Ex-Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall: brands have a 'responsibility' over what they're funding

As advertisers come under mounting pressure to boycott social networks over hate speech concerns, the former Coca-Cola and Airbnb marketer Jonathan Mildenhall says CMOs have a "responsibility" to know where their ad spend is going and what it is funding.

Now running his own business Twenty-FirstCenturyBrand in San Francisco, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur believes brands must ensure every ad dollar they spend is going into "an environment that promotes the right kind of human values that create adjust and fair society for all".

Mildenhall was talking to The Drum as more than a hundred advertisers – including Unilever, Honda, Patagonia and his former employer Coke – announced they were pausing spend with Facebook in support of a campaign to protect minorities and suppress hate speech.

The advertiser revolt has prompted Facebook's chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to rewrite the company's content handling policies, including introducing new labelling for some 'newsworthy' but potentially harmful political material.

“I've always said, if you are given the privilege of shareholder dollars to market brands in this world today, you have a responsibility to do so in a way that makes society better as a result of that investment," Mildenhall said.

"That's why I've been a big champion for my whole career of purpose-driven marketing, of culturally significant marketing, marketing that moves society forward in a very progressive way. Now, I think the media transparency where the dollars flow is now as critical an issue as supply chain.

"Transparency was, about a decade-or-so ago, and still is, very, very important. Consumer groups, non-profit groups, are really concerned about the ethics of supply-chain management. And now we're going to start to see an ongoing narrative. That is the ethics of media. And if you're an advertiser and you don't know where your dollars are going, that's a very precarious position to be in."

Mildenhall, who spent more than three years in the top marketing role at Airbnb, urged marketers to "create as much transparency as you possibly can" over where their ad spend is flowing.

During the conversation with The Drum, he also discussed the "brutal" impact his marketing communications business experienced during the first few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic reaching Europe and America. But he added that as a result of the civil rights movement growing globally, he is being sought out by brands to help them deliver on their promises to improving racial equality.

“It's the first time honestly that I've been so hopeful that we're going to see over the next couple of years demonstrable change, and the reason why is there isn't a CEO on the planet who hasn't come forward and made that position very, very clear on this issue," he said.

"Those CEOs quite often followed up with corporate dollars, those corporate dollars are being channeled to organizations that campaign for civil justice and racial equality. And so the issue for the first time has kind of come out of the closet. And I'm a gay guy. I know once you're out of the closet, there's no going back.

"And what's going to happen is now these organizations that have been anointed publicly by these corporate leaders and are benefiting from these corporate dollars, [they] are going to hold the same corporations accountable to changing significantly the makeup of their labor force. And that's going to happen at a board leve, C-suite level, at a rank and file level and an intern level.”

Mildenhall added confidently that corporate leaders have grown in awareness that they have not been listening to minority voices, and have begun to create community outreach in order to make them a core part of their business planning.

“This is the thing that I really want to push every market to think about. Brands can start to evidence a mindset of mass generosity that is reaching into communities that were previously underserved… I honestly think in two-years-time that it will be the most rapid transformation of black and minority workers into the workforce than any previous time in history.”

Watch Mildenhall’s discussion as part of The Drum’s Can Do Festival where he also offers his views on the future role of the chief marketing officer, his thoughts on a need for growth in diversity and inclusion across Silicon Valley and some insights on his time working with Coca-Cola and Airbnb.

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