Airbnb exec Jonathan Mildenhall told us about the ad agency that rejected him because he's black
CANNES, France — Airbnb CMO Jonathan Mildenhall is a juror this year at the Cannes Lions ad festival, and he is using the week-long spotlight to highlight just how white the advertising world is, and how far it needs to go to nurture non-white talent.
Mildenhall has put out a call to any non-white employees at Cannes to send him a "book" (a portfolio of work plus a CV or resume) this week so that Airbnb's marketing arm can consider recruiting them.
Mildenhall told Business Insider over an ice tea at the Grand Hyatt Cannes Hotel Martinez this morning that he has received over 100 books so far from more than 30 countries, and he has 30 interviews scheduled. "We've created a pipeline of under-represented talent," he says.
People have complained about the lack of diversity in advertising for a long time, so it is refreshing to see someone doing something practical about it at a nuts-and-bolts level. Mildenhall has been coming to Cannes for 20 years, going back through his time as a marketer at Coca-Cola and at ad agencies Mother and TBWA.
"Last year it struck me how white the industry was and how white Cannes Lions was. I'd seen massive, massive developments in terms of female and gender diversity, but the only black faces on juries or on the main stages were celebrities, and I didn't think Cannes Lions was doing enough," he says.
"Over the last 12 months I've had a very intense series of experiences with Cannes Lions because Cannes Lions know their responsibilities." Those "intense experiences" included questions like, "How many brown faces have you got on juries and as speakers?" And, this tweet:
"Sometimes the progress has not been as fast as I would like, but I can see the effort," he says, although he believes Cannes Lions is heading in the right direction.
Mildenhall's desire to bring on diverse talent goes back to the early 1990s when he first tried to break into London's ad agency world after growing up in Leeds, England, and graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University (Manchester Polytechnic as it was known back then), in the UK. A recruiter told him, "Advertising is very white, very middle class, and they only recruit from Oxford or Cambridge," he says — the heavy implication that being black, growing up in a working class Northern town, and going to a second-rung college would count against him.
"In that one sentence she told me my socioeconomic background, my paternal line and my academic background wouldn't let me get in!"
He tried anyway, sending off an application on which he deliberately included a large photo of himself. "I have a very English-sounding name and I didn't want to turn up there and have people surprised that I was a black guy."
"The first letter that I got back — I've never named the agency but I've still got the letter — the letter goes, 'Dear Mr. Mildenhall, We received your application form and unfortunately you are not [this agency's] persona, good luck with your quest to get into the industry.'"
Mildenhall remains flabbergasted by the note to this day: "That was the first letter I got back. I was 21 years old and the first letter I got back was 'you are not our persona'! I knew what that meant."
He declines to name the agency but says he will reveal its identity when he writes a book.
Ultimately, his first job out of college was with McCann in London. But even then, his recruiter made it clear that Mildenhall's background essentially made him an "experiment."
"You are nothing like we've ever recruited, you think different, you've got a different energy, you engage with people in a different way, we don't know if you're going to be successful but we're going to try," he was told. "Within six months I was working on the flagship accounts."
Mildenhall later became an SVP at Coca-Cola in Atlanta before becoming the CMO of Airbnb in San Francisco. Apart from that one letter he received as a new graduate, he says, "I really don't think my ethnicity has ever held me back. I really don't think it has."