the Whopper Freakout. Burger King had been acquired by investment firm 3G Capital just a couple of years earlier, and the new team had been busy building up profitability and franchisee relations – but its marketing had lost its way and had yet to catch up with its internal transformation.
Fernando swapped London for Miami, leaving a company that had marketing woven into its being on a sub-atomic level and where he had 18 years’ worth of credibility in the bank to a place with a minimal marketing team and little understanding of what great creative could do. “It was a very different environment than the one I was used to in Blackfriars. It was like a big start up,” says Fernando. “They didn’t have many marketeers, really. You could count the people with more than two years of marketing experience on one hand, they didn’t have processes, they didn’t have global positioning for the brand.”
Fernando calls the move the best decision of his career. ‘But it was not an easy one.’
While he was expecting a marketing challenge – taking the brand back to the highs of its glory years, if not exceeding them – what he found was a leadership challenge. Sure, he could have bulldozed ahead, attempting to replicate the processes and culture he’d come from, burning up bridges and early stores of goodwill. Instead he decided to figure out how to bring the whole company – and its franchisees – on a journey with him.
“I would say it was a good two years of butting heads and not getting it 100% right and making some people upset with me and getting upset with some people until I found the right rhythm,” says Fernando.
In recent years, Burger King’s steady stream of creative campaigns from all corners of the map has made it a client that every agency wants to work with, and within the industry Fernando and his team are renowned for their openness to ideas.
Fernando recalls, quite vividly, early conversations with CEO Daniel Schwartz – now the co-chairman of 3G – telling him that he would want to do things that would make the leadership uncomfortable. They responded with an enthusiastic, if nonchalant, yes, of course. “But like, anything in life, things are easier said than done,” chuckles Fernando wryly.
“It was not easy at all. To cause an impact in the culture and bring people along and understand how to influence people in a different organisation, a different culture. I definitely struggled in the beginning until I could start to understand what made people tick, how to convince people about things, how to influence the organisation, how to have my voice heard, how to build bridges – at the same time, how to draw the line to make things happen.”
And that hard ‘line’ is just as important as openness and flexibility. Fernando had to empathise and listen in order to nurture a creative culture – but he also had to know when to really fight for an idea.
“I think one of the most important things if you want to do great advertising (or innovation or design), is that the marketing team or the marketing leadership really needs to fight to make it happen,” he says. “I prefer to go down in flames than just stay doing average work, and work that's not noticed by the consumers.”
But it’s certainly a balance – and Fernando says that over time, that fight became more joyful thanks to an approach that’s centred around bringing people along. Fernando says it was always his aim to build up a marketing team to the point where he’s functionally redundant. And outside of the core team at Burger King (and later RBI as 3G added brands like Canadian coffee brand Tim Horton and chicken brand Popeyes), Fernando’s also had to figure out how to listen to and enthuse franchisees about marketing ideas. The secret sauce, it turns out, is unignorable creativity.
“The thing that I'm most proud of is how our teams collaborate. There are some processes in place, but it's very minimum and there was no mandate. I never go to a country and say, 'you will do this campaign. Period'. No, I just say, 'hey, we have this, if you want to do it, great. If you don't want to do it, just be mindful that it's going to be so powerful that it's going to end up in your country through PR, so you may as well be part of it’. But I don't even do that speech anymore. That was a transition speech,” Fernando explains.
“People get excited about ideas. They treat other people's ideas as their own. It is so critical in an organisation that has a lot of marketeers, to have a small ego and put the brand first,” says Fernando. “One day, it will be yours and everyone is going to amplify it and the other day you amplify someone else’s idea, and it is for the greater good of the brand. I think that our team does that really well. I'm super proud of that.”
This year has given Fernando a couple of opportunities to cast his eye back over the progress made in the past seven years. He says that while he never lacked personal conviction or confidence in what he was doing, there were times in the early days that he wondered if the battle was worth it. Sitting now in 2020, one can conclude that it was. For one thing, when he presented the infamous Moldy Whopper campaign to Daniel Schwartz (a campaign that promoted Burger King’s move away from preservatives by showing a decomposing burger), Daniel’s response was, “Oh, my God, that's really scary. It's probably going to work!”
And the years of hard work also put Fernando’s team in a strong position when it came to dealing with the disruption of Covid-19. When the severity of the coronavirus became apparent in Asia and Europe, Fernando decided to scrap his marketing plans for 2020. Moving fast and jumping onto developments in popular culture is something that the RBI brands, Burger King in particular, are used to by now – and the absence of an overly-complex matrix of processes allowed teams to act quickly. In the early days, they simply decided to help by supplying meals to healthcare professionals and key workers across their markets. They then moved onto helpful, informational campaigns, while also injecting lashings of Burger King’s distinctive humour.
From a personal perspective, Fernando has certainly rediscovered his forward momentum. Since joining as Burger King’s CMO, he is now CMO of Restaurant Brands International. As well as overseeing the suite of brands, at every touch point from advertising to restaurant design, he’s also made it a point to take on responsibility for loftier business objectives.
Sustainability and diversity and inclusion are real passions for Fernando and he’s been a central figure in bringing them into RBI’s longer term business goals. He acknowledges that there’s a complex balance to be struck between short term sales results and long term goals (‘it's hard to have a conversation about the future if the present is a shit show, right?’), but if RBI is to achieve its vision of having the most beloved brands in the quick service restaurant sector, he says it can’t ignore D&I or sustainability. To that end, Fernando has been involved in measures to ensure that the RBI supply chains are more transparent and trackable, and they’re making progress on packaging and recycling, green buildings and responsible sourcing. They’ve achieved 100% on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index – up from 55% seven years ago.
If leaving Unilever and joining Burger King was Fernando’s crucible moment, he’s certainly emerged a stronger leader, more at home with uncertainty and less wedded to rigid process. It’s also redoubled his passion for great creativity – throughout his career he’s been a marketing geek and in his early days he would spend Sunday evenings devouring VHS tapes from The One Show, but now he’s really put his faith to the test.
There’s no doubt that those first few years were challenging, but Fernando has had a couple of secret weapons that fortified him through the toughest times. One is his unrelenting positivity (“I'm very optimistic. I think Brazilians tend to be optimistic, I'm probably on the high end of optimism, even on a Brazilian scale!” he laughs). And the other is a trick that any struggling marketer might learn from. And that is to always have a passion project or two on the go that truly excites you – it’s a tonic that Fernando has found has kept him going through the grind.
“On my bad days I would go to the agency and talk to the guys and that would energise me. I think you need to find ways to energise yourself; you should always have one or two projects that are really exciting, pet projects,” he says. “I always had something that I was like a little kid about! ‘There is a shitload of shit that we have to deal with but this thing is going to be amazing and it's worth it’. That's how we did Proud Whopper. That's how we did McWhopper. That's how we did Google Home of the Whopper. We did so many cool things like that.”
And while Fernando’s journey with RBI – and RBI’s journey with Fernando – has been the most dramatic ‘crucible moment’, in truth Fernando’s career has been formed over a series of such moments. As we've seen, he’s always embraced a challenge.
“I never arrived in a place where the brand was flying. It was always: turn around, turn around, turn around. And I prefer that. I prefer to be able to leave a mark and change the direction of a business and of a brand,” he says. “If you go to a place where things are flying, it can be very tempting, exciting. But like you arrive there, if you do it well, you'll just continue to do what the brand was already doing. And chances are, because of Murphy's Law, it's going to decline, right? If stuff is down, like chances are that it can go up.”