What defines a disruptor? For Airbnb, it’s easy. Do something nobody else thought of and force a complete travel industry rethink in the process.
For CMO Jonathan Mildenhall, the formula is more complex. Take a maverick mindset, a disadvantaged but creatively rich background, a belief in inclusivity and diversity forged through experience, and combine these with a commitment to humanity in marketing.
Humanity, creativity, and diversity are words Mildenhall uses a lot, but "uncomfortable truth" is his phrase of the moment. It occurs frequently as he talks about a might-never-have-happened career in marketing that culminated in an award-winning tenure at Coca-Cola and now the challenge of Airbnb, which he joined in June 2014.
The chief dirty word officer
The outgoing, ever-smiling Mildenhall has spent a lifetime confronting uncomfortable truths, and it holds him in good stead as he runs the marketing at a company with an in-built suspicion of the subject. "I often describe myself as the chief dirty word officer," he laughs.
"I like that. It stops me being predictable," he says. "The founders [Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, and Nathan Blecharczyk] have a ferocious appetite for innovation but a healthy suspicion of anything that ‘feels like marketing.' They want creative work that’s not just effective but surprising too."
That led to the company’s first global campaign, Never A Stranger, last year, which addressed the "uncomfortable truth of our business." Mildenhall explains: "If you said to somebody you were staying with Airbnb, they’d say: ‘Why would you stay with strangers?’" They say it less often now after the campaign generated massive brand awareness and a surge in bookings.
This year’s uncomfortable truth is how "modern travel is sick," Mildenhall says. "Why would people want to be shepherded around when they can hang out in local neighborhoods with locals? The campaign says ‘Live there’, anywhere around the world, even if just for a night. That’s what a younger millennial audience wants."
And in the process of giving millennials what they want, Mildenhall oversees some of the most inclusive, diversity-focused work to be found in modern marketing. Just look at Airbnb’s 2016 LGBT Pride campaign.
"This is the first LGBT campaign I know of that features a diversity of religion, race, and gender identity," he says. "We’ve got a transgender man, a black queer woman, and a gay Muslim guy who believes in an Islam that welcomes everybody.
"The LGBT community travels more and we over-index in terms of LGBT hosts, so each June we shine a light on Pride," he continues. "But this really powerful work isn’t designed to sell a night or get another home on the platform. It just inspires our community about the human values that we believe in."
As an inspirational poster boy for those human values in today’s diversity-aware world, it can be easy to forget how being a black, gay, poor kid educated at a polytechnic was a disadvantage for anyone aspiring to the elite world of London ad agencies in the late 1980s.
Mildenhall broke the mold with the help of two strong women: his single-parent mom, who brought him up on a Leeds council estate, and his Manchester Polytechnic careers officer.
He says: "Mum taught me to believe in two values. The first is creativity. We didn’t have much money, but she’d take me to the ballet or the theatre. The second was humanity. She would always bang on about being the best human being possible."
A big cheesy picture
Meanwhile, Monica at Manchester Poly gave Mildenhall hope when he was at a low point, failing his first year of business studies. She steered him towards marketing. Despite her dire warnings that London agencies were dominated by the Oxbridge-educated, white middle-class, he now had a mission and became "the hardest-working, best-researched" graduate applicant any of the London agencies got that year.
He ended up as McCann Erickson’s "first-ever ethnic-minority grad and first polytechnic grad. On my application form, there was a big cheesy picture of me because I wanted them to know I’m black. They’d accepted my ethnic and academic background, so I didn’t have to carry those chips on my shoulder. I just turned up in London with a force of positive creative energy and such an informed point of view on the industry; they couldn’t say no."
And that positive creative energy has stayed with him. It helped Mildenhall when he co-chaired the IPA’s diversity committee in the mid-2000s, pushing for change in the industry’s acceptance of people from different backgrounds. "When we started, fewer than 2% of the faces in British advertising were from a minority," he explains.
"Four years later, it was 12%. We took the uncomfortable truth about casting out of the closet and invited the industry to cast in a way that reflected reality, not the mainstream. We helped them see a better way," Mildenhall adds. "It’s still not perfect but you’ll certainly see an authentic approach to casting in all of our Airbnb work."
Growth and diversity
Mildenhall strongly believes the uncomfortable truth that diversity is non-negotiable. He admits hyper-growth Airbnb "would rather grow more slowly" if the alternative was compromising diversity. And while many brands would say slower growth is not an option, Mildenhall believes growth and diversity can go hand in hand.
That was very clear from his time at Coca-Cola as VP of global advertising strategy and content excellence. The chief executive of the company that "helped to teach the world to sing" in the 1970s admitted to Mildenhall that it was "creatively bankrupt" when he joined in 2006. But while it "had no sacred cows," as far as marketing was concerned, he knew that sales and the share price were the ultimate ways to judge his success.
Another marketer-of-the-year wannabe
"At my interview with the Coke board, they asked me what my legacy would be and I said, if I got the job, I could help steer Coke to become Marketer of the Year at Cannes," Mildenhall says. "I knew I’d lost my audience. They were thinking ‘another creative who wants to be marketer of the year.' Then I said that’s important because, of the last 10 winners at Cannes, eight at the time they were awarded were enjoying an all-time-high share price. Immediately, they all leaned in. I’d become a creative guy who could talk about the share price."
When he joined, Coke’s share price was $29. When he left, it was $82, and the intervening years had seen a burst of inclusive creativity. Small World Machines, for instance, used 3D touchscreen vending machines-cum-live communications portals to link people in India and Pakistan (while also dispensing a cold can of Coke).
And America the Beautiful saw a cast of 16-year-old Americans singing the patriotic song in different languages.
"It created a shitstorm in the States, but it was beautiful, human work," Mildenhall says. "At Airbnb, you see that approach now in the Is Mankind? spot or the Live There campaign. We’re celebrating authentic humanity but doing it creatively.
"That’s my signature and that sense of authenticity and humanity comes with being from my background," he says. "I think it has served me really well."
This article first appeared on campaignlive.co.uk.