The 10 Essential Advertising People of the Year: No. 6 Deborah Wahl

The CMO of McDonald's USA directed the ending of an old partnership and the beginning of a new agency.

For better or worse, 2016 was a landmark year in advertising, with enough controversies, crises and breakthroughs to fill a decade. To mark its conclusion, Campaign US is highlighting 10 people we believe are essential to understanding the year. We will be counting down our choices starting on Dec. 9, with our No. 1 most essential person revealed on Dec. 22. Click here to see the list as it is revealed.

2016 saw the end of the 35-year relationship between McDonald’s and Leo Burnett, as well as the birth of an entirely new agency to handle the fast food giant’s nearly $1 billion account. That transition, one of the biggest shakeups of the year, was spearheaded by Deborah Wahl, CMO at McDonald’s USA.

After pulling US sales out of a decline in 2015, Wahl sought to consolidate the brand’s agency partnerships to streamline the creative process and improve McDonald’s ability to react to consumers. For decades, agencies had competed for portions of the business—the sandwich menu, kids’ menu or individual promotional campaigns. Wahl decided the best way to "tell a cohesive story" was to consolidate the company’s marketing efforts with a single agency.

The request for proposals issued on April 25 specified that McDonald’s was looking for an "agency of the future," phrasing that caused rampant speculation among industry watchers over what it would look like. "That would seem to indicate that many current agency/client relationships are stuck in the past, and McDonald’s probably isn’t the only big brand that feels that way," the Wall Street Journal predicted.

Given the size of the business, the review took place at breakneck speed, allowing only 60 days before pitches were due. WPP dropped out in May, and agency insiders cited the RFP’s demands that the winning agency operate at cost and rely on profit incentives to make any money. That left the incumbents, Omnicom’s DDB and Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett, to fight it out amid lamentations from many industry observers that holding companies would agree to an arrangement that might result in no profit.

But Wahl’s insistence on the "agency of the future" spurred the remaining contestants to think big.

It was a close decision, according to sources at both agencies, but in late August, Wahl chose Omnicom, based partly on its decision to bring Google and the New York Times’ T Brand Studio in to partner on the pitch. Apparently, the agency of the future knows that collaboration is no longer optional.

In mid-November, Wahl and DDB NA CEO Wendy Clark unveiled We Are Unlimited, a dedicated 200-person agency with a team drawn from more than a half-dozen Omnicom agencies, embedded employees from Google and T Brand, as well as former McDonald’s creatives wooed away from Publicis.

We Are Unlimited officially takes over the McDonald’s account on Jan. 1, 2017. Whether its model is adopted by more agencies (or demanded by more clients) remains to be seen, but the future of the agency of the future will depend on how well it works with McDonald’s and what kind of results it can produce with neither competitors to motivate it nor distractions to obstruct it. Expect Wahl to be both its strongest booster and harshest critic.

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