July 26, 2022

Purpose, Belonging & Storytelling-blog

Purpose, Belonging & Storytelling

2020 has been a landmark year for anti-racism, with the Black Lives Matter movement putting diversity, equity and inclusion fully back on the agenda. It’s led to thousands of companies and CxOs pledging to deliver change, switching to black square profile pictures, and issue unprecedented statements signalling their commitment to anti-racism. 

Although many of these statements have sadly led to nothing more than marketing clout, there are major changes underway in how some brands market their products, hire new staff, and reach new demographics. 

Jonathan Mildenhall is the co-founder and CEO of TwentyFirstCenturyBrand. Even if you don’t know him by name, you’ll know him by his work. He’s the guy responsible for Coca Cola’s ‘Open Happiness’ campaign, which led to the company’s fastest-growing profits in 20 years, as well as its AmericaIsBeautiful ad

While the Chief Marketing Officer of Airbnb, he was ranked the eighth most influential CMO by Forbes, overseeing numerous marketing campaigns for the brand including its Superbowl ad. Notably, Jonathan was one of the first men of color to work at the most senior levels of global marketing, and has seen the industry completely shift during his 30-year career. 

At Black Tech Fest, Colorintech co-founder Dion McKenzie caught up with Jonathan to discuss the challenges facing Black execs, the importance of humanity in marketing, and how 2020 could completely transform the make-up of the industry for decades to come. 

Q: This year has been a crazy year for brands. Leaders have really had to pivot, adapt, and find their voice amid the unrest and the protests. How have you been helping brands sustain their purpose during this crisis?

A: There are two things we’re seeing as essential. The first is community engagement. This is not the time to do big splashy marketing campaigns. This is time for brands to actually engage in the communities that they serve and help communities understand that the brands are actually facing the same issues that they are facing. 

We coined this phrase ‘mass generosity’ and we encourage all of our clients to evidence this in their work. The best example would be Headspace who actually gave their services free to anybody in the US that has been impacted by unemployment. 

The second is at the top of the company. In these unprecedented times, chief executives and other leaders have no option but to behave like politicians. Internally, staff are looking for the chief exec to make a stand on social issues that they really care about. So, whether they like it or not, the voice of the chief exec and their actions are now driven by managing political tensions inside and outside the companies in ways that we’ve never seen before.

Q: How have you helped some of these CEOs stand up in that moment? Often CEOs can be quite internally focused, not necessarily externally-minded, so has there been a shift in that at all? 

Without question. One of the reasons why I’m actually incredibly confident pulling out of 2020 and looking ahead is that in terms of issues around diversity equity and inclusion, CEOs had to make very public stands on their own principles and beliefs, as well as their own commitments inside the companies in terms of demonstrable change across all levels of company leadership, rank and file. 

Most importantly, CEOs have now declared alliances and funding to organisations that are really driving change outside of companies. Now the CEOs are going to be held accountable by the same organisations they’re funding to drive internal change. 

I think over the next two years we’re probably going to see the biggest change in the makeup of boards, of C-Suites, and of internship programmes across the board, [which will] lead to the biggest change in the corporate workforce that we’ve seen in history. 

Q: You’re definitely seeing that in different areas whether that’s VCs or the leaders themselves. Being based in the Valley, we’ve both been Black execs, we normally stick out in a room… What do you think has been difficult for Black executives within tech in this time and what is there to be optimistic about?

A: The tech industry honestly continues to frustrate me with the amount of conversation it has around diversity, equity, and inclusion - and its lack of action. I started my US career at the Coca-Cola Company in 2006. Every single meeting that I participated in honestly felt like the United Colors of Benetton. There were 70 different nationalities working at Coca-Cola in Atlanta. 

There were so many differences in terms of cultural mores, race and religion. I naively thought that was actually corporate America. I didn’t realise how progressive companies like the Coca-Cola Company were until I got to San Francisco and I started visiting tech companies. 

We’ve had such progressive narratives from leaders of these companies for over a decade on their contribution to the planet to the commitments to diversity and inclusion, and honestly, compared to companies that were born in the 19th or the 20th century, the change has been woeful. 

I am confident this time because of the public accountability we are seeing take shape in many many ways. There’s also media accountability, so we’ve now got the public holding these companies accountable and we’ve got the media holding these companies accountable in ways we’ve never seen before. 

But it’s going to take a decade for companies like Google Facebook and Airbnb to reach the same level of inclusion of a company like the Coca-Cola Company which is global in its mindset and serves far-reaching communities and has done so for decades and decades. They know the importance of building a management team that actually reflects the communities that they serve in ways that the tech industry is just waking up to.

Q: You have been an outspoken leader, where has that come from? 

A: In all truth, I became an ally before I started to really champion diversity from an ethnic perspective. 

I’d been in the advertising industry for about 10 years and I became managing director of a big agency group in the UK. It was at that time that I noticed how bad marketing to women was. At the time women were being presented great progressive content like ‘Sex and The City’. You’d then cut to a commercial break targeting women, but the ad campaigns themselves were treating women like morons. 

So I started to campaign loudly about greater respect when it came to marketing and targeting women in campaigns. That then led to me building an industry voice and people saw my challenge to the industry as being incredibly passionate and important. But it wasn't personal. 

As I started to build credibility in challenging the industry, I then decided to make it personal because there were no Black people at the time. This was in 2000 - I was by far the most senior brown skinned person in British advertising, and it would be another five years before I’d see the next Black MD or president of an agency. 

I began working with the British Advertising Agency to campaign for greater recruitment and better portrayal of minorities in British advertising. On the back of that, I then started to campaign for greater diversity and inclusion across the board in terms of the LGBT community which I’m also a part of. 

I became an ally and then I made it personal and now I focus industry-wide across all forms of equity and inclusion. I have no qualms whatsoever in calling out companies and leaders who quite frankly have a responsibility to work a lot harder and a lot quicker to help contribute to a more just society for us all. 

Q: We’ve seen campaigns where you’ve literally put diversity on our screens. How easy was that to do and how can other brands do similar things as a business?

A: The greatest gift, responsibility, and opportunity that any marketer has is the study of humanity. If you are in marketing, then you have to be obsessive about humans, culture, and values. 

I am obsessed with two things: brands and humanity. Marketing is the discipline where you can bring those two things together. I don’t really think that my work has been brave because it’s just been so authentic about human values. My work has, however, created huge conversations. 

When we did ‘America Is Beautiful’ at Coca-Cola for the Superbowl, it was a beautiful portrait of the changing nature of the American family sung to ‘America the Beautiful’ in different languages. 

It revealed a really ugly side of America, in terms of how uncomfortable people were with a very progressive portrait of the American family. But the responsibility I have as a marketer is to actually reflect where society is and actually inspire where society should go. It is a responsibility that I think every marketer has. If you’re not prepared to take that responsibility seriously then candidly speaking I don’t think you should be in marketing.

Q: When I think back to the start of you shifting from exec, to startup CMO, to founder and CEO of your own agency, your mission has really been to create the most influential brands of our time. What for you are the ingredients of an influential brand?

A: We have four pillars which I’d like everybody to consider. I don’t believe that you can become an influential brand in the 21st century without having great clarity on: 

  1. Purpose - do you have a purpose that is good for society that transcends the business plan? Your purpose should be bigger than your business plan 
  2. Community - do you really know how to inspire the community to advocate on your behalf and unlock the creativity of the community 
  3. Tech - are you using technology with human centred design and flow at heart? I don’t just mean the actual platform. How are you using tech to drive brand engagement, marketing, and the community voice?
  4. Storytelling - are you world class storytellers and is the story the same story you tell to investors to employees and the communities you serve? 

If you get those 4 pillars right then chances are you’re on your way to creating an incredibly influential brand in whatever category you might operate in. 

This interview was edited for brevity & clarity
Catch up with Jonathan’s full fireside chat and 20 more hours of content celebrating Black culture and tech breakthroughs here