Airbnb CMO Says Marketing Industry Can’t Wait Any Longer to Diversify Workforce

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Airbnb’s Jonathan Mildenhall calls on marketers to demand the hiring of more women and people of color on Madison Avenue

Airbnb Inc. is one of many marketers pushing for greater diversity in the advertising industry, which been under the gun to bring more women and minorities into the fold after controversies surrounding insensitive ads and high-profile allegations of sexist and racist behavior.

The home-rental site, which has struggled with diversity in its own ranks, is proactively trying to bring new types of creative talent into its marketing department.

The company announced earlier this week that it will use the Cannes Lions advertising festival—the annual event where many of the world’s top creative and marketing professionals descend on the French Riviera to celebrate creativity in advertising—to woo new types of executives.

Airbnb Chief Marketing Officer Jonathan Mildenhall has put out an open casting call for women and people of color to meet with him during the weeklong advertising conference next month for a shot at working for the company.

Mr. Mildenhall decided to use Cannes as a recruiting tool after he found it “difficult” going through traditional channels to find more diverse applicants.

“I am going to go to the place where the top talent congregates and have women and people of color come in and share their books with our leadership team,” he said.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Mildenhall discussed how the ad business has to do more to recruit minorities, why marketers must demand change, and how he is trying to bring more balance to his marketing department. Edited excerpts:

WSJ: Has Madison Avenue done a good job at diversifying its workforce?

Mr. Mildenhall: No. I have been in the industry for nearly 30 years and for 20 of those years there has been a huge rallying cry for female leadership and female creative leadership, but I have only really started to see visible evidence of that rallying cry working in the last three years.

I am 50 years old this year; I do not want to wait until I am 65 to see people of color taking leadership positions in agencies and in marketing organizations.

I haven’t got 15 years to wait. The industry doesn’t have time to wait. I want to help accelerate visible and significant and sustainable change.

WSJ: Have Airbnb’s agencies met your diversity demands?

Mr. Mildenhall: My immediate agencies have responded very well. TBWA\Chiat\Day were fantastic at promoting women into leadership positions. Starcom has also put some great people in leadership positions, people of color and women.

I would like other CMOs to join me in putting pressure on their agencies to promote women and to create on-boarding ramps for people of color.

WSJ: How can you demand diversity when Airbnb and other industries such as tech have problems with diversity?

Mr. Mildenhall: I want to be clear: The tech industry has a lot of work to do, Airbnb has lot of work to do, and the marketing industry has a lot of work to do. I am not saying that we have it all sorted. That is why I am starting these types of high power initiatives, so I have greater opportunities to meet the potential staff that I am looking for.

Airbnb is making some very ambitious commitments to build a workforce and leadership team that is as diverse as the communities we serve. Different divisions are taking different approaches. I am going out into my community, but other teams are going into different universities and making sure that we are showing up at universities that have historically been attended by African-Americans. So there are a lot of different initiatives around the organization. We have a long way to go.

WSJ: Do CMOs have some responsibility in fixing the diversity problems that exist on Madison Avenue?

Mr. Mildenhall: Absolutely. The ad industry has shown a worrying degree of apathy to the whole issue of diversity and that is best proven by the length of time it’s taken for a number of powerful women to break through. And the ad industry will continue to be apathetic towards—and I am speaking generally—ethnic diversity unless the clients actually put pressure on them.

Clients put pressure on agencies to be more digitally savvy 15 years ago, and clients put pressure on agencies to be become more socially savvy five years. Clients put agencies under that pressure because they knew it was important to the success of their business.

Clients have to start putting reasonable expectations down for all of their agencies about diversity and inclusion because clients’ audiences are diverse. I want my agencies to represent better the audiences that I am serving.

WSJ: Why did you decided to have a recruiting event at Cannes?

Mr. Mildenhall: I feel a responsibility—as an employer and as a recruiter and as a place of creative excellence—that I just don’t push out the [diversity]expectation to my agency partners but I actually live and breathe the values I expound.

WSJ: How many people do you have on your marketing team, and what is the makeup of your marketing organization?

Mr. Mildenhall: 120 people. About 57% of my marketing organization is female. And I have 50% of my leadership team is female, and 5.4% of my leadership team is people of color.

Airbnb Chief Marketing Officer Jonathan Mildenhall PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

This article first appeared in www.wsj.com

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Suzanne Vranica

Suzanne Vranica is the Advertising Editor for the Wall Street Journal, which is published by Dow Jones & Company. She has 15 years' experience at the Journal covering marketing and the inner workings of Madison Avenue.

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