CMO profile: McDonald's Australia's Chris Brown on switching agency for client-side

The first-time chief marketing officer catches up with CMO to discuss his marketing strategy, emphasis on simplicity, and ambitions to make the McDonalds brand magnetic

Chris Brown
Chris Brown

Chris Brown is the first to admit he wasn’t quite sure what to expect when he switched from agency to client-side and became McDonald's Australia’s chief marketing officer in December last year.

The former group managing director of R/GA in New York built his marketing and media credentials working for agencies in London, Australia and the US, leading his teams to award-winning results. Starting at DDB London as a graduate and earning his stripes in creative advertising, Brown relocated to Sydney in 2002 and spent 14 years with the integrated marketing agency in total.

For the six years prior to returning to Australia, Brown was in New York, working initially for DDB before joining R/GA to progress its efforts to bring together digital, data and CX in marketing.

“I’ve been able to work in great places and learn from great people across different markets. I really enjoyed the diversity of the cities, experiences, challenges and opportunities that came my way,” Brown tells CMO.  

Now a first-time CMO, Brown says he’s first and foremost enjoying being client-side. “You are never quite sure what it might be like. It’s hugely dynamic, and the role I have is across an iconic brand and dynamic business,” he says.  

“What I really enjoy is the deeper understanding that comes with the role. As the CMO, you are dealing with a broader canvas and engaging in business challenges and opportunities, commercial decisions of which marketing is a part, but where you’re also involved in other business discussions and decisions. That might be operational complexity, supply chain or IT investment. These are net new conversations I’m involved in that I’m enjoying.”

Having worked with “some fantastic CMOs” locally and in the US, Brown says he feels he has a good grip on the key attributes required to be successful CMO.

“It’s about how you be the customer champion within the organisation, and how you reinforce the importance of the brand as well as marketing specifically as a growth driver for the business,” he says. “Then it’s about creating an environment where your internal people and external partners can do their best work. The CMOs I admired did that very well.”  

Brown also believes the role of marketing and CMOs is becoming both more important and more complex.

“I saw that change while I was on the agency side. Now in a CMO role, I’m experiencing that. It’s reinforced that view the role is ever-changing and evolving,” he says. “We have to be fluent in digital and data, be customer obsessed, commercially minded and reinforce creativity and brand in driving the business forward.

"You see structures changes and org design changing to reflect the industry and changing consumer behaviours. I don’t think there is just one way of doing that – everyone is striving to evolve to suit those changing dynamics.”

Becoming a CMO during Covid

Brown joined McDonald's as Australia was enjoying a brief respite from Covid-19 lockdowns but had experienced months of disruption thanks to the virus’ impact. There’s no doubt this affected the steps he took as a people leader and marketing practitioner in those first few important months.  

“Recognising the challenging time people were having, I doubled down on seeking first to understand the business,” Brown says. “I was new to a client-side role, back in this market, and Covid had created lots of change and challenges. For me, it emphasised the core fundamentals – before you make decisions, you need to spend as much time as you can to connect with as many people as you can across the business. And to listen.”  

Brown also spent time working in the restaurants, a valuable experience for getting to grips with the McDonald's business and culture.

“Then I made sure I was building a point of view both on the data I was getting from these conversations, plus those other data sources, and from a people perspective,” he continues.  

“Transparency and empathy are super important, whether it’s internal or external. From a business perspective, and because we are operating and living in these different, difficult times, focus and clarity become even more important too.

“There continues to be disruption and challenges. I wanted to make sure I took those learnings from experiencing this overseas of the necessity of being both transparent and empathetic. But also it’s about focusing on the things that will make a difference and being very clear on what your expectations are.”

Up next: How Brown plans to build brand magnetism, priorities, plus the latest McDonald's marketing plays

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