How Jonathan Mildenhall Found His Higher Purpose by Taking a Chance on Airbnb

Adweek's 2016 Brand Genius winner for hospitality

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In 2011, on a lark, Jonathan Mildenhall tried Airbnb for the first time. It turned out to be a transformative experience, he says now, one that not only sold him on the home-sharing concept but also got him thinking about how the brand could be marketed, a full three years before it became his job to do so.

The occasion was the 40th birthday of a female advertising friend in London, where the British-born Mildenhall had worked at various agencies himself before coming to the U.S. in 2007 to help run Coca-Cola's marketing. "I said, 'I'm not giving you another trinket. We're going on this thing called Airbnb, and I'm going to rent an English farmhouse. You can invite anybody you want, and we'll be there for a week,'" he recalls. "And all of us had this incredible experience of real, intimate family belonging."

Robert Ascroft

It was an aha moment that, in 2014, helped lead to Mildenhall ditching one of the most plum gigs in advertising and taking a chance on a then-unproven upstart as its CMO. In lockstep with Airbnb's design-minded founders, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, Mildenhall was convinced he'd be able to craft a brand narrative that, much like Coke's, aspires to a higher purpose than merely selling a product or service.

"The idea of Airbnb helping to create a world where all 7.5 billion people can genuinely feel they can belong anywhere—it's such a noble purpose. And we will probably not reach it in my lifetime," he says. "But it's big enough, and tangible enough, to motivate not just the people at Airbnb but all the agencies and media partners we work with."

Known for his charisma and exacting work ethic, Mildenhall has helped Airbnb evolve by leaning into, rather than running from, the cultural tensions around the brand.

At first, the major tension was people feeling uncomfortable about staying in a stranger's house. In response, Mildenhall spearheaded the "Never a Stranger" campaign. As that concern receded and Airbnb became a bigger player, he took on a different tension—attacking the hospitality industry for sanitizing the travel experience, in the "Don't Go There. Live There" campaign. (Both were done by TBWA\Chiat\Day.)

Smaller campaigns created an aura of delight around the brand, from the "Night At" stunts (where Airbnb partners with unusual locations to offer overnight stays) to Leo Burnett's re-creation of Van Gogh's bedroom for the Art Institute of Chicago.

Airbnb might be a Silicon Valley darling, but it's a challenging brand to market. The platform has a presence in 191 countries. With reported revenue of $900 million, Airbnb aims to hit $10 billion by 2020. Along with a brand and product voice, Airbnb also requires a public policy voice to comment on regular legal challenges to its business model. (A series of tone-deaf ads about how San Francisco should spend Airbnb's hotel-tax revenue was a rare misstep on Mildenhall's watch.)

Leo Burnett recreated Van Gogh's bedroom.

At 49, Mildenhall is older than the millennial wunderkinds one might expect to be working on Airbnb, but his stamina seems inexhaustible as he jets to the far corners of Airbnb's growing global territory.

"Jonathan is whip smart, massively curious and relentlessly passionate," says his former Coke colleague Wendy Clark, now DDB's North America CEO. "But perhaps the intangible that Jonathan alone brings is his uncontainable energy. He can literally carry an entire room, an entire meeting, with his energy alone."

Airbnb is a dream job for Mildenhall in another way, too. The brand's progressive nature, and the way it celebrates the diverse nature of humanity, mirrors his own.

"As an openly gay black executive in marketing in North America, I am very unusual," he says. "I look different. I speak different. And rather than shying away from all that, I'm in the incredibly privileged position of being able to use the brand as a magnifying glass for those values. For the first time in my career, there is no difference between the way I want to show up in the world and the way I can steer the brand to show up in the world. And that is incredibly, incredibly satisfying."

Check out all of Adweek's 2016 Brand Genius winners.

This story first appeared in the October 24, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.