Airbnb's former CMO left his high-profile job to help tech brands like Pinterest and Uber find their purpose — and his consultancy is on track to make $8 million in revenue in its first year
- Former Airbnb chief marketing officer Jonathan Mildenhall launched a brand consulting firm, TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, in November.
- The company says it can help fast-growing tech companies like Pinterest and TurboTax build brands that make them relevant beyond their technologies or products.
- TwentyFirstCenturyBrand says it is profitable and on track to make $8 million in revenue in its first year. Its client roster has grown to 10 while its headcount has increased to 30.
- But the company will have to offer more services if it wants to be competitive, say experts.
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Ad agencies may be getting squeezed on numerous fronts, but the market is ripe for boutique firms helping brands navigate everything fromin-housing to brand strategy.
Read More: Big brands like Unilever and Marriott are taking more of their advertising in-house than ever before, and a whole new cottage industry of companies is trying to cash in on the opportunity
That, plus a proliferation of new companies that blend technology and culture but lack a defined purpose, prompted former Airbnb chief marketing officer Jonathan Mildenhall to start his own brand consulting firm, TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, or 21CB, as it also calls itself.
“There was a need for a type of consultancy that could use brand strategy not just as a foundation for a company’s advertising, but for building purpose that unites all the employees, shareholders and the communities it serves,” Mildenhall told Business Insider. “That strategic development of a brand is the stuff I can do better than pretty much anybody.”
Mildenhall and his co-founders Alexandra Dimiziani, who was Airbnb’s global marketing director, and Neil Barrie, former chief strategy officer at TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles, opened their doors in November 2018. Since then, their client roster has grown to 10 including Silicon Valley heavy-hitters Pinterest, TurboTax, Uber, and WeWork, and the headcount has expanded to 30.
TwentyFirstCenturyBrand is trying to cash in on the resurgence of brand-building
Mildenhall is no stranger to brand-building. After 17 years at various London agencies including McCann-Erickson, BBH, and Mother working on clients including Audi, Smirnoff, Guinness and PlayStation, he spent seven years at Coca-Cola as one of its top marketers.
He’s best known, though, for overseeing Airbnb’s edgy campaigns that took stands on political issues like Trump’s travel ban and LGBT rights. While at Airbnb, he also took his passion for diversity in advertising to the streets,publicly inviting people of color in the ad industry to send him pitches.
But when he quit Airbnb in 2017 at age 50, Mildenhall decided he wanted to build something of his own. (It also happened to be the same time he and his husband Mirco Gros decided to become parents; they’re now parents of two, born in the past month.)
His goal with 21CB is to help tech startups gain cultural importance — meeting a demand that seems to be supported by a2018 ANA survey saying 82% of CMOs think they could use help in establishing their purpose. He’s pitching the company as a cross between a consulting firm and creative ad agency.
Mildenhall’s timing seems ideal. There’s been a resurgence of brand-building, prompted by young people who want products that stand for something; and the crises of Silicon Valley darlings like Uber and Facebook in recent years. It’s not just tech companies driving this trend; direct-to-consumer brands that started on social media increasingly realize they need to embrace traditional brand-building.
Read More: Direct-to-consumer brands that built their businesses without traditional advertising are now embracing it in key ways to fuel growth
“There have been many examples of tech companies that haven’t necessarily acted with the responsibility that they should, and investors and stakeholders are waking up to the fact that they need to have longer-term brand strategies,” Mildenhall said. “They need to have values inside and outside the organization that their employees, shareholders and customers can hold them accountable for.”
Mildenhall may have made his career at big CPG companies like Coca-Cola, but he’s not looking to those companies to build his consulting firm, he said. According to Mildenhall, many of 21CB’s client referrals have come from venture capitalists like Ron Conway and TCV. They realize that having a strong brands can help a business not just get through a crisis but also grow, he said.
“We have declined more clients than ones we have taken on board,” he said. “But if we didn’t have a number of really clear principles at launch, then the business might have defined itself as opposed to us defining our own place in the market.”
Clients say TwentyFirstCenturyBrand has helped them hone their brand identities
21CB helps clients with their brand blueprint; company mission; marketing functions; and agency relationships. The model is primarily product or project-based, but will work with clients on a retainer basis, as it does with Napster cofounder Sean Parker’s new video chat venture, Airtime.
One client, Pinterest, hired TwentyFirstCenturyBrand in April 2018 to develop its identity as the world’s inspiration engine, just like Google is its search engine, its chief marketing officer Andrea Mallard told Business Insider.
“We have clarity on our role as the world’s inspiration company, and on our mission to inspire everyone to create a life they love,” Mallard said. “Our teams co-developed a playbook of brand principles and the related marketing, experience, and product initiatives that best bring those principles to life, including the seeds of some global campaigns we’ll be launching in 2020.”
TurboTax began working with the firm in March to figure out how to grow the company and expand its identity beyond a DIY tax prep service, said Mary-Ann Somers, chief growth officer at TurboTax’s parent company Intuit.
Pinterest and TurboTax said they liked the experience of TwentyFirstCenturyBrand’s co-founders and their collaborative approach. TurboTax’s Somers said the firm brought not only marketing, but engineering, design, corporate communications, and customer service leadership into brainstorming sessions.
“The TwentyFirstCenturyBrand leadership team has literally been in our shoes themselves, so they deeply understand the challenges of a modern day CMO or senior executive,” said Pinterest’s Mallard. “They are a perfect blend of consultants and creatives. They have the commercial rigor, leadership credibility, and cross-discipline focus of a consultancy firm, but also truly understand and believe in creativity as a key driver of growth.”
But the consultancy may have to evolve
TwentyFirstCenturyBrand was Mildenhall’s personal labor of love, and he set aside $1 million from his savings to kickstart the business. He ended up only using $200,000, and the company became profitable in four months. The consultancy is on track to deliver $8 million in revenue in its first 12 months, according to Mildenhall, and plans to expand outside the US, with an office opening in London by the end of the year and Hong Kong in 2020.
“We want to be the go-to consultancy for brands going through major events like an IPO on a global basis, when they realize that in order to appeal to the public, they need to develop a strategic narrative around the business,” he said.
But experts say the company has an uphill climb. Mildenhall’s company is limited in scope, and has plenty of competition from established, global companies offering similar services like Interbrand and Landor, said Forrester analyst Jay Pattisall.
“As they grow, they will need to expand, out of both economic necessity and certainly the market dynamics right now,” he said. “Businesses can certainly start out with a niche focus, but eventually need to expand their scope and offerings.”
It isn’t for everyone either. Along with being picky about its partners, the consultancy’s services come at a premium that not every startup can afford. Mildenhall wouldn’t say what he charges, but said he wouldn’t follow the low-margin agency model and that his rates were on a par with the likes of blue-chip companies McKinsey & Co. and Wieden + Kennedy.
But Mildenhall, and some of TwentyFirstCenturyBrand’s clients, remain optimistic. The firm may not want to court big CPG stalwarts, but it doesn’t want to be restricted by its launch parameters either, and would be open to working with direct-to-consumer brands like Glossier and Hims, said Mildenhall. As client needs change, the company will evolve to meet them, he said.
The jury is out on the future of 21CB, but if there’s one thing that Mildenhall has demonstrated since he began his career asa 21 year-old from working-class Leeds, England, it’s that he will not take no for an answer. He looks up to advertising master connector Michael Kassan, and how built up Medialink, as an inspiration. In fact, he said 21CB was already doing that, helping some of its clients manage their agencies.
“I don’t envision a time when I’d ever be buying or selling ad units,” said Mildenhall. “But I look at Michael Kassan as a fantastic example of someone who has evolved his product offering as the market has moved.”
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