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Jonathan Mildenhall

Airbnb CMO exit: Why CEOs need to be involved in marketing

Weeks after appointing Wieden+Kennedy as its global creative agency, Airbnb’s CMO Jonathan Mildenhall announced his departure from the firm come 20 October.

Mildenhall said he would continue to work for the brand as a consultant while recruitment firm Spencer Stuart helps the company hunt for a replacement. In the interim, he will also assist Wieden+Kennedy with the on-going tasks. While the departure of a CMO can signal instability in the eye of agency, Airbnb told Wall Street Journal  that Wieden+Kennedy will remain as its agency, adding that its chief executive Brian Chesky was “deeply involved” in the selection.

Speaking to Marketing on what might generally go through the brain of an agency lead in such a situation, Frank Bauer, global business director, J. Walter Thompson Worldwide, said “for sure his departure will create a certain challenge for Airbnb’s brand management”.

This was because Mildenhall did a great job during his time there to build a brand, which has meaning beyond just disrupting the travel market.

Bauer added that there is always a disarray if the CMO leaves. However, the saving grace is that these days, CEOs are increasingly pressured to involve themselves in the company’s overall marketing process. This, Bauer said, might be the stablising factor for Airbnb’s marketing department.

To impress the CEO of big successful brands, Bauer said CEOs want agency partners that can help them refocus on the core truth of the brand, clean up the disparities between how their brand is portrayed online and offline, and manage this with clarity and consistency across all disciplines.

“The transparency of today’s digital world can leave companies with an unclear brand vision, making it increasingly apparent that chief executives need to re-engage in marketing,” he added.  Back in the 1960s, CEOs were the face and name of the company and had direct accountability. As time passed, marketing departments grew due to globalisation and the dawn of the digital era. As a result, the CEO became increasingly disconnected from the brand, rarely feeling accountable for communications. Such a trend, however, is no longer feasible in the time of social media transparency. Bauer said:

More CEOs are turning up at meetings with their ad agencies, showing up for pitches and taking a role in selecting agency partners.

Mildenhall’s new consulting firm, known as 21st Century Brand, will help companies cut through the marketing business, which is becoming increasingly complicated. The decision to set up 21st Century Brand came after several renowned startups and venture capital firms approached Mildenhall for marketing advice, Wall Street Journal reported. Mildenhall aims to help “fix” marketing as the increasing importance of data and technology, as well as the changes in media consumption are causing it to have a “crisis of confidence”.

Goh Shufen, founder of marketing consultancy R3 added that the average CMO today stays in their job for a little over three years.

“Most Rock star CMOs typically measure their rein with campaigns, but the real proof is whether they left a lasting marketing culture and ways of working within the organisation,”she said.

Great brands have never been built by one individual. They’re nurtured by an ecosystem of people inside and outside the organisation who shares a belief and purpose.

Read also:
Airbnb names global creative partner, outlines Asia plans
Airbnb’s Chinese name doesn’t strike the right note
Airbnb localises “Belong Anywhere” in biggest social media push
Airbnb names China chief to tackle local rival
Airbnb names new comms partner for SEA
Matthias Schuecking exits Airbnb
Airbnb’s regional MD exits to join Carousell

During his time at Airbnb, Mildenhall was responsible for leading the campaign “Don’t Go There. Live There”, which encouraged travellers to live like locals rather than tourists when travelling to various countries. In 2015, he apologised for the presumptuous nature of the company’s billboard ad campaign in San Francisco, which suggested some of the ways the city could use the US$12 million it would collect from Airbnb’s tax payment, proclaiming that the funds would help “Keep the library open later” and “build more bike lanes”.

Prior to joining the company, Mildenhall worked at Coca-Cola for more than six years, with his last role being senior vice president, integrated marketing communication and design excellence. He was also the head of strategy at London-based creative agency Mother and managing director at TBWA\London. Mildenhall also worked at DLKW Lowe and BBH.

“The ‘Belong Anywhere’ [campaign] as become meaningful for our community all over the world. This impact leaves me compelled to take what I’ve learned and work with other founders to get people to care deeply about their brands. Whilst working at Airbnb I have produced the finest body of work of my career,” Mildenhall said.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the team of super strong marketers we’ve built out all over the world. Our talent is amongst the most capable in the world and I have tremendous love, respect and gratitude for every single member of my team. They helped give this old guy confidence to go out on his own,” he added.

“Three and a half years ago I met Mildenhall. We had been searching for a CMO who could take our little-known brand with a zany blue logo, and turn it into a brand that was more than just recognizable — but a brand that is loved and expressed our deeper purpose. I’ll never forget the smile that brimmed from Mildenhall’s face when we gave him this challenge,” Airbnb co-founder, CEO and head of community Brian Chesky, said.

“Mildenhall told me that he’s been reflecting on his personal and professional evolution and shared that he’s decided to leave Airbnb and set up a brand consultancy, helping other founders bring their brands into the world. I’m happy that Mildenhall has found his passion, and his next chapter will be exciting to watch. Thank you, Mildenhall,” Chesky added.

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