Chicago Sun-Times
Lewis Lazare follows Chicago media and marketing news

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Walt Riker, longtime top public relations honcho at Oak Brook-based burger behemoth McDonald's, said Wednesday he has decided to retire after 17 years with the company. "McDonald's is the greatest brand on the planet. However, I must make the decisions that are right for me and my family," said Riker in a statement.

Riker said the McDonald's media relations team will now report to Bridget Coffing. "She has true global expertise, and in-depth experience in marketing, nutrition, global events such as the Olympics and the World Cup, and a passion for Ronald McDonald House Charities," Riker said. The plan is to merge McDonald's global public relations unit with the media relations team to form one new entity called the external communications department.

happyGRAB1.jpgIt may be too early -- or too late -- to hope for a return to a time when jingles were an important part of the advertising business. Almost everyone in advertising has moved on to the digital age and all its distractions -- a digital age that has been unkind to original music and its once-important role in advertising.

It's impossible to pinpoint exactly when jingles fell out of favor, but they did. And the industry and the work it has turned out has -- for years now -- seemed all the more impoverished because of what has happened.

But for an example of how much an original song can add to a commercial, one need only consider the McDonald's "Spaceman Stu" commercial for Happy Meals that we wrote about in today's Sun-Times. Even without the song from Comma Music/Chicago's Pete Schmidt that is such an integral part of the storytelling, "Spaceman Stu" would have been a stunningly-rendered example of the art and craft of advertising.

But with Schmidt's charming composition to carry us along, "Spaceman Stu" is so much more affecting.

Why aren't we surprised? McDonald's CEO James Skinner -- in no uncertain terms -- told investors at the annual shareholders meeting today that the burger behemoth's famous icon Ronald McDonald has no intention of "retiring" from the company.

This comes in the wake of a search posse's attempts on Wednesday to track down Ronald in Chicago, put him in a van and take him off to retirement. The posse, comprised of clowns, civilians and other retired mascots such as Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man, was the brainchild of a Boston not-for-profit called Corporate Accountability International. Skinner, addressing shareholders who took issue with the chain's use of Ronald, reportedly called the mascot a "force for good." Which doesn't jive at all with CAI's view. The CAI organization maintains Ronald is an important part of McDonald's effort to manipulate kids into eating unhealthy foods.

McDonald's longtime mascot Ronald McDonald is a wanted man. A man a Boston-based not-for-profit organization known as Corporate Accountability International wants to force into retirement. Toward that end, a search party comprised of 20 people, including clowns and retired corporate mascots Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man, has been roaming Chicago today to seek out Ronald and hustle him into a van waiting to ferry him into retirement.

Why is this organization so intent on retiring Ronald? Well, they maintain Ronald McDonald is a very visible part of McDonald's "predatory" marketing to children -- which they suggest is a major contributing factor to the current epidemic of childhood obesity. The Corporate Accountability folks also maintain they aren't alone in calling for Ronald's retirement. A recent poll by Lake Research Partners found that close of half of the American public is ready for Ronald's retirement.

But we wouldn't hold our breath. McDonald's has invested way too much time and money into maintaining Ronald's iconic status at the burger behemoth to cave to some groups that believe he contributes to childhood obesity.

Still, the search posse is marching around Chicago to try and find Ronald on the eve of McDonald's annual shareholders meeting in Oakbrook on Thursday. The march was scheduled to move from Millennium Park up Michigan Avenue to Leo Burnett, one of McDonald's roster agencies and then on to Pioneer Plaza and the Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's eatery in River North.

McDonald's has lost its global chief marketing officer Mary Dillon, who is decamping June 1 to take the CEO job at U.S. Cellular. We don't know what kind of job she'll do at U.S. Cellular, but we weren't impressed with Dillon's five years at the helm of the burger behemoth's global marketing effort.

Granted our first direct interaction with Dillon couldn't have been worse. She was handed a prepared speech to read to us over the phone, and we sat speechless, with phone receiver to ear, while she recited it verbatim. If ever there were a more robotic performance from a top marketing executive, we've yet to experience it. Dillon obviously was good at being a team player at McDonald's. She kept the ads coming for the past five years. But do we remember any of them? Not really. That leads us to believe she was probably a decent manager -- but hardly a visionary.

And that is really what McDonald's needs in the job Dillon is leaving if it wants to regain its preeminence as a marketing force. Just as Dillon was preparing to walk out the door at McDonald's, the fast food giant unveiled a handful of TV spots that seemed to indicate it was ready to get back in touch with its roots as a great advertiser. We're not entirely sure where the impetus for this surprising display originated, but it obviously won't be Dillon's task to ensure that it leads to a full restoration of McDonald's advertising glory.

In the end, Dillon was just like so many CMO's out there today who fill a seat and do pretty much only what they have to do to get the job done. And all the while -- which usually isn't very long these days -- looking for the next thing to move on to. Real commitment? Vision? Legacy? Nope. Not for Dillon or for most of her peers in the marketing world. That's just not what this marketing game is about anymore.

US McNugget.JPGThe McDonald's Webcast Monday morning was painfully stiff and scripted. The event was designed to showcase McDonald's marketing efforts surrounding the Winter Olympics set to kick off next month in Vancouver, Canada.

It took McDonald's global chief marketing officer Mary Dillon and McDonald's Canada president John Betts and assorted guests about 20 minutes to walk us through the various components of the fast food behemoth's marketing initiatives tied to the 2010 Games. About three minutes of that time, roughly, was devoted to actual McDonald's Olympic TV advertising.

Sad to say, terribly old-fashioned TV commercials aren't top of mind anymore at McDonald's, which, along with scores of other companies, seems convinced that there are other, more efficient ways to reach their core audience now. Still, this is the Olympics. And a truly great TV commercial could have whetted the public's appetite for the upcoming Olympics and for McDonald's.

But the worked McDonald's unveiled Monday couldn't have been more underwhelming. For the United States market, McDonald's is going with just two instantly forgettable spots from DDB/Chicago, a longtime roster agency. One spot is all about a female hockey team and another showcases two snowboarders. Both are about pushing McNuggets, which apparently is what McDonald's is using this Olympics to market. Not the glory of the games. Or the excitement of athletic competition. Just McNuggets, which McDonald's said was its most requested menu item at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

McDonald's, of course, is entitled to push whatever it wants in its TV commercials. But clearly the company wasn't inclined to spend big on a commercial or two for the 2010 Olympics that weren't primarily product-focused. Such is the way most advertisers think about their marketing nowadays: don't spend on anything that won't boost the bottom line. It's a short-sighted, narrow-minded philosophy that almost inevitably leads to the hopelessly mediocre kind of work McDonald's introduced during Monday's Web cast.

There was a time when McDonald's would have delivered more -- much more -- than merely mediocre TV creative. Those times are gone. And we're definitely not lovin' it.

Informed sources say the NBA has a new lead quick service restaurant sponsor -- Taco Bell, replacing Oak Brook-based McDonald's, which had been an NBA sponsor for some 20 years. Taco Bell is a unit of the world's largest restaurant company, Louisville-based Yum! Brands. An official announcement of the newly-inked sponsorship deal is expected within the next couple of days.

Sources say the NBA's switch in principal quick service restaurant sponsors evolved from a developing relationship with Yum! that began in 2006. The NBA has been working internationally with another Yum! unit, KFC. The new sponsorship affiliation with the NBA will yield Taco Bell a number of high-profile opportunities to tout the Mexican fast food chain to a large basketball audience.

McDonald's Egg.jpgRemember "The Egg?" We sure do. The McDonald's billboard in the form of a giant egg was one of a small number of true advertising triumphs to come out of Chicago ad shops last year. And Leo Burnett/Chicago, a McDonald's roster shop created it. Now "The Egg" has won a 2009 Obie Award in the traditional billboard category. The Obie Awards are handed out by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. Per Nancy Fletcher, OAAA president and CEO, the Obie judges every year look to honor advertising that illustrates the essence of outdoor -- simple creative that surprises and delights audience.

"The Egg," designed to crack open at daybreak to promote McDonald's fresh breakfast offerings and then slowly close up as lunch draws near, is surely one billboard execution that beautifully showed the power of great outdoor work last year. Quite coincidentally, we're sure, Leo Burnett Worldwide Chief Creative Officer Mark Tutssel headed the panel of judges that selected the 2009 Obie winners.



About the blogger

Lewis Lazare has written the Media Mix column for the Chicago Sun-Times for the past seven and a half years.

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