Why Fernando Machado is the most-loved CMO in advertising

Fernando Machado, the global chief marketing officer of Burger King, had an idea. It was to create a limited edition of the company’s Whopper burger, marketed to fans and sold wrapped in beautiful, rainbow-colored paper. When customers unwrapped it, it would prove to be the same old Whopper they’d known for years. The message of the 2014 campaign, created specifically for the San Francisco Pride Parade, was going to be “we’re all the same inside.” Machado had some trouble selling it internally, but believed in the idea and that it would showcase BK as an inclusive brand that sought to make a difference.

His agency partner at the time, then-WPP-owned agency David’s co-founder (and Machado’s longtime advertising partner in crime), Anselmo Ramos, was worried. Machado was known for big crazy ideas, but he wondered if this would be the one where Machado’s pushiness outweighed the benefits of going through with it. “I told [Machado] his ass would be fired if he went through with it. We can come up with another idea.”

Machado shrugged it off, telling Ramos that if that happened that he would come work for Ramos at his agency instead. Proud Whopper went through and was a success — customers collected the wrappers and took them home, it was a PR coup, and it raised BK’s profile among the coveted younger set as a hip and inclusive brand.

That, in a nutshell, is Machado’s superpower: In an age where marketing has veered closer to science than art, where micro-targeting and data are king, Machado remains a champion of creativity. He believes creative marketing truly drives business.

“There’s enough data out there pointing to the fact that creativity means results. There is return on investment from these things. There is pick-up from press. There is impact on culture. There is social media,” says Machado, 43, who goes by Fer to most in the industry. “If what I’m saying is true, and we believe it is true, then this is pretty simple.”

Under Machado, Burger King has taken a stand on net neutrality after it was repealed with a new video that asked people to pay more to get Whoppers at faster speeds; highlighted how there’s only one Burger King restaurant in Romania — and it happens to be at the airport — by asking people to buy flights so they can eat a Whopper; helped people in France move homes to be near a Burger King; asked competitor Wendy’s out on a date; given free “WhoppHERs” to Saudi women that drove; explained the pink tax by charging women more than men for Chicken Fries; and celebrated a feat of geolocation marketing by offering 1-cent Whoppers to people within 600 feet of a McDonald’s if they ordered from the app. And that’s just in the past year.

“I see my role as the person who pushes the organization to be more creative so we can attract and retain talent,” he says. “My job is to make sure the brand will look a certain way 10, 15 years from now. Sales is our duty. Building a brand is our legacy.”

Machado became CMO at Burger King two years ago, after holding the head of marketing position. One of the biggest changes for him in the past couple of years has been how much more technology has “bubbled up” as part of his agenda. But while for most marketing heads that’s meant an outsize focus on data and technology — and Machado knows those things are important — for Machado it’s meant more of a reason to double down on what he sees as his raison d’etre of creativity. “I believe in creativity, and I keep pushing the organization in that direction,” he says. “I doubt the CFO will be the person pushing for that. Or the HR person.”

Machado is hardly the first — and won’t be the last — CMO to espouse the value of “creativity.” But in an industry where marketers are under tremendous pressure to stop wastage and prove their worth, he’s stuck out as one of the last remaining marketing heads who truly seem to believe in it. That’s undoubtedly what’s made him a popular figure, especially among agencies.

“One of his strongest characteristics is his ability to think big picture but still have deep insights into the details,” says R3 founder Greg Paull. “When we worked through some case studies, he’s one of the few marketers that can get granular while at the same time, being strategic.”

“He’s like a marketing god now. He’s like an ally on the client side. He’s just, one of us,” says Ramos, who also worked with Machado on Dove while at Ogilvy.

For Ramos, like most agency people, what makes Machado special is that in an era where marketers make sport out of diminishing the role their agencies play, Machado doesn’t. “Sometimes clients call me and say, ‘I want to be your Fernando Machado of brand X,’” says Ramos. “They can’t. Are they really going to approve everything? Are they going to just let us do everything?”

One of the traits that makes Machado even more popular is that while he understands the importance of flashy advertising, he’s also spending plenty of time doing other jobs that you wouldn’t expect a CMO to do.

Over the past six months, Machado says he’s spent more of his time on product R&D. Burger King is on a mission to clean up its products — removing all artificial flavors and preservatives from its burgers and sandwiches. (This follows last fall’s announcement that the seven classic McDonald’s burgers sold in the U.S. are also free of fake flavors, colors and preservatives.)

“Advertising and design is only 25 percent of what I do and what my team does,” says Machado. The other 75 percent is even between product and tech. “It’s not a very flashy part of the work, and, yes, I’m obsessed about the marketing work we do, but I also get extremely excited about doing things for the brand.”

Some of this is because of Machado’s classical upbringing in marketing. Growing up in Brazil, Machado wanted to be — no surprise — a soccer player. But he was also good at both math and English. His earliest job after studying mechanical engineering was in the Unilever factory outside São Paulo, where he worked on boxes for laundry detergent.

One day, the marketing team came in, and Machado was interested in seeing what they did. “I said, ‘Holy shit. They do business, but they also do design. They have quantitative and qualitative.’”

Machado entered the management trainee program at Unilever in 1998, and worked there for 18 years, on almost every single category. When you work on marketing at Unilever, product is front and center.

For example, in his last four years there, Machado worked on Dove, where he led the “Real Beauty Sketches” campaign. “I was investing a ton of time in product stuff. I was working on packaging. Many times people don’t talk about it — it’s not what’s brought up when it comes to the 20 Cannes Lions — but it’s equally if not more important.”

It’s that duality that attracts people: In the same breath as he rattles off Burger King’s Cannes wins, he’ll talk about how important it is to have the right packaging for its onion rings.

And when it comes to the issues most big-name CMOs in the industry are focused on, Machado is largely unruffled. When asked about whether he worries how much money is going to Facebook or Google, or the amount of money wasted when it comes to digital ad fraud, Machado has a Zen approach. “If I don’t see how I can impact a problem, I don’t focus on it,” he says. “I believe food research at Burger King is critical, and I will die fighting to clear up the portfolio we have, even though that may not cause an impact on sales this month.” That means spending more time inside Burger King restaurants than most other people in the organization (he knows how to do everything except operate the drive-thru — “I get confused”).

To marketers worried about waste, he says: Fix your analytics. “If companies decide to make a coalition on ad fraud, sure, I’m in. But I’m not going to, in my day-to-day, spend time fighting that when there’s other things to control.”

It’s hard to let Machado go without asking about Andy Warhol. The brand, after all, did just put out an ad that was widely panned as one of the worst Super Bowl ads — featuring Andy Warhol in documentary footage eating a Whopper — condemned for being navel-gazing, and an ad for advertising agency people, not customers. USA Today’s famed Ad Meter ranked the spot, called #EatLikeAndy, dead last. Creativity has its risks.

Machado doesn’t flinch. “The thing is that people think we’re kicking an open door because we’re already doing so much good stuff,” he said. “I stuck my neck out and my head out, and mistakes happen. The fact is, we value creativity more than ever before. So, you’re asking me why aren’t I afraid of the stuff we do? I’m afraid every time.”


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