Caught Being Good

Jonathan Mildenhall, Tidemark Fellow

Former CMO of Airbnb and Co-Founder and Chair of TwentyFirstCenturyBrand Jonathan Mildenhall on building brands that are big on heart.

What is Caught Being Good?

We built the Tidemark community of practitioners of excellence, but also people who we “Like, Trust, and Admire.” Caught Being Good spotlights some of business’ best minds and their unique stories and brands of positive change.


Who: Tidemark Fellow Jonathan Mildenhall

What: Co-Founder & Chair of TwentyFirstCenturyBrands, former CMO of Airbnb, and former SVP of Integrated Marketing Communication and Design Excellence for The Coca-Cola Company

Where: Los Angeles, California

Why: Jonathan believes that: purpose is personal, creativity is a powerful legacy, and Whitney Houston’s voice is the greatest inspiration of all.


Every great story has a remarkable beginning, and some of the most iconic and culturally significant brand stories in recent memory began with Jonathan Mildenhall. From humble origins in the North of England to topping global best-of rankings, Jonathan’s success can be traced to a single source: his heart.

No matter which world-class organization he’s working with (and there are a lot of them), for Jonathan, doing good is synonymous with doing great work. The genius behind award-winning campaigns like Coca-Cola’s record-breaking “Open Happiness” and Airbnb’s conversation-shaping “Never a Stranger,” Jonathan injects his own love of humanity into the international ethos at every turn. His creativity has helped to define eras, brighten days, break down barriers, and spread love. His work does more than sell products – it brings people together. Yes, over the pop of a bottle cap or under the shelter of a shared roof, but also with a common thread anchored in a clear promise: we are all in this together.

Jonathan continues his commitment to impacting culture and furthering the world’s wellbeing as a Tidemark Fellow. Here are 12 questions we asked Jonathan about his philosophy, his passion, and his own personal brand of purpose.

  



Q: Where did you grow up?

A: I am the third child of five boys and grew up in the projects of Northern England. I am the middle child. My mom is white, my two younger brothers are white, my two older brothers are white, which means I am genuinely the black sheep of my family. We grew up in abject poverty in a moldy three-bedroom house. I knew I had to work hard at school to escape that life and to help my family, an ethos that eventually got me into college. I thought I was going to be an accountant, because it was a path that felt safe and stable, and when I failed some of my exams at the end of my first year, I was terrified I’d be thrown out and sent back to the projects. Thankfully my careers advisor said: “Jonathan, with a personality like yours, you probably shouldn’t be majoring in finance—you should be majoring in marketing.” I took that advice, and in my very first class, a light went on inside me and I knew that was where my career should go. In 1990, I became the first ethnic minority to be taken on by McCann Erickson in London.


Q: What is your best childhood memory?

A: At 12 years old, on my first day of high school, I met my friend Jonathan, who became the brother I never had. Even though I grew up in a house full of five boys, my two elder brothers were best friends and two younger brothers were best friends, so I was on my own. After I met Jonathan, that’s when I started to feel happiness and real, brotherly love. We’re still the best of friends today.


Q: How did childhood/young adulthood influence your professional path and career today?

A: My mom had great foresight—for each and every one of her kids’ birthdays she’d take them out to the theater. Growing up in the projects in the 1970s, life could be quite grim. On my seventh birthday, my mom and I went to The Leeds Grand Theater to see Swan Lake. When the curtain pulled back for the first time, I suddenly saw life in technicolor. I saw beauty, creativity, and imagination on a scale I never thought possible. It took my breath away. I remember at that moment knowing something that would change my life: we as humans can create anything. We can create magic, we can create stories, and I wondered if I might be able to create something like that. Eventually, I began to connect the dots between that first ballet production and the opportunity to inspire people through their TV screens by showing a more magical, inclusive world.


Q: What was your “breakout” moment, professionally?

A: In 2013, I was at Coca-Cola Company and we aired the “America The Beautiful” ad during the SuperBowl. I had to battle so hard inside the walls of Coca-Cola to protect the integrity of that spot, particularly the vignette of the same-sex married couple and their children rollerblading at a rink. That vignette originally included a close up of their wedding rings to make it clear to viewers that these guys were married. There was a lot of pushback against that and sadly, I lost the wedding ring battle, but I did win the war. “America The Beautiful” became the first-ever SuperBowl advertisement to feature a same-sex couple.


Q: Tell us about a moment when something you really cared about went wrong. How did you manage that?

A: The biggest crisis I’ve ever faced in my career was in 2012. I was the CMO of Airbnb and it was my job to run around the world getting people to understand that we were building a platform and community with the sole mission of creating a world where people can belong anywhere. But in 2012, Harvard Business School issued a data-driven report that proved that if you were African American, it was more difficult to book a room on Airbnb than if you were Caucasian American. When that came to light, it felt like the entire company ran into a glass wall at 100 miles per hour. To his credit, Brain Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, halted the whole company. In a very short timeframe, we issued a zero tolerance policy to get people to commit to no racism or bigotry. We instituted AI software to ensure the technology was helping to create an unbiased world. Those efforts and more meant that we went from crisis to celebration in just eight months. Ultimately, the celebration was going back to the authentic vision of creating a world where anyone could belong anywhere, this time with the tech-enabled community infrastructure to ensure the mission is built into every step. I will always remember the copy for the SuperBowl ad we ran then: “We believe no matter who you are, where you're from, who you love or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept. Airbnb #weaccept.”


Q: What was the biggest decision you made this week?

A: My husband and I moved to LA recently and quickly realized we needed another car. We have a Tesla to cart around the kids. I didn’t want another big car, but I knew I wanted an electric car so this week I bought myself an electric Mini. Every time I get in it, I think it’s an automotive version of me. There’s something perfect about me driving around LA in this tiny electric mini, not only because I’m British, but because of the modeling it provides for my children. I don’t want to give them a choice to think gas cars are ok. They will copy what Daddy and Papa do.

Q: Creativity takes courage. Tell us about a time in life or work where creativity and courage coincided?

A: It took courage and creativity to set up TwentyFirstCenturyBrands and forge our own agency. The duality of creativity and courage should manifest itself every day if you’re doing the right work and doing it well. As a consultancy we come up with creative tools and language and narrative and vision—but then it takes courageous clients to translate that into their own organization.


Q: Who is your hero?

A: Whitney Houston! The voice of Whitney Houston has given me more creative inspiration than anything else. I am in awe of the way that she could use her instrument to take a song that someone else had written and surpass even the most ambitious creative vision of any songwriter and producer by using her voice in such a transcendent way. Whitney Houston never made a song feel less than its originator intended. When I am given a client challenge, I try to do the same, to surpass expectations. I’ve got to think about how to find that edge, that moment, that differentiator. How can I tell a story that will transcend what people understand this product to be?


Q: There is a saying: “You can’t pour an empty cup.” How do you fill your cup?

A: I am very intentional about this. I am an introvert who had to teach himself how to be an extrovert because of my family circumstances. If I find my rhythm is out of balance and I’ve been too extroverted, that I haven’t spent enough time writing, meditating, reflecting, and doing yoga, I run out of energy pretty quickly. I go inward and silent to recharge my natural energy and I go outward to look at film, books, art, to keep my creative energy overflowing.


Q: What would the title of your memoir be?

A: I am working on one now! It’s called Feel. It’s meant to encourage business leaders, brand owners, and creators to get out of their heads and into their hearts so that collectively we can create a much more fair, just, and equitable world for all.


Q: In five words or less, what does the world need?

A: Love. Quiet. Family. Fairness. Compassion.


Q: What do you want to be your legacy?

A: Professionally, I want my legacy to be about a body of evidence that proves that creatively-driven, culturally-significant brands succeed and last longer than the competition. Personally, I want my friends and family, when they think about me, to always think about uplifting the human spirit in a kind, positive, and creative way.


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From Dave’s Desk:

“Jonathan is a marvel in so many ways. He’s a huge star of the internet galaxy, a world-class storyteller who has repositioned and built some of the most valuable brands on the planet. He’s one of the few who can see the world for both what it is and what it could be. That combination is what makes him so compelling and such a huge force for good. Jonathan is a master of getting things done, yet he will never, not for one second, lose sight of humanity and its capacity to bring people together for a common purpose.” – Tidemark Founder David Yuan

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