AKQA's appointment followed a pitch, involving a number of agencies, including McDonald's digital roster agency Tribal DDB, which handles the brand locally in five markets including the US, Australia and Germany.
While McDonald's is keen to point out that the global appointment will not affect Tribal's local accounts, AKQA is charged with developing a global digital strategy and platforms to enable consistency and integration for the brand across the world.
McDonald's strategy is to "embrace multiple digital platforms, including web and mobile," says Ajaz Ahmed, chairman of AKQA. "The aim of the strategy is to build strong consumer relationships and ensure that consistent, compelling consumer experiences are delivered worldwide."
He says the agency's appointment signals an "elevated" commitment to digital by the global multi-national.
The commitment is being supported by a marked increase in online marketing spend. McDonald's has already increased its online investment "quite a bit" and will continue to do so in the coming year.
"As the marketplace continues to evolve we expect to see that trend continue, and we have certainly already increased our spending in each of our countries," says Kim Lloyd, senior director of global media and technology for McDonald's.
Lloyd agrees that the appointment of a global digital marketing agency demonstrates the brand's commitment to "taking a leadership position" in the emerging digital marketplace as well as integrating the brand globally.
"We certainly want to be out in front of the changes that we see happening with our customers, who want to be engaged in new and fun ways. It's a global stage now in this new marketplace and while we will still have all the activity that we currently have within our local markets, we see an opportunity to have a more holistic and integrated approach, and that's why we added the role."
However, McDonald's faces big challenges. Despite being one of the most recognised brands in the world, figures from Nielsen//NetRatings reveal the McDonald's global online audience to be just 1.9 million people - which equates to 0.6 per cent of the world's active internet population. The multi-national brand is currently ranked the 974th most popular online brand in the world.
"McDonald's just made it into the top 1,000 most popular brands online around the world. Offline, McDonald's would be in the top ten, if not the top five, in terms of being a globally recognisable brand. I think there's a huge gap between where they are in the minds of consumers compared to where they are online," says Alex Burmaster, European internet analyst at Nielsen//NetRatings.
"On the one hand there is a huge gap there, but on the other hand there is huge potential and there is a huge space for them to grow into. I think the challenge for McDonald's is understanding how they can use the online space and online technologies to engage and interact with consumers on the high street," he adds.
Another challenge facing the brand is the growing raft of regulations around advertising to children. This, coupled with concerns about fast food and obesity, and ongoing political and environmental issues, poses a big problem for the corporation.
Theresa Wise, global director of digital and online at Accenture Marketing Sciences, says online channels present an opportunity for McDonald's to connect with their target demographics, especially as restrictions and regulations tighten.
"For McDonald's, it's about making sure that people associate McDonald's not just with "junk food", but also to reinforce that there's a nutritional option. The ways it can use online to do that are numerous, things like branded content or advertorials and brand associations with things like environmental responsibility, nutritional foods and being seen to behave responsibly," she says.
"McDonald's is facing advertising restrictions in some markets, for example when and how it targets children. Again, online is an effective way to reach demographics when there are regulatory restrictions in some areas," adds Wise.
At Nielsen//NetRatings, McDonald's is categorised as a corporate site and the global site (www.mcdonalds.com) serves as a landing page, with corporate information and links to its local country sites. While users are "not going to go online to buy a hamburger", Burmaster thinks the brand needs to look at other ways to engage the audience.
A recent online creative promotion for 'Pirates of the Caribbean' proved hugely successful, and helped boost the brand's unique audience from 1.7 million in January to 5.3 million in July, making McDonald's the 7th fastest growing brand online in the first half of this year. But the challenge that remains for the brand is finding ways to maintain this.
Beyond the web
Online, McDonald's plans to employ user-generated content and web 2.0 features as part of its creative digital strategy; however, its digital goals reach beyond the web, to incorporate mobile and the company's worldwide stores.
"We certainly believe that having a consistent and engaging strategy in the online world is absolutely critical, but you are going to see much more technology; at the restaurant it might be in the form of promotional content, or entertainment, and we are looking at new technology to enhance the whole ordering experience," says Lloyd.
"We've got 31,000 restaurants, which are 31,000 points of presence around the globe. We see an opportunity with this digital strategy to be much more integrated and connected around those restaurants. We want to use digital to really connect those communications and the restaurant will be the heart of that."