In 1990, Jonathan Mildenhall joined McCann London as the first-ever ethnic minority to be accepted at the agency as a graduate trainee. Over the next 16 years, Jonathan broke through many glass ceilings, working at several of the world’s hottest ad agencies and running some of the world’s most value-creating and creatively-awarded accounts.
In 2006, having spent a summer at Harvard Business School, Jonathan joined The Coca-Cola Company as VP, Global Advertising Strategy, and Creative. In 2007, he led the team that introduced the world to Coca-Cola’s global marketing platform “Open Happiness”. This platform contributed to Coke’s most profitable growth period in 20 years, and became the brand’s most awarded marketing platform ever, helping the company secure the prestigious 2013 ‘Creative Marketer Of The Year’ award at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity.
In 2014, Jonathan met the Airbnb co-founders and decided that it was his mission to help them, as CMO, transform the industry-disrupting property rental platform into the next global iconic super-brand. In just three and a half years, Airbnb grew from having 400,000 homes on the platform to having over 4,500,000 homes in 191 countries, each home helping to make the world a place where anyone can belong anywhere. The Airbnb brand is now one that defines popular culture and the business is valued at over $31B.
At the end of 2017, Jonathan decided to step down as Airbnb’s CMO to focus on launching his own brand and marketing practice called TwentyFirstCenturyBrand. Just as he did at Airbnb, through TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, Jonathan partners with some of Silicon Valley’s most influential founders and CEOs in order to drive transformational growth through purpose-driven marketing and world-class excellence in global brand stewardship.
We sat down with Mildenhall to discuss his career trajectory and how he climbed the C-suite ladder, founding his own company, how he’s navigating COVID-19, and racial injustices at TwentyFirstCenturyBrand and identifying as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
Glassdoor: Jonathan, share your career journey with us. What led you down the path of marketing and entrepreneurship?
Jonathan Mildenhall: I have been fortunate with my career, and luck plays a huge role in everybody’s success, but I knew that I wanted to find the intersection between commercial business responsibility and creative responsibility. And when I got to business school, I found it in this discipline called marketing. My pathway into marketing started in advertising, and I was the first, I think, minority to be taken on by a London advertising agency group as part of their official training program. And advertising gave me a fantastic experience of the real creative end of marketing. But I felt that I was too detached from the business because all I was doing was developing ad campaigns, that after 15 years in the advertising industry, I put myself into Harvard Business School. I did the AMP at Harvard, and post graduating, I got my first marketing job at the Coca Cola Company and moved to the United States in 2016, and since then, have genuinely never worked a day in my career because when you’re a senior leader working on really cool brands, every day is just full of incredible passion and incredible opportunity.
Glassdoor: Thank you for sharing that. From starting at Coca-Cola, you’ve successfully climbed the C-suite corporate ladder at notable brands, like Airbnb. So why did you decide to pivot to fund your own company, TwentyFirstCenturyBrand?
Mildenhall: Great question. After four years at Airbnb, I was approached by Dara at Uber, the new CEO there, and we sat talking about how I might be able to help him. And I asked him if he would allow me to kind of work on the Uber brand and he was so generous and gracious and said, “Yes, of course.” So, I realized then I had this opportunity working in Silicon Valley that there were some companies and so many founders and CEOs who were brand ambitious, but didn’t have the know-how on unlocking the purpose of their brands. And for me, a brand isn’t something that just appears in marketing, the brand is the foundation upon which a business is built. I’ve been lucky enough, over the last two years of running my business, to work with the likes of Peloton, Pinterest, Uber, Nextdoor, Mars, N26, to help all these different leaders unlock the full potential of their brand, which elevates the entire company as an organization.
Glassdoor: Speak about TwentyFirstCenturyBrand‘s brand mission and the most impactful work that your company has executed so far after working with so many amazing brands.
Mildenhall: TwentyFirstCenturyBrand’s mission is very focused, although it’s very ambitious, and that is that we want to help build the most influential brands of all time. And we measure prominent brands by the brands that have the potential to define their categories. So if you work with TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, we like to think that, over time, you’ll be the dominant brand in your category. The proudest moment so far would be the partnership with the two founders at Pinterest and how we worked with them to develop a pre-IPO strategy that gave Pinterest a completely new vision for the company, that vision for the company helped secure Pinterest’s hugely successful IPO last year.
The second proud moment would be working with Headspace, and we were lucky enough to work with Headspace over the COVID-19 pandemic and helped develop Headspace’s generous marketing campaign, which is giving the Headspace services free of charge to anyone who has experienced or been impacted by unemployment in the United States. And both Pinterest, from a strategic perspective, and Headspace, from a creative standpoint, made me incredibly proud.
Glassdoor: These marketing campaigns, especially during COVID-19 and the racial injustices we see on the news, are extremely important. Could you speak to how your company is addressing both COVID-19 and racism?
Mildenhall: As a leader that champions diversity and inclusion, I am exhausted. As a Black man living in America, I am exhausted. As the father of a Black girl, I am tired, but I cannot and will not let my exhaustion lead to inactivity. Because really, what we are witnessing erupt in the United States right now is a cultural pandemic. Racism in the United States bruised this country for the last 400 years. And it is exhausting, but through our exhaustion, we must rise. We must all hold each other accountable for really, truly, once and for all, effecting change. I feel incredibly motivated by the fact that I can convene the chief execs and the brands of some innovative companies, and I can encourage and inspire them to speak out, get their checkbooks out. As a result, I’m anointing specific organizations that can help address the issue. And this is the first time that we are having the right conversation, even though, in the United States, we are absent of a leader that truly can heal and lead us all out of this terrible, devastating situation.
Glassdoor: As you mentioned, you are an African American man and temporarily put in foster care when your mom was pregnant with your twin brothers in North England. So you have such a diverse background, right? Share your coming out journey if you feel comfortable doing so, and what have you learned about being out and proud?
Mildenhall: How I came out is I was closeted until I was 22 years old, and then I was lucky enough, and people who read this blog may well know her, I was lucky enough to work for a lady called Cindy Gallop. And Cindy Gallop is a big vocal voice about discrimination of all forms in business. And here I was, a young 22-year-old, and she was my boss. She marched into my office one day, and she just said, “Jonathan, you’re gay, aren’t you?” And I thought I was going to get fired. And I said, “Yes, I am,” and she said, “What’s the name of your boyfriend?” I told her. She scribbled a card and said, “I’m having a party this weekend. I want you and your boyfriend to be there.” I share that story because we all, as leaders, need to do whatever we can to create the opportunity for people to express their authentic, true selves. And Cindy made my coming out in the workplace that much easier because she engaged in a conversation that I was struggling with myself. Now, you’ve got to be sensitive as a leader. You have to give people space that you can’t demand that they fill that space, but if you end up trusting you as a leader, then it’s so magical the authenticity that you get from a diverse group of people.
Glassdoor: Thank you for sharing that. That’s such a unique coming-out story.
Mildenhall: Yeah, it is.
Glassdoor: To further delve into your LGBTQ+ identity, how have your previous employers celebrated and supported your LGBTQ identity?
Mildenhall: I think the Coca-Cola company was more comfortable with me being Black than it was with me being gay. And I was the first out executive to sponsor the Employee Resource Group at Coke for the LGBT community. And even though there were over 500 executives at the Coca-Cola Company on the email list, when I had my first meeting, there were only 17 people who showed up to the first meeting. So, we were there in the vast Coca Cola auditorium, and the LGBTQ and Business Resource Group were there to greet me, and only 17 people showed up. I was devastated by that. I said, “Where is everybody?” And they said, “Well, we need this community, but the community is still in the closet because people are terrified that it’s going to impact their career development.” I did whatever I could to be very, very out, used all of my creativity and all of my social skills to create a community that felt safe while I was a Coke.
Then I got to Airbnb, and my goodness, it was ultimately the other way around. At Airbnb, the LGBTQ community was running the school. They were making all the decisions. They were incredibly vocal. They were incredibly creative. And the LGBTQ community defined a lot of the magic of Airbnb, but the Black community was absent. And so over time, we built Airbnb’s Black and people of color communities to give them a voice to help them define the culture. Coca-Cola, no issue at all being Black, but slightly uncomfortable with my homosexuality. Airbnb, no issue at all with my homosexuality, but the people of color, didn’t necessarily have the same kind of internal voice as the LGBTQ community.
Glassdoor: That’s interesting how your experiences shifted with each company. Can you speak to what you’re doing to make everyone feel inclusive at your own company?
Mildenhall: Yes. We have four values at TwentyFirstCenturyBrand. The first value is we ambush with humanity. I like everybody to bring their full human selves to work. The second value is diversity and harmony. Diversity is easy to do, harmony is hard because you want everybody to have different points of view, diverse cultural perspectives, different ways of working, but as a leader, it’s your job to harmonize all of that. And then the second two values are commercial creativity. We love being creative, but it’s got to have a business focus and purposeful growth. We promise an environment where people will be able to grow their skill sets and their careers in a very purposeful and intentional way.
Glassdoor: You and your partner are happily married and have two children. Speak about your process of raising two children as an LGBTQ couple.
Mildenhall: When we moved to San Francisco, we realized that as an interracial, same-sex couple, there would be nothing strange about us having a family, so we embarked on the surrogate journey. We found an egg donor and two surrogates, and I’m very proud to say that it was an African American surrogate who helped to bring into the world our white son Oliver. And it was a Caucasian American surrogate who carried into the world our black daughter Dominica. We are this beautiful melting pot of a little family in the United States that I believe the progressive values and potential of the American people.
Glassdoor: Great. So, what do you look for in an ally? Someone like me, who wishes to learn more about the LGBTQ+ community and try to immerse themselves in the culture, but not be too invasive and be disrespectful? What is the best way to go about allyship within the community?
Mildenhall: I always try and encourage allies to get comfortable with the subset of the community by remembering the one thing that we all have in common, and that is, we are all human beings. And I encourage all of my allies just to feel very comfortable with the curiosity of studying other human beings. So, when somebody is positively intended and curious, they create an environment in which sound, sincere, open conversations can flourish. Sometimes people get a little anxious about how to engage as an ally because they’re like, “I’m different, but I want you to know that your difference is okay.” I say,” Hey, steady on. You’re not that different. You’re another human being. You’ve got a heart, you’ve got a soul, you’ve got a spirit. That’s what we all have in common, regardless of color or gender or disability or whatever it might be.” I encourage all allies of all groups to be positive and curious.
Glassdoor: To close out this interview, what does Pride mean to you and how are you planning to celebrate this year under quarantine?
Mildenhall: Pride is a celebration of the diversity and beauty of humanity. And I will be celebrating it with my daughter and my son’s first birthday. My husband and I are going to go on a road trip. So, it’s only going to be the four of us celebrating Pride month this year. But with every stop on the road that we do, we are going to make a conscious effort to be very engaging with the local communities, even at a distance, because I think we all need to feel the benefit of Pride this year. It’s not just relevant to the LGBTQ community. This year Pride is more relevant because we should all be proud of the need to stand up as a respectful and united race.