Billions and billions sold. A veritable room full of creative awards, including the 4A’s “Best Five Year Campaign,” Advertising Age’s “Best Campaign of the Twentieth Century,” and the second-best Spokesclown of the Twentieth Century—not to mention a mess of Cannes Lions and Clios.

So, how did all this happen? How did McDonald’s keep creative people motivated to solve problem after problem, day after day, for the almost 30 years I was there? The process is really quite simple. And it can be used to solve just about any problem you have, from marketing to operations to human resources.  

Politicians know there are four key motivators: money, sex, power, and a job well done. One of these they never use, but that’s the one you do want to use.  

The first step in addressing your problems is to share all the information you have with the people who will solve it, be it your agency or your manager and crew. Don’t hold anything back that will help to find the solution. Then give them ample time to work. Too many timelines do not allow for adequate think time. When it is time for them to present their recommendation to you, allow the person who came up with the idea to make the presentation, not his boss’ boss. At this point, title doesn’t mean anything—ideas do. And no one will fight for an idea like the person who came up with it.  

When the recommendation has been made, allow anyone in the room who has an interest to positively comment. This is not the time to tear down. I always found something good to say about an idea. When everyone is done, make it very clear that just one representative of your team will either agree or disagree with the idea. We do not do things by committee. Start by saying whether you agree or disagree and, most importantly, why. Then add any other comments you might have, or discuss comments you heard that you agree with. I used to preface my comments with, “Alright, here’s what we’re going to do.” A creative biggie at Leo Burnett used to say that these were the seven most important words he ever heard. Then stick to your decision and get ’er done. That’s the way to solve any problem.

Make the atmosphere for this meeting creative. The Advertising Department at McDonald’s was always buzzing. It helped that we had the open-office concept, but people were always running around spouting ideas to each other. Everyone was always available to listen to an idea. The clock seemed to spin around time went so fast. And at the end of the day, we would gather in my office and just talk. It might be family or finances or advertising. The key thing is that we all got together for a few minutes and debriefed.

The charge was to try anything. Just don’t make the same mistake twice. And if it doesn’t work, no one got yelled at. The question asked was simply, “What have we learned?” And we shared what we learned with everyone.  

Throw a problem at the wall and it will stick. Now throw a lot of solutions and see which of them stick. Then pick the best one and go to lunch.

We used a lot of brainstorming techniques. Throw a problem at the wall and it will stick. Now throw a lot of solutions and see which of them stick. Then pick the best one and go to lunch. Works every time.  

The agencies knew we were available 24/7. We wanted to help any way we could. There was no elitism. Until I got into that meeting room and became the decision maker, we were all equal and ready to be part of the answer.  

Meetings started on time whenever possible. Being late for a meeting meant you missed the part you were late for. Everyone’s time was respected. And don’t forget to turn off all the electronic toys. There was a comfortable area for the agency to wait in if they got there early, with phones, coffee, and water. Again, it’s about an atmosphere. We went to the agency’s offices sometimes, too. We didn’t always make them travel.  

There was a creative idea budget. We had money set aside to try things. Some of our best food photography came from this budget. The agencies knew about it and would compete to use it. Some of this money would be tacked onto productions for the director and agency to shoot another idea after they shot the storyboard they sold.

As to the motivator, money, we worked hard to make sure our suppliers were making a fair profit. Regular reviews were held and profits were augmented if someone was struggling. Likewise, windfalls were avoided.  

If anything, however, you must be honest with those who are working on your problems. If you don’t like the solution, tell them, but in a positive way. There is nothing worse to a creative person than walking out of a meeting confused. They need clear direction and a decision.  

Finally, there are two other concepts that I used with my people to motivate them and to help them to motivate others. The first is respect. I respected them, their ideas, their problems, and their lives. I wasn’t their best friend, but I was a friend, as well as their boss. They knew I would listen and relate. And I was available as much as possible. One of my folks said that he knew no matter what, he would get a fair shake. Because I made the decisions, 50 percent of the people didn’t like me, but that was part of my job. The next decision meant the other 50 percent.  

The second, but equally important, concept was we worked hard and we played hard. I ran the advertising for McDonald’s with nine people, including assistants. I was asked several times by management if I wanted more people. The answer was always no. We had enough to do the job as long as we all worked our collective tails off. But they knew that when the job was done, they would play hard too. We went to baseball games, the race track, out to special lunches, had a great Christmas party where they bought gag gifts for each other and we sang carols, and truly celebrated promotions, birthdays, and anniversaries. We were a team and everyone was a player.

And, that’s how we got it done. That’s how we were motivated to solve those problems for nearly 30 years. Try it.

Happy Trails and a Peaceful June.

Story, McDonald's