Airbnb: ’Creativity without strategic rigour is a waste of marketers’ budget’

Speaking on a panel hosted by The Economist at Cannes Lions today (22 June), along with Mars CMO Bruce McColl and Nestle’s global head of digital and social media Pete Blackshaw, Jonathan Mildenhall fired up the debate into the battle between data and creativity and why it rests on talent and strategic thinking.


Cannes Airbnb

Airbnb’s CMO advised delegates at Cannes Lions festival to think about strategy as well as creative.

Mildenhall said that although the brand is growing at a “massive rate” it is still putting down the strategic foundation on which the brand will stand for the next couple of decades.

When asked if strategic thinking kills creativity, particularly in the use of data, the CMO said that he’s seen “a massive abuse of data” in his career, which includes a seven-year stint as creative chief at Coca-Cola.

He added: “The problem is that in most organisations you don’t get talented people managing the data, so they use it as a sledgehammer against a creative idea and that is heartbreaking.

“Work with talented people who understand how to tell a story out of data and use that story to inspire creative people, so the foundation on which the creatives are asked to work is actually robust. When you get those kinds of people managing data, it’s a fantastic springboard,”

For well established brands such as Nestle, a data strategy aids the brand’s priorities. Blackshaw said: “Digital is bringing unprecedented data signals that can help inform judgement and forecast. I can do an analysis and tell you exactly what your top priorities are. These are things we need to understand as brand owners.”

The debate between the three brands often became a case of big versus small. When asked what he would do differently at Coca-Cola, the CMO said: “One of the first things I would do is reduce a lot of the teams, there are a lot of functions in multinationals that seem to be designed to police marketing and I don’t know if that will ever lead to marketing excellence.”

Global versus local

According to Airbnb, the politics in larger companies prevents global and local ideas scaling in the company, particularly in retain to cultural nuances in global propositions.

In response to McColl’s statement that Mars “believes in global ideas” but has to “create an opportunity for that to cascade throughout the organisation”, Mildenhall said the “the human race is so much more similar than different but politics in organisations usually gets us to believe that that is not the case”.

Young organisations are befitting from this, the Airbnb CMO went on to say, because there isn’t “the inherent institutional friction that stops big ideas scaling around the company”.

McColl said: “We absolutely believe in the universality of human truth. We all know that we are driven by the same basic emotion and bring brand ideas that tap into a human truth. I think that yes there are cultural nuances to make it more relevant, but the core underlying proposition is universal.”

In response to having diverse teams to create culturally nuanced work, Mildenhall added: “Shame is the agency and the marketing organisation that doesn’t understand how to build diversity into teams.”

Client agency relationships

Long-term and mutually beneficial partnerships with agencies were championed by the execs in terms of being a vital source of creativity for brands.

Mildenhall says that one of his biggest areas for concern is that there are too many clients “squeezing the financial lifeblood out of creative organisations”, who then go on to complain the work the agencies produce is “not great”.

“A huge source of brand vitality comes from the advertising industry, our agencies, media partners and content agencies,” he said “As marketers we have a huge responsibility to make sure we enable those agencies to stay vital and to recruit the best people. A lot of that comes down to the compensation models we introduce with partners.”

The way to achieve this is sticking with agencies, rather than refreshing every three years. McColl’s model at Mars is to have long-term relationships with agency partners because if the agency does not grow with the brand and and be profitable they cannot hire the best talent.

“There is a lot of knowledge between the partners that you can’t replicate if you walk away every three years,” said McColl.

The rise of digital and advertising technology is changing the landscape of agency partnerships according to Nestle as Blackshaw sees the ecosystem becoming more complicated in terms of the number of players in the market.

Blackshaw said: “You have marketing automation players and Facebook and Google, which are de facto agencies, they are certainly recruiting from that world. It’s important that the pieces come together around a cohesive customer journey and smart brand strategy but it’s a lot more complicated than it was in the past and we are going to have to ‘sense and respond’ to get this right.”

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