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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Marlena Peleo-Lazar
Marlena Peleo-Lazar

Chief Creative Officer/VP

Peleo Lazar Photo Cropped June 2012 Marlena Peleo Lazar

“Whoa, whoa, whoa there, IHAVEANIDEA, what are ya tryin’ to pull here? McDonald’s isn’t an agency, it’s a client, and clients aren’t ‘creative’!”

Yes, we know, clients are evil, or at least that’s what we keep telling ourselves. But for those of us who don’t believe that, we know there are a number of brands and businesses with a creative vision that rival that of our favourite boutique agencies.

Such is the case with international fast food giant McDonald’s, as well as with the company’s Chief Creative Officer, Marlena Peleo-Lazar.

After a career as a copywriter and creative director at places like Leo Burnett and Ogilvy, Marlena was tapped to bring some of that creative department know-how to McDonald’s in 2000. Twelve years later, and Marlena’s still going strong under the Golden Arches, guiding one of the most recognizable brands on the face of the earth and picking up numerous creative and business accolades along the way.

IHAVEANIDEA had a chance to meet and chat with Marlena about her storied career, how she got to where she is today, and just how much she’s ‘lovin’ it’ on the client side of the table.

IHAVEANIDEA: As we often like to begin these interviews, take us back to the very beginning, to a young Marlena in Detroit. What made you want to get into the crazy advertising world?

Marlena: Well I was a child actress. I wanted to be Meryl Streep, and if that didn’t pan out, I thought maybe I’d take over Barbara Walters’ career. To be clear though, not the Barbara Walters from The View, but the one who interviewed the likes of Fidel Castro and Anwar Sadat.

I went to school in Detroit, and when I graduated, there weren’t a lot of options in the area in terms of becoming a TV journalist. It was frankly looking kind of hopeless, and someone asked my dad — who was in the restaurant business — if I had ever considered a career in advertising. Now I had no experience in that field. I had a degree in media, in film studies, in English, but no courses in advertising.

Still, I managed to land an internship at an agency in Detroit. I don’t think I was that great of a copywriter, but that agency entered a lot of award shows, and the law of averages said that I’d eventually win something, and that caught the attention of Leo Burnett in Chicago. Back then Leo Burnett hired a lot of young up-and-comers. I don’t think it was to cultivate the best and brightest talent, but more because we were very cheap (laughs).

So Leo Burnett called me up to come to Chicago for an interview. I looked in the old Red Book to find out about other agencies in Chicago, then set up a whole day of appointments and drove out there in my blue Mustang.

My first appointment ended up being the one at Leo, and the person who interviewed me went on to be the chairman of Leo Burnett sometime later. He looked at my book and asked if I could start work on Monday. I thought “Monday? I still live in Detroit!” I don’t know if it was me being young and naïve or if I had a big ego, still thinking about my future TV news career, but I told him, “you’re really nice, but I don’t think I’ll be working in advertising six months from now. I’m going to get a job on TV!”

” …I told him, ‘you’re really nice, but I don’t think I’ll be working in advertising six months from now.’ “

He looked at me and said “well, until that happens, come to Leo Burnett and we’ll make it worth your while.” He asked me where my other appointments were, and I told him I was going to some place called ‘Foote Cone something” and “McCann whatever.” He advised that I go to those appointments and come back after them. By that time it was very late in the afternoon, and the folks at Leo asked, “you’re not driving all the way back to Detroit now, are you?” They put me up at the Palmer Hotel, and that made me feel like such a movie star! That pretty much sealed the deal and I started my career in earnest at Leo Burnett.

IHAVEANIDEA: You were there for quite some time…

Marlena: I still thought I’d only be there for six months, but I ended up staying there, building, growing and going through the ranks for twenty years. I fell in love with advertising, and with Leo Burnett, and I never imagined myself ever leaving. Neither did the agency. When I eventually left to go to Ogilvy Chicago, Leo Burnett didn’t disconnect my phone line for almost six months, just in case I was under some evil spell that would wear off and have me coming back (laughs).

IHAVEANIDEA: How on earth did you wind up on the client side of things? You generally only hear about account people moving to “the dark side,” never creatives.

Marlena: (laughs) Well, the folks at McDonald’s said I came to “the light side.” I was speaking at some advertising luncheon, and the chairman of McDonald’s was in the audience. He came up to me after the event and said he loved the way I spoke about brands, and said he’d like to talk with me. I said sure, and really, you hear people say that all the time, so I really didn’t expect that we would speak again.

I was surprised when the chairman called me two days later. We met up, and at the end of the conversation he asked if I’d ever consider coming to the client side. I said “WHAT!?” I didn’t think that was a thing that could be done! We’re used to wearing clients out, not becoming one ourselves.

But it was a truly unique opportunity, as McDonald’s has always had a commitment to creativity and innovation throughout the company.

IHAVEANIDEA: What made you decide to take the offer?

Marlena: Well other than the craft behind making great ads, my favorite thing about advertising is branding, and here was a chance to work with one of the most iconic, most recognized brands on the planet. And I never got to work on McDonald’s when I was at Leo Burnett, so this was a way to impact a brand in a different way.

IHAVEANIDEA: What were your goals when you first arrived at McDonald’s?

Marlena: Well when I got there the company was in a bit of a downturn, and I really wanted to improve the advertising. They had just launched a new campaign shortly before my arrival, and it was a humbling experience to have to live under work that was created before I got there.

My goal — and this could just be ego talking — was to return McDonald’s to its legendary advertising, but that was easier said than done. Still, I was working with some extremely talented people and some of the best agencies around, so it was an exciting challenge to build award-winning, brand-building work. And I felt that with my creative, agency-side background, I knew how this could be achieved, I knew what drove both the art and commerce sides of things.

IHAVEANIDEA: What is it like to navigate the waters when you are an industry-leading company? How do you deal with a public that says, “Oh, Ronald McDonald should be scrapped” or “Selling fast food to kids is evil” or whatnot?

Marlena: Being the leader definitely has a price. I am betting some companies go to bed thinking, “Thank God for McDonald’s to take all the heat for us!” But we take our role as a food industry leader very seriously and responsibly. For instance, in the United States, all of our Happy Meals now include apple slices. It’s no longer an option that you have to ask for. We made a commitment to including nutritional information in any communications that are created for children.

One misconception I think people have about huge brands like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola is that our goal is to outspend everyone in our communications, as if money is no object. Money is an object, and we make every effort to spend our money wisely to best serve our customers. It sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, but the thing I respect most about McDonald’s is its values. For instance, there are the Ronald McDonald House charities. They are one of the biggest charities in the country, but it’s not a publicized one. We could be saying, “Oh don’t look at these things, look over here at this charity! But we’re not.”

IHAVEANIDEA: What has been the creative highlight of your time at McDonald’s so far?

Marlena: It would definitely be the launch of the ‘I’m Lovin’ It’ campaign. It was exhausting, it was nerve-wracking, but it was also truly wonderful. To have a campaign that runs in 118 countries around the world is amazing. And it’s the longest running campaign in McDonald’s history, almost ten years old. ‘You Deserve A Break Today’ was only 18 months old.

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‘I’m Lovin’ It’ was a truly simple idea, as close to the proverbial doodle on a napkin as you’re going to get. It was conceived in June and by September it was on the air, in print, on billboards across the world, and the rest is history.

IHAVEANIDEA: What were some of the challenges you’ve faced in your role at McDonald’s?

Marlena: Well one of the biggest fears I had, and others around me had, was my attention span. As a creative on the agency side, you’re constantly working on new things, some big, some small, but always new. Here we were, afraid that I wouldn’t be able to handle focusing on one brand day in and day out. But that turned out to not be the case. Every day has been a new adventure, a new challenge to make the ‘I’m Lovin’ It’ campaign interesting and relevant.

“Well one of the biggest fears I had, and others around me had, was my attention span… Here we were, afraid that I wouldn’t be able to handle focusing on one brand day in and day out.”

IHAVEANIDEA: What exactly are your responsibilities as a global creative director on such a huge brand? I mean, there must be a lot of strings to pull, you must be a master puppeteer!

Marlena: Well I have direct responsibility for the work in the U.S., and a general overview for all of the other countries, and my job is the same: to uplift the level of creativity all over the world. Now I’m not like the Wizard of Oz, pulling levers behind a curtain. Each country has their own agencies, and we just set the guidelines for them. Freedom within a framework, so to speak.

IHAVEANIDEA: As someone with so many strong years of experience in this business, I’m sure you’ve seen the role of women in the industry evolve. How has it changed, and what things still need to change?

Marlena: (laughs) Well I don’t go as far back as Peggy Olson on Mad Men, but I was the first female creative at Leo Burnett to have a child. Back then, companies never even considered the idea of maternity leave, and now that’s not only common for women, but for new fathers as well.

I do wish we saw more women in leadership roles within agencies. We have a lot to bring to the table. I did have many brilliant male mentors, but it wasn’t until I got to Ogilvy that I saw and worked with women in and executive positions. Shelly Lazurus is a phenomenal one. But we need more.

That said, male or female, we need people who really love advertising, who have passion for this business coursing through their veins. You have to be in love, because why else would you put up with a job where you’re riding high in April, sinking low a week later, and back on top a week after that?

IHAVEANIDEA: You’re from Detroit. What’s your favorite Motown act?

Marlena: Easy, the Supremes. When I’m in the car, I become Diana Ross, and I can do ‘Stop In The Name of Love’ like nobody else.

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.
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Interview by:

brettcreditpic Marlena Peleo Lazar

Brett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2

  • Basil Salah

    That’s quite an interview with Marlena Peleo Lazar. it’s nice to see a home girl make good. Basil

  • Basil Salah

    That’s quite an interview with Marlena Peleo Lazar. it’s nice to see a home girl make good.

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