2-4: "The Humanist" - Jonathan Mildenhall

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This week’s theme is Vulnerability. You can read more about Vulnerability here.

"The Humanist"

Jonathan Mildenhall is the founder of 21st Century Brand, and the former CMO of AirBNB.

The launch of his new marketing practice with his two partners has generated a lot of attention across the creative industries. That’s not a surprise - his reputation as a leader of rare influence precedes him.

Jonathan wears his heart on his sleeve. And draws you towards him. The first time we ever spoke was a year ago when I asked him to come on this show. He not only said, yes. He gave me a way to think about Fearless that raised my own ambitions for what the show could become.

His openness during that first conversation has stayed with me. It is a characteristic you find in some of the most Fearless creative leaders.

Which is why this week’s theme is Vulnerability, and this week’s episode is called “The Humanist”.


Three Takeaways

  • Generosity to want what's best for those around you

  • The desire to make a difference

  • Challenge yourself in ways that make you uncomfortable


"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 2-4: "The Humanist" - Jonathan Mildenhall

Hi. I’m Charles Day. And this is ‘Fearless’.

This week’s episode is called “The Humanist”.

“What that means is not being afraid to show up with my full, complex human self. I am very comfortable being vulnerable, and very comfortable expressing purpose, and vision. I am very comfortable being humble, I am very comfortable being wrong.”

The unpredictability of creativity makes most leaders pull the sheets over their head and look for less risky ways to spend the day.

Others, let creativity in the building, offer it a cup of coffee and a quote, ’cool’ place to work and hope like crazy that something magical appears every now and then.

But the best leaders look for creativity in every corner of the organization. They embrace it, encourage it, and empower it. The ignore titles and ranks as pre-conditions for the validity and quality of the thinking. And they celebrate progress and demand more with equal evangelism.

This sounds simple. It seems obvious. But it demands a level of vulnerability in leaders that is all too rare, for that very simple reason I’ve already mentioned.

Creativity is unpredictable. And therefore, you might be wrong.

But being wrong is part of the journey. The willingness to accept that you don’t know, indeed can’t know, is the real-world part of that old sop - be prepared to fail.

You can tell organizations that mean that - they include failure in the p&l statement. Literally. It shows up in the form of pilot programs or r&d initiatives. Expenses with no direct ROI. These companies are rare.

And you can tell leaders that mean it. They show up with, as Jonathan describes it, their full complex selves. They invest themselves in people and possibilities. They don’t bring a lot of ego. And they are prepared to be wrong.

But, and this is a big but. They expect a lot in return. Business changing thinking that moves a bunch of needles. Or Profitable Creativity, as I describe it.

So, what does success look like to you? And are you prepared to bring all of yourself to the table so that everyone around you can bring all themselves too?

Here’s Jonathan Mildenhall.



Charles:

Jonathan, welcome to Fearless. Thank you so much for being here.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Oh, thank you for having me. Truly, this is a really important body of work, and it's a privilege to be part of it.

Charles:

Well, you're very kind. Actually, you said something similar to me when we started talking about having you come on a year ago, and it's really informed my thinking. So, I give you a lot of credit for the fact that I really do want to turn this into a body of work that is accessible to people. So, thank you. I have a traditional first question, which I know you know because you are a listener of the podcast. I'm going to ask you a different one. What's your relationship with fear?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Oh, interesting. I haven't always been conscious of my relationship with fear, until somebody started to explain to me what the imposter syndrome was all about. For a couple of years, I was very conscious of me feeling like an imposter. Certainly, when I first got into the advertising industry. There were many reasons for that. There was the color of my skin, there was my academic background, there was my socioeconomic background. All very, very different for the stereotypical graduate trainee in the advertising industry in the 1990s. But after I started to realize I was pretty good as an account person, I then started to change the relationship that I had with the imposter syndrome, because I actually started to miss it if I wasn't conscious of it. Because it meant that I wasn't growing quickly enough, and I was getting too comfortable.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

And so now, when people talk to me about their own fear, quite often it's wrapped up in this concept of the imposter syndrome. I try and get people to change their relationship with it. I think when you feel that you might be an imposter, that suggests that you are doing something for the first time. You are stepping out of your depth, and that means that you're growing. And so now, I actually welcome this sense of fear, and I welcome the sense of being an imposter in my own body and in my own life, because it tells me that I'm growing.

Charles:

So, it's still present today?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

It's still present today, but it's present in a very positive way.

Charles:

How interesting. What's your first memory of creativity?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

I feel so grateful that even though my mum had five children, to three different men, by the age of 27, and brought us all up on a council estate in the north of England, she had the foresight to take each one of her sons to the theater as a birthday present. And so, once a year we got to go to the theater. This kind of tradition didn't start until our fifth birthday, and on my fifth birthday, I went to the ballet for the first time. And it was my first time, I remember, this would be back in 1972. I had a black and white TV. The only media was the tabloid newspapers and a set of encyclopedias. That was the only media that was kind of in my household, and so when I was five years old, I went to a theater to see a ballet, and I saw life in full color for the first time.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

I saw this story played out in the most magical way, and I saw these people moving in the most incredible ways, and it was almost as if my life and my imagination was turned on in that moment. I knew that the poor, black and white world that I lived in was not going to be something that I would stay in, and I knew instinctively that if I better understood what was going on, on that stage in front of me, then I might be able to turn my life into something that was so multifaceted, and imaginative, and creative. I didn't know what it was at the time. I was five years old, but I knew it was almost like a portal into a different world. I still am very, very familiar with that feeling of having my own sense of creativity turned on immediately, as soon as the curtains went up.

Charles:

You were brought up in a working-class environment, in the north of England. You're gay. When did you discover you were gay?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

It's a really good question, because I started to have homosexual thoughts when I was about 14. I remember really, really struggling with that, and suppressing it because at the time, in my own mind, I felt that if I explored those homosexual thoughts, I would never be a father. And I have always wanted to be a father, from as early as I can remember. And so, I then started to explore my heterosexuality, and at the age of 22, I fell in love with a German guy, a guy called Frank. My heart burst open with love and affection for this man, and I realized then that I could not keep this to myself. I had to share it with my mum. I've got a very, very great, close relationship with my mum, and up until that point she knew everything about me. I felt that I was depriving our relationship if I didn't share this love that I was experiencing with her.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

And so, I came out to my mum when I was 22 years old. Now what's great is, 30 years later, I'm with another German guy. I've been together 11 years with him, and what's beautiful is we're going to have two children next year via surrogates. And so, the concern I had about embracing my homosexuality would preclude me from being a father, 30 years later it hasn't proven to be the case.

Charles:

Well, congratulations. That's the moment. When you were exploring your own homosexuality, there must have been a sense of risk attached to that, based on where you came from. Was that a challenge, to actually explore it yourself? And were you afraid of exploring the possibility?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Not really. I don't feel that I was ever afraid, but I was deeply ashamed. Shame is something. Being afraid of something, I feel is fleeting, but being ashamed of something is like a heavy, damp cloak that kind of suffocates one's sense of identity and confidence. I think being ashamed is so much more detrimental to anybody's sense of well-being than being afraid.

Charles:

What made you jump into the career path you chose?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

It's really interesting. I, as we know, was born on a council estate, and I went to pretty poor schools, but I had a couple of very, very inspirational teachers who saw my potential. I was lucky enough to get into Manchester Polytechnic, back in the late 1980s. I was doing a general business and finance course, and I thought, and my family thought that I would go to Poly, and then graduate from Poly and become an accountant, I kid you not. At the end of my first year, I was struggling because I failed a couple of subjects, and I was terribly worried that I would be forced out of college. I sat with a careers counselor, and I said, "I'm struggling. I'm out of my depth," and this careers counselor was a lady called Monica at Manchester Poly at the time.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

She turned around to me and said, "Jonathan, with your personality, why are you majoring in accountancy? Why not marketing?" I didn't really know what marketing was at the time, but I switched my major, and started studying marketing. Within that, there was a strand which was advertising. In the first lecture on advertising, a professor, I still remember his name, Alan Poulter. He presented the world of the advertising industry, and the three principal disciplines. One being creative, and I felt that first part was intimidating, the other being planning. I felt that might be a little dull for me, but the third discipline he presented was account management. As soon as he explained that account management was the hub at the center of the agency, managing the external relationships, the internal relationships.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Making sure that everything runs on time, and within budget, and the work is great, and you are building a great environment for everybody to do their best work. A light bulb went on in my 20-year-old mind, and I said, "That's what I want to be." And I went back to the careers counselor and I said, "Monica, you are totally right. I am really enjoying marketing, but I actually want to be an account person in a London agency." She turned around to me and said, "Jonathan, I want you to know that the London advertising industry is incredibly white. It's middle class, and they only recruit from Oxbridge." In that one statement, she helped me understand that the pursuit of my dream to get a job in a top London advertising agency was going to be challenging. So I left her office, after giving her a hug, with a huge commitment that I would just, by the time I applied to the graduate training programs in London, I would be the most researched, most informed, most creatively aware undergraduate of that year.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

I was so lucky that, against all odds, I became McCann Erickson's first ethnic minority graduate trainee in 1990. I was the first graduate trainee in McCann's history that didn't come from a university.

Charles:

Is that right?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles:

Wow. Wow, that is interesting on two levels. One is, I'm struck by the story about the influence that Monica had, right? It's amazing how often an outsider offering you one sage piece of advice or thought at the right moment can literally change your life. I had that, actually with the person who is still my best friend in England, when I graduated. Well, I managed to fail my A-levels twice in England, and was given a choice by my father, who bizarrely was running McCann.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Oh?

Charles:

Yeah. Crazy, right? Small world.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Right.

Charles:

So, my father had more than enough of me taking advantage of his generosity, as he saw it, paying for my education. He said to me, "Okay, genius, now you failed your A-levels twice. What are you going to do?" And I said, "I'm not sure." He said, "Here's your two choices. You can get a job in London," which at 19 didn't sound all that enthralling, or he said, "You can go to this college in the middle of America, because there was a guy I work with over here in the states who can get you in." I called Tim, my best friend, who is very logical. Actually Oxford graduate, math expert. I said, "Tim, what do I do?" He said, "It's easy. If you go, you'll know whether you like it. If you don't go, you'll never know."

Charles:

And I was on a plane 36 hours later, to the middle of America to [inaudible], Wisconsin, just based on that. So it's amazing, right? How a small piece of advice in the right moment can really change the course of your life. I'm struck by that.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

I'm struck by that, too, and you're absolutely right. If somebody asked me what is the single most instructive thing that you ever heard as you were growing up that actually alter the course of your life, it would be that reaction from Monica. It was interesting, because I could have responded in one of two ways. I could have felt completely defeated because she was talking about my paternal academic and socioeconomic background, or I rose up and thought, "Right, that's great. I'm going to use all of that as my position of difference."

Charles:

Yeah, it's so powerful. It obviously has a huge determining factor, depending on how you react to that information, right? Whether you decide to say, "Okay, I'm up for the challenge of that." I'm really struck by that. So you get into McCann, you are completely counter-cultural to everything that is going on. How do you forge your way?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

McCann was, and is an incredible company. I will always have such huge affection for McCann. Not only was I a risk, and I was an experiment, but they also put me on the flagship piece of the business. I started my career at McCann Erickson on Coca-Cola and on Nestle, and Nescafe Coffee, and the Gold Blend campaign. And for anybody who lived in the 1990s, they know that the Gold Blend campaign, it was a saga, a love story between two yuppies. It was the highest profile ad campaign in the UK. It was exported here to the US. McCann not only took a risk, they also gave me the very, very best experience.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

My job was the typical accounting sector job. Pouring the coffee, pouring over data, making sure that the contact reports were sent out on time. But then, as I started to become aware of the creative cultures of different agencies that my friends were working in, I realized that there was a much more interesting and dynamic approach to creativity that agencies like Sergei, and agencies like BBH, and Howell Henry were producing. And so, I decided after three years that I actually wanted to go and work at an agency that might be a little bit more challenging for my own sense of creativity and purpose. Then I moved and went to BBH. That was incredible, because ...

Charles:

It was their heyday, right?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

It was the heyday at BBH. In fact, I wrote a thesis on BPH whilst I was at Manchester, and then to sit on my first day at BBH, cross legged, in John Hegarty's office, pouring over work. And John Hegarty turning around to me and going, "What do you think, Jonathan?"

Charles:

Oh my gosh. What a moment.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

The moment.

Charles:

What a moment.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

The most intimidating moment of my career. Here was my guru, and I'm in his office. And he literally knows my name, on my first day, and he asks me for my opinion.

Charles:

He cares what you think.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Yeah.

Charles:

Wow, what a moment.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

It was a moment. And you know what was interesting about that moment, Charles? Is I started to waffle on. He asked me, we were reviewing a NatWest campaign, NatWest Bank. And he said, "Jonathan, what do you think?" And I started to waffle on about, "Oh, the target audience, and the messaging," and stuff like that, because I thought I wanted him to know that I was an articulate and strategically driven account guy. And he said, "Stop the waffle. What do you think, as a human being? How would you respond to this work if you saw it?" It took me a moment to convince myself that what he was inviting was an honest conversation about creativity, not a structured, artificial conversation about creativity. Then I responded as a human being, and he reacted in a way that led me to believe that he was very impressed by my humanity. I got home at the end of that day and I thought, " The one thing that I have to be all the time in this industry to succeed is human."

Jonathan Mildenhall:

I will never be a title. I'll never be a discipline. I'll never be a function. I'm just going to be human. That might mean that sometimes I don't come across as the most strategically informed person in the room, but I think that it's helped me always come across as one of the most compelling people in the room.

Charles:

And how do you define human? How do you know when you're being human?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Well, it's interesting. Because when I got to Coca-Cola, we're bouncing around a little bit here, but I think it's relevant. When I got to Coca-Cola, I was doing a huge marketing job for the first time. I was 38 years old, I was living in Atlanta on my own, and I was responsible for the company's creative agenda. I was vice president of advertising strategy and creative content, content excellence. I'd never been client before, and I didn't know how to respond to creative agencies. And so, I sat back and I was just observing the marketers around the Coca-Cola company system, and how they responded to creative work. The word that I realize was killing any creative opportunity in that the work that our agency was presenting was "think."

Jonathan Mildenhall:

When a client sees a body of work, and then they start a response with, "Well, I think this," it got back to my experience in John Hagerty's office. I was like, consumers don't think about creative work. They feel creative work. What John Hagerty was asking me to do was not think about the creative work, but feel it, and feel it as a human being. And so, one of the things that I banned at all of my meetings at the Coca-Cola company was the word "think." And I made everybody on my team, when they saw creative work, never use the word "think," but use the word "feel." So, "This creative work makes me feel like this." If you can introduce that into the creative debate in any organization, "How does this make us feel" as opposed to "How does this make us think," then you get to work that is so much more human.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

So, being a human in the creative process is about being aware of how the creative work or the creative idea turns on your senses.

Charles:

I mean, that's a magical moment of insight from your perspective. How was it met with in the room? Like, what was the response?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

At Coke?

Charles:

Yeah.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

You know, I think that people have always trusted me and my intent as something that's positive. I don't have difficulty getting people to suspend doubt, and leaning into my process. And if my process works, then I think everybody feels much more excited and much more empowered about the work that they're doing. If my process doesn't work, then I'm the first person to say, "Well, that didn't work, so let's try something differently." And so, I think over the course of my different working relationships, I've developed a way of influencing people to try and engage in my way of running a creative process. But also, I have this phrase which I use so often, which is I have strong opinions, and I'll hold them lightly if you can come back with something that would be better.

Charles:

Do you think of it as a process?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Yeah.

Charles:

You do?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

I think of it as a chaotic process, a surprising process. An unpredictable process. But it definitely is a process.

Charles:

What do you think are the benchmarks along the way? How do you structure that?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Well, I think the interesting thing, and going back to my BBH days. BBH was where I got my world class university degree in creativity, and brand strategy, and execution. At BBH, I learned a number of things. First of all, that in order to get to original, creative outputs, you need original, strategic inputs. And so, the understanding and awareness of being constantly out in culture, and studying your target audience, and indeed other audiences around your business is essential. Because you want to be the one that's bringing in an insight that is genuinely of value, but really surprising. So, external perspective so you can figure out what is the tension that creatives are going to be given that they can push up against. Stage one.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Then, a really, really inspirational creative exchange. I don't want to say creative brief or creative briefing, but creative exchange, so that you light up every part of the creative imagination as you're taking them through this briefing process. But also, I always used to put special effort in making my creative briefings of the most interesting of any other account later, or any other client when I became a client, because I always wanted to have the best creative people working on my business. And so, the creative briefing process, and that relationship is kind of stage two. Then spotting the idea, and again, at great agencies like HH, and great agencies like BBH, we used to talk about the definition of an idea all the time.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

You see very, very poor work, so much of it unfortunately out in the world that doesn't have an idea in it. At BBH, we always used to start with the idea which was never scripted, or it was never a poster. It was an expression of the kind of creative reference. And so, we get excited about the idea, and then we move into the collaboration with the clients, to make the clients feel that their fingerprints are all over that idea. Then you move into execution, and every phase of that is really, really important. Every phase there is a craft skill, a set of craft skills that you can apply to each one of those phases. I'm not a person to believe that craft skills are only in final execution. Craft skills, you craft insight, you craft briefing. You craft an idea. You craft the final execution.

Charles:

Yeah, that really resonates with me. Is there room in that process for the tortured genius?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

I think every single step of the way.

Charles:

Even the rule breaker, the person who doesn't want to play by those rules?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

I feel that increasingly, you have to play by the rules of team and collaboration. I've worked with many creators, many brilliant men and women who have been islands, and they build pathways onto their own island. I just don't think that we have the time for islands, and it is time. I think business is so dynamic today. Everybody's workload, everybody's inbox is just so chaotic that the idea that you could be a tortured genius, and wrestle in your own mire, and still expect people to care about your ideas or your work, I think that time is a bit behind us. I think now, the creative genius has to be somebody who can stand in the middle of a kind of marketplace of work, and be able to filter an awful lot of noise, and sees the insights and the ideas, and the people that they might be able to collaborate with to do incredible things.

Charles:

How do you ... Given, I would agree with the fact that time is incredibly valuable. Brand companies are moving faster than ever. There is more pressure on top-line and bottom-line performance. Given that, how do you resist homogenization? How do you embrace disruptive thinking into a process that, by your own definition, requires some degree of rigor, some degree of consistency?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

I think that there is an opportunity to disrupt every stage that I have just described. For example, I am working with one of my clients right now, and we need to break the back of a huge creative idea, because we have got this really important moment ahead of us. The way I am going to do that is I'm going to get the right cross-discipline bunch of people in a room for two days, and I'm incentivizing everybody to crack this, not only in terms of the idea, but also in terms of the execution, in a two day period. And so, even though the process is sequential, I think depending on what you're working on, there is an opportunity to disrupt the approach to each stage of that process. I think really talented clients, and really talented creative leaders are the ones that genuinely embrace.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

They respect that there are certain stages, but they are respected because they will bring innovation and creativity to every stage, so that it doesn't become kind of formulaic and too process-heavy. But I am very, very confident that I am going to be able to crack a really, really important idea for a really important client by using that basic process, but approaching it in a very different way so that we can do the impossible in very little time.

Charles:

You've been in the position of being able to decide where you work with, right? On the brand side, you can decide which agencies you work with. Now you are building your own consultancy, you can decide who you hire. How do you, what are the characteristics you are looking for, whether in a client, or in a colleague, or in an employee? What are you looking for today, in the people you want to surround yourself with?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Well, you know we're called 21st Century Brand. The consultancy is called 21st Century Brand, and we have a mantra that ultimately we will build in, as an art installation in our reception area. That is, "Be nice, or 21st Century Brand off." And we've actually got the creative expression of that, and it's a beautiful declaration of our intent to only work with companies that we feel are doing right by the world, and to only work with companies who we feel will respect us and enable us to do the best possible work of our career. Likewise, we will only recruit people inside the company that are both excellent at what they do, but they're also really decent human beings. Life is too short, and actually I think the talent pool is now so rich, to work with people who don't understand the importance of building a positive, collaborative and creatively stimulating culture. Certainly, time is too precious for a startup like mine to work with clients that similarly don't know how to engage in a way that makes everybody feel really positive and optimistic about working together, and creating solutions that are really significant.

Charles:

Do they have to show up that way? Are you willing to coach people through to that point of view, if you can get them there? Do you have any kind of tolerance for, let's see what this could be about?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

We have a criteria for the kind of clients we are going to work with. So, the criteria is, is the business truly influential? Is it influencing the world for the better? Are the founders and leaders of the company interesting people that have integrity, and ethics in their soul? If the answer to any of those questions is, "We're not sure," then truly we don't even take a meeting. Now, that's today, we're seven months old, but I'm very proud that my co-founders and I have established this criteria, and we've used it five times already. Five times, something has come in, and we've sat down, and we've taken a look at it and go, "No. Not for us, at this moment in time."

Charles:

I mean, there's a real discipline behind that. That has been easy for you? That's been instinctive for you?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

It's been easy, and it's been instinctive. The reason why it's been instinctive is, we, as a threesome, created that criteria. The reason why it's been easy is our business has enjoyed an awful lot of inbound, so we found ourselves in a position over the last seven months that we can. It's been important that we have chosen our founding clients, and the chronology of working on those founding clients very deliberately, so that when people look at our client list, it's kind of obvious, the type of work that we want to be associated with.

Charles:

So, do you have a certain size in mind that you want to keep the business to? Are you focused on keeping it tight, keeping it contained, keeping it narrow, or are you hoping that over time, more and more companies satisfy this set of criteria?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Well, I think the criteria is actually pretty universal. In terms of the growth of our business, we've already announced that we're launching London in summer of next year, and in fact Neil Barrie, the co-founder, he'll be going to London with his family to set up the European business. We're already in conversations with certain leaders in China, because we think that it's important that we have a Chinese practice, and I'm very excited about my co-founder's support that our fourth office will actually be in Lagos, Nigeria. The reason why I want it to be in Lagos, Nigeria is I am half Nigerian, and I want to be able to give the Nigerian tech scene the same strategic opportunities to develop really powerful and purposeful brands that could potentially scale on a global basis, and so at the moment, in terms of the growth of the company, my co-founders and I haven't gone beyond those four offices. But we're very confident that the criteria that we've established is present in abundance in each one of those markets.

Charles:

Talk to me about starting a partnership. Because your background, as you've described, was always about being a singular person in a very specific situation, right? BBH, Coca-Cola, Airbnb we'll talk about in a second, but these are iconic companies. You've had a very, very specific persona within those companies. Highly individual, highly recognizable. Talk to me about what the experience has been like, and forming a partnership. What were you looking for in co-founders? What have the challenges been that have surprised you?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

So, I feel very grateful that my co-founders, Alex Dimiziani and Neil Barrie joined me. To be honest with you, Alex and I have worked together for 12 years. She is one of the most inspirational, magical, creatively dynamic, strategically bright leaders that I have ever had the pleasure of working with. When I started to think about the need for marketing excellence, and rigorous brand strategy in Silicon Valley, I started to believe that I could build a company that would satisfy this increasing need. I knew that there was no way that I wanted to be an independent consultant, and so I started to think about, who would be my dream partner to lead this? Alex was just the natural, obvious choice. In fact, as I really started to sweat what 21st Century Brand could be, I never, ever saw a day without Alex as my partner.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Then I was like, "Right, okay. I haven't approached Alex yet, but I will approach Alex because we've done such incredible work together." But I also genuinely believe, and this probably comes from working at BBH, that startups are best established as a threesome. Because you get a much more dynamic debate when there is three. I believe in odd numbers to create a powerful debate. So then I was like, "Who else in the world is brilliant at what they do? Who else in the world has both this incredible duality of being a really decent person that operates with integrity every single juncture, but also they're really brilliant, and they're not afraid to be bold, and to be surprising, and to be creative and disruptive?"

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Neil and I had worked together for four and a half years. Neil was the lead strategist on the Airbnb pitch, which I had won back in 2014, and so I went over to Alex's house, had dinner with her, took her out on the terrace and said, "I want to do this thing. Would you do it with me?" Then I called Neil up and said, "Can you and I go to an Irish pub, have a pint of Guinness? Because I want to talk to you about something." I feel so, so grateful that both of them responded almost in the moment saying, "Yeah, we'd love to join you." And then I introduced the two of them together, both of them were like, "I'm so grateful it's her, I'm so grateful it's him. This is going to be quite a magical experience."

Charles:

Why were you so certain you didn't want to be a solo practitioner?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Because it's interesting what you said to me a moment ago about being an individual kind of brand in companies like Coca-Cola and Airbnb. Because actually, I think one thing that all of my team and my bosses would say is that Jonathan plays center all the time. It's never the individual. It's never my ideas. It's other people's ideas. I like to curate the best out of people. And I realize if we're going to have the kind of impact that I know that we can have, helping tech-based companies put soul into their brands, put purpose into their brands, put significant values into the culture of their businesses. I just knew that if I was going to do that, then the best opportunity to make the most amount of impact, and create the most amount of influence would be to start as a three-way partnership.

Charles:

And has it worked out that way?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Yeah. I mean, the most challenging and inspiring, and frustrating and energizing conversations that I have now are when the three of us are locked in a room, figuring something out. So, this dynamic, three-legged stool that we've built is elevating ambition, and intellect, and operational ability beyond my expectations. Then also, the kind of clients that we are already working with our clients that already have a significant role to play in society. The way that our clients are responding to our product and our process is really demonstrating significant influence that we can have.

Charles:

Let's talk about Airbnb for a couple of minutes. You said to me once that part of your role at Airbnb had actually been to build a case inside the company for building an iconic brand. What was that process like? When you walked in there, what was the state of the brand, and how did you go about building the case for the company to say, "Yeah, you need to invest in this"?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

It's rather frustrating, because whilst I was at Coca-Cola, everybody used to say to me, "Oh, well you won't be creative because you've got these massive budgets." Then when I got to Airbnb, and we started doing great, creative work at Airbnb, everybody was saying, "Oh well, you can't be creative because you're a startup and you've got nothing to lose." Actually, both of those two things couldn't be further from the truth, you know? In order to be really, really creative, you have to figure out a way of unlocking the creative potential across the organization. So when I got to Airbnb, it was interesting because my first meeting with Brian, the chief executive at Airbnb. We went to meet for just an hour, and immediately the chemistry between us was incredibly potent. An hour's meeting went to a two hour meeting, went to a three hour meeting. During that process, I was grilling Brian.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Because you've got to remember, here I was, SVP of marketing, Coca-Cola North America, a $1.2 billion budget. Going to Airbnb, which was a property rental platform, and hadn't done any kind of marketing of significance. Great PR, great performance marketing, but no brand marketing at the time. And so the interview, my first meeting with Brian, I was interviewing him as much as he was interviewing me. I remember grilling him. I said, "Come on Brian, help me understand. If a million people are staying on Airbnb each night, what is the cultural impact we've made? If 10 million people are staying on Airbnb each night, what's the cultural impact we've made?" And he looked at me with a little bit of frustration and said, "I don't know, Jonathan, but I genuinely believe that the world of belonging when you stay in people's houses."

Jonathan Mildenhall:

And I stopped him in the interview, and I said, "Belonging." I said, "Brian, belonging is going to be as big and as valuable to Airbnb as happiness is to the Coca-Cola company." And he asked me if that was just kind of a marketing thing to say in an interview, but I genuinely believed it. The reason why I believe it, going back to humanity, is when we were all cavemen sat around the fire in the evening, we weren't looking to be happy. We weren't sat there as cavemen thinking, "Is this making me happy?" What we were looking for is belonging. "I belong to this tribe." So, I believe that belonging is a primary driver of humanity. Happiness is one of the secondary drivers of humanity.

Charles:

It's Maslow, right?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Yes, exactly. And so, I said to him. I said, "Brian, we can build an entire brand narrative and community narrative around belonging, and that will go public. We will be publicly facing around that thought." And so, we did. We started to do little campaigns. The first campaign we did was for the fall of the Berlin wall, and it was a community driven story. A true, community driven story, but we built great creative assets around that story, and we saw a significant uplift in the business in Europe at the time. That built our confidence that we could potentially do a global brand marketing campaign, which we did in spring of 2015. Each time we were building the case for creativity, each time we were proving out how creative engagement leads to platform engagement, leads to an increase in bookings.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

But in the first year, I had a $25 million budget. We knew that in order to continue scaling the business, we had to grow our marketing resources significantly, both in terms of people, and in terms of dollars. So, working with Shire, we built the business case for building an iconic brand, and published it as a book. We published it in partnership with Fast Company Magazine, but each month we would be taking investors, and shareholders, and the company through the business case of continuing to invest in developing Airbnb as an iconic brand. Now, Airbnb spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on marketing, but that didn't happen just because the founders wanted to spend that money. That happened because we were really, really strategic about experimentation, proving it out and building the overall narrative that everybody could align behind.

Charles:

What were the biggest resistors? What were the particulars that you had to, that you look back and think, "Oh, that was the biggest challenge"? Looking back, what were those?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Well, I think that there was a question mark as to whether or not we needed brand marketing. People understood that PR had kind of controlled the narrative around Airbnb in a very, very effective way, and of course performance marketing is very, very easy to track. Airbnb, even though it's founded by two designers, it is a tech company, where data is king in a tech company. And helping people understand that you can track the impact of brand, but it's a longer cycle. And so, one of the things that we had to establish very early on was a really, really robust brand tracking tool that now runs in all of our B&B markets, so that we could understand the incremental gains in the awareness of Airbnb, and the acceptance of Airbnb, and the advocacy of the Airbnb. What those incremental gains would do to Airbnb's bottom line. And so, if anybody is working at a tech company and they are struggling because the mindset in a tech company is performance marketing is all you need to do, and the product is the brand, so why do you need to market around that?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

I would say that the thing that you need to build is a robust data tool that can measure the longer-term value of the investment in brand marketing.

Charles:

And is there a risk, in your experience, from your perspective now, in terms of the role or the relationship between data and creativity? Because obviously we talk about this all the time in the modern brand world, modern marketing world and business building. How do you get the balance right? Because it's easy for data to overwhelm original thinking. It's easy for us to follow, "Oh, look at what the numbers say." How do you find the balance? How do you keep data in its proper place?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Well, I always like to just use this phrase. There are times when it is right to be data-driven, and there are times when it is essential to be data inspired. Data inspired, for me, helps drive the narrative, because you use data as a springboard, but you don't use data as the conclusion. Then data-driven, to me, really helps drive my media placement of that creative idea and that creative content. So, I think it's important for marketers and creative leaders to declare when they are using data to drive to a conclusion, and they're using data as a springboard for creative innovation.

Charles:

And is it easy to get those two confused?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

I haven't experienced.

Charles:

So, you can keep the separation of those?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

I can keep the separation. Now, I have to also say that I was very lucky at Airbnb, because my boss, Brian Chesky, is a very ... He's a diagonal thinker. He is so hard-core on the numbers, and he is so ambitious on the creative concept. So, it was easy for me working with Brian, because he also appreciated that there are some times that data will drive to the conclusion, and there are some times that data will just open the door to great creative innovation. And so for me, it was easier because of the beautiful way that my boss's brain worked. I don't want to come across as suggesting that it's easy for everybody.

Charles:

So, is that a role that you play when you walk into your clients now?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Yeah. To help our clients understand that there are two essential approaches to data, and where it's appropriate to be driven, and where it is appropriate to be inspired.

Charles:

And what's the biggest mistake you see being made?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

That companies don't allow themselves the space and the time to use data as a springboard. When I look at all of my clients that I am working with now, I sometimes feel that data is suffocating the opportunity for creative inspiration, because it's not being used in those discrete ways. I think if you can do anything, it's about helping clients understand the different mindsets of different data scientists, and some of those scientists, their job is to create space inside an organization for creativity and inspiration.

Charles:

And what do you think? I mean obviously creativity is implicit within everything you've done. How do you articulate the role and the value of creativity in a business environment? What's its purpose?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

What I believe is that everybody is creative. I fundamentally believe that, and I feel that as a leader of a company, it is your job to create the environment that everybody's way of expressing their creativity is welcomed. I think that it becomes too brutal a debate when people believe that creativity is the remit of a few people in an organization, and not the responsibility of everybody in an organization. And so for me, leaders have to have a broader narrative on creativity that everybody in the company can see themselves in. Even if I'm a really, really talented engineer, and my life is spent building code each and every day, that is an incredibly creative process. But sometimes the leaders of an organization don't recognize that, and don't recognize the creativity in that discipline. And so, I think a broader narrative on creativity, and a broader way of celebrating the creative achievements of all disciplines, that can really help unlock a company's overall energy.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

And ultimately, when you unlock a creative energy of an overall company, then the stuff that you put in front of the consumer about that company is just that much more inspired, and that much more interesting.

Charles:

Yeah, yeah. I'm on a personal mission to help people understand that I think there is no more valuable and essential fuel source within a business than creative thinking, original thinking. How do you differentiate or equate creativity and innovation? Because obviously those two terms get bandied around, innovation, I think more easily and readily, especially in corporations. I think corporations tend to be slightly afraid of creativity as a concept. Is there a difference, in your mind, between the two?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Well, creativity is about energy and ideas, and innovation is about process. The best companies know how to manage the two, to have a process that unlocks the barriers for the creative energy and ideas to succeed. I think that companies have to be aware of both, and create the environment for both to flourish.

Charles:

Yeah, that's a really good definition. How do you lead?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

I lead with my heart. At 21st Century Brand, we have four values, and one of the values is, ambush with humanity. What that means is not being afraid to show up with my full, complex human self. I am very comfortable being vulnerable, and very comfortable expressing purpose, and vision. I am very comfortable being humble, I am very comfortable being wrong. And so, I think that my humanity establishes a sense of team and a sense of trust. My contract to myself, in terms of how I lead, is to always look at the potential in everyone I'm working with, and always look at the potential in every idea that is ever shared. I think if leaders are much more conscious of their responsibility of unlocking potential, unlocking potential in their teams, and unlocking potential in the ideas that their teams have, then the ability to be a successful leader is that much greater.

Charles:

And what are you afraid of?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

I'm afraid of time. There isn't enough of it for anybody, and I really want to make sure that I am using it in the most productive way. I want to make sure that, at the end of every week, and I do this at the end of every week. On a Friday, I look back at the last five days, and I asked myself two questions. Have I been the most human that I can possibly be? And have I been the most creative that I can possibly be? They are the two values that guide pretty much everything, every decision that I make, particularly professionally. There are weeks that I will get to Friday, and I go, "No, I haven't been the best human being that I can be." Or, "I haven't been the most creative that I can be."

Jonathan Mildenhall:

I always, always will look back at the way that I have spent my time, and I know that the weeks that I've disappointed myself in terms of my own commitment to those two values are the weeks when I've spent my time doing the wrong things, or being with the wrong people.

Charles:

How do you correct that?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Becoming conscious of it, and taking control and responsibility of what is on my calendar. It's really interesting, because when I was at Airbnb, and when I was at Coca-Cola, I always had somebody else to blame in terms of how I was spending my time. "Oh, I've got to do this because the company wants me to do this." Now I am CEO of my own company.

Charles:

Nowhere to hide, now.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

There's nowhere to hide. If I see something on my calendar and I don't like it, I've only got myself to blame. And so, being conscious of your relationship with time, and making sure that you are using time to fuel whatever it is that you care about. For me, it's humanity and creativity. That is the most important contract that you can have with yourself.

Charles:

Yeah, I think that's so well-put. I've talked about this on an earlier podcast, for a couple of times, I think, but I am stunned by how many senior leaders give over control of their calendar to their assistant. Their assistant is well-meaning, well-intentioned, trying to do the right thing, but can have no idea about what is the most important way for that person to be spending their time. I couldn't agree with you more. If you don't take responsibility for your own calendar, you are squandering the most valuable asset you have.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

That's right.

Charles:

It's really powerful. I wrapped every episode, I think you might know this. I wrap every episode with three takeaways, so let me throw these at you. One is, I am struck by your generosity. You want the best for people around you, and you want the best for the world and the planet. I think that is a very, very obvious, palpable trait that you bring to the table. Two is, I think you want to make a difference. You want to be able to see the impact that you are having for good, both with people, and with companies, and therefore again, as a consequence the world around you. Then three, I think you are relentlessly willing. More than willing, but I think you have a relentless sense that you want to challenge yourself, and you must challenge yourself. The notion that you embrace the imposter syndrome, and use it as a signal to say, " Okay, I'm doing the right thing because I have this concern. Am I capable of doing this?"

Charles:

The way you've just described the fact that you look back at your week and say, "Am I holding myself to my own standards?" I think that's a very, very powerful reference point, that I think is very present in the best leaders. They hold themselves to an account that is of their own design, and palpable as a result. Does this resonate with you?

Jonathan Mildenhall:

Totally, and the one that is most satisfying is the generosity. My life has been so generous to me. I mean, from where I come from, to where I am now, through all of those relationships that I've had with people, particularly in the workplace that has led me to this incredible position that I'm in. I have succeeded because of the generosity of others, truly. I now am so aware that I want everybody around me to succeed because of the generosity that I can give back. That's the most satisfying, so I'm actually really heartened that was the first observation that you have of me, so thank you.

Charles:

Thank you for being here. I've loved this.

Jonathan Mildenhall:

My pleasure, thank you.