Airbnb CMO Mildenhall doesn’t think the consultancies have what it takes to keep creative talent

Johnathan Mildenhall unconvinced by management consultancies

Airbnb’s global chief marketing officer is in the midst of creative review but says the management consultancies are not in contention, believing they’re incapable of retaining great creative talent.

After snapping up dozens of marketing agencies, the likes of Accenture and Deloitte are increasingly encroaching into ad land’s turf. However, one major criticism – mainly from the camp of traditional holding groups – has been how they will attract and retain creative talent in what is a comparatively corporate environment.

Interpublic Group chief executive Michael Roth said simply: "You need special individuals on the creative side, and frankly, I don't see those individuals working at [a consultancy].”

The discussion came to a head at Cannes Lions this year, with some lamenting the subtle vitriol they experienced from the old guard for making their presence known at what has traditionally been a festival of creativity.

But, it’s not agency rivals the consultancies have to sway – it’s clients. And for one of the industry’s biggest hitters – Airbnb chief marketing officer Jonathan Mildenhall – there is work to be done before he is convinced of what the promised ‘end-to-end’ proposition can bring to the table for brands when it comes to creativity.

“I am yet to believe that, in the long-term, consultancies fully understand how to inspire, motivate, recruit and retain great creative people,” he told The Drum.

It comes amid a global creative review for the brand after it ended its three-year relationship with TBWA/Chiat/Day in May. At the time of the spilt, Mildenhall said he was looking for a partner agency that would take the sharing economy giant “closer to unlocking the creativity” of its community, in which content and product are “inextricably linked”.

Mildenhall said he knows from both personal and professional experience that inspiring creative organisations to produce great work on top of motivating them in terms of profile and compensation is “hard work”, and as such working with a consultancy would not be the smartest move for his brand.

“For Airbnb right now, I just don’t believe that [consultancies] would give me the best creative resource; it’s not something that I would be particularly interested in for the foreseeable future.”

Refreshing perspective

While Airbnb doesn’t have any immediate plans to bring the management firms into its creative process, the travel giant has been working with publishers like Hearst as well as Vice’s in-house agency Virtue on content tie-ups to promote its experience focused service Trips – which gives holidaymakers access to locals’ knowledge, skill, work or social life for a price.

Mildenhall confirmed the recent tie-up with Vice, which offers up experiences curated by cultural influencers from around the world as part of a competition, marks the “first chapter” of the pair’s relationship.

Airbnb has been bulking up its internal team to ensure it’s getting the maximum value of such deals. As The Drum recently revealed, it appointed Pearson’s Geoff Seeley to oversee its traditional and digital spend. When it comes to creativity, the brand also is working to a hybrid in-house/agency model.

Whichever agency does win Airbnb’s ad business will have to work alongside its 60-strong in-house studio. In the lead up to Trips’ launch, around 130 internal staff and freelancers were collaborating inside Airbnb’s walls including editors, copywriters, photographers, art directors and strategists.

“The days of separating church and state, and the days of separating ‘us and them’ are completely over,” said Mildenhall. “We are a hyper-growth company and we move at such a fast pace that it’s really important that the external agency is embedded into the internal creative team.”

When the marketer spoke to The Drum earlier this year he likened the role of an agency in his brand’s ecosystem to a tent structure: with user-generated content acting as the pegs, and agency content to the poles supporting it.

At the moment, he said, this ethos still applies but if the final stages of the pitch process offers up an alternative approach then Mildenhall would be open to it.

“The benefit of working with an in-house agency and an external agency is that duality – the internal team can sometimes get too close to the business, and so lack that ability to pull back and have a fresh perspective, and the external team can sometimes not really fully understand the business and develop ideas that are not relevant to the business.

“So bringing them both together – constantly refreshing perspective and constantly learning about the dynamics of business – that’s the beauty of in-house and out of house. The actual deliverables change depending on the nature of the project.”

One thing that is certain is that it will undoubtedly be a busy final quarter for the brand, which will be announcing a number high profile creative hires in the next few weeks following a call to action at Cannes for creative directors from diverse backgrounds.

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Rebecca Stewart

Rebecca Stewart is a reporter at The Drum. Based in London, she writes news, analysis and features around brand marketing and digital innovation. She has interviewed key figures from the likes of Airbnb, Amnesty International, Unilever, Facebook and Spotify, as well as covering international events like Ad Week Europe, Dmexco and Ciclope.

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