This Is How Airbnb Is Trying To Force The Ad Industry (And Itself) To Make Diversity A Priority

CMO Jonathan Mildenhall used Cannes Lions to not only recruit more diverse talent, but to try and encourage others to take the issue more seriously.

This Is How Airbnb Is Trying To Force The Ad Industry (And Itself) To Make Diversity A Priority
[Photo: courtesy of Airbnb]

One of the simplest, most talked about ads during this year’s Super Bowl was from Airbnb. There were no celebrities, Hollywood-sized special effects, or complex commercial narrative. It was just a collection of portraits–faces of men and women of all colors and nationalities–with these words: “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love, or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful, the more you accept. #weaccept”


The need for more diverse voices was a continuing theme at Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in late June. Panelists at a private recruitment event held by Airbnb shared their stories of discrimination and mircoagressions. One person talked about being scolded for suggesting to a client that perhaps there should be a black person in their commercial, another said she’s been told she wasn’t black enough for one piece of brand work, but too black for another.

A group of 35 job candidates from 14 different countries gathered in a third floor apartment just blocks from the Palais to hear Airbnb executives talk about the complexities faced by companies that are striving to create thought-provoking work while attempting to diversify their ranks, and the pressures minorities face while navigating their way through innovative environments.

Since the Super Bowl, Airbnb has also launched its Acceptance Ring campaign, to raise awareness and support for marriage equality in Australia. But the Cannes event represents the company’s aim to truly embody its diversity goals, far beyond a marketing message.

[Photo: courtesy of Airbnb]
After a panel discussion with chief marketing officer Jonathan Mildenhall, head of Airbnb’s creative department James Goode, senior creative Roger Hoard, experience design creative strategy lead Sola Biu, and head of social Jasmine Atherton, Airbnb co-founder and chief product officer Joe Gebbia shared some research on the power of diversity.

“We do believe in an inside-out culture,” said Gebbia. “If we hold our hosts and guests to an expectation of acceptance and belonging, it has to start within our company. Otherwise, how on earth do we have the credibility to hold them accountable, if we’re not doing it to ourselves?”

Airbnb has published its own diversity numbers, with 42.88% of its workforce being female in 2016. Meanwhile, 56.6% of the company’s employees were white in 2016, compared to 30.41% Asian, 6.47% Latino, and only 2.92% black.


Mildenhall sees Cannes Lions as a perfect jumping off point to help influence and inspire companies in both advertising and tech–two industries in need of increased diversity–to re-examine their approach to both recruiting diverse talent, and how they support those employees once they’re in the door.

Cannes Lions is known as a gathering place for the best and brightest talent the marketing and advertising industry has to offer, but the idea for Airbnb to combine its recruitment efforts with its diversity goals at the event began during an interview Mildenhall gave last year.

Mildenhall was asked what some of the big industry issues he was thinking about most. “And I started to waffle on about producing content at scale, using ad tech to make sure I was serving up messages at the right time for the right cause, and all that stuff every CMO is concerned about,” he says. “But then as I was speaking, I realized and said that, actually, I’m the only non-white, non-celebrity person on any of the main stages. And that’s offensive. So I said, where are the black people? Cannes Lions has to do better to make this an inclusive event.”

This triggered a year-long conversation and negotiation with Cannes Lions about how they could make the festival more inclusive, in supporting and encouraging its industry stakeholders–the brands, agencies, and holding companies behind its programming–to re-evaluate how they choose topics, awards juries, and more. But it was through his conversations with the festival that led Mildenhall to look closer at his own organization.

“It was in a meeting with Cannes Lions, when I realized, it’s okay for me to be banging this drum, but I have to act, and I have to act in a very high-profile way,” says Mildenhall. “We’re recruiting like crazy because we’re growing, and I want to build the world’s most diverse, and culturally surprising in-house creative team–why don’t we move my recruiting team to play a role here in Cannes? It’s a call to arms that says, if you’re really talented, if you’ve got a great book, and you’re a woman or person of color, then submit your book to us.”


After an open global call for applications, Airbnb interviewed 25 candidates in Cannes across various disciplines from 11 different countries, to fill five open roles at the company. But Mildenhall says what started in the south of France has opened the company’s eyes to the sheer scope and scale of diverse creative talent around the world, looking for a better opportunity.

[Photo: courtesy of Airbnb]
He says that the ad industry has access to one of the most diverse talent pools in the world. “These networks have offices all over the world–sometimes hundreds of offices across places like Nigeria, Brazil, Shanghai–but they’re not working hard enough to move the talent around their networks, and to reach into the belly of their organizations and fast-track some of the best minority talent,” he says. “The talent base in places like WPP, IPG, and Omnicom, is one of the most diverse in creative talent, but they’re just not bubbling up or being exposed as much as I’d like to see.”

Part of that may come from the nature of agency business. Mildenhall says that major marketers have traditionally been more effective at recruiting ethnic minorities because the brands are buying the advertising services, not selling them. “A marketing director is not considering whether the ethnic profile of their marketing manager is going to be liked, respected, or accepted by the agency,” says Mildenhall. “But the agency leaders are thinking, ‘Is this young black guy going to be accepted by all the different types of clients I need my young creatives to be in front of?'”

This echoes a sentiment shared by a recent HP campaign, as well as marketing and ad execs Jayanta Jenkins (who was a guest panelist at the Airbnb event), Geoff Edwards, and Keith Cartwright, in their own powerful Cannes Lions presentation on diversity and inclusion. That until there is an honest re-evaluation of inherent bias, the industry will continue to hire and promote people who look like itself.

Airbnb is in the midst of a global ad agency review, looking for its next agency partner, and Mildenhall says diversity is a key point of evaluation.

“The number one criteria, before anything, is that they need to present an authentically diverse team to us,” says Mildenhall. “Not just for the pitch, but integrated throughout your organization. Every single agency we’ve had meetings with, diversity, their progress and commitment to diversity, was the number one subject we discussed before we even looked at their creative. If more clients were like that, the change would be rapid.”


Airbnb’s global marketing director Alexandra Dimiziani says an event like this is just one part of how the company is aiming to be an example to others. The company has looked at how to change its recruitment process to eliminate as much bias as possible, to change the pools of talent they historically look at by starting to forge relationships with historically black and Latino universities to expand that pool.

“By no means have we cracked it, we still have so much work to do,” says Dimiziani. “It does really take a holistic approach. It’s not just about recruitment alone.”

As with the agency review, Dimiziani says the company has also looked to diversify its overall supplier network, to make sure it’s investing in female-owned, minority-owned, and veteran-owned companies.

Looking ahead to next year, Mildenhall hopes his company’s efforts pay off for not only Airbnb–which will hire five of those 35 candidates it gathered in Cannes–but also Cannes Lions, and the marketing and advertising industry overall.

“Wouldn’t it be fantastic if next year an agency like Ogilvy is presenting 50 ideas from their own pool of people of color? Or if Omnicom says, these are our best female creatives and look at the work they produce,” says Mildenhall. “If the big networks really start to celebrate and show the creative impact of their own women and people of color, if that starts to be an ongoing narrative of Cannes Lions, it will be a phenomenal achievement. That’s why it was important for Airbnb to not just talk about it, but do something, share with the industry the impact, and encourage the industry next year to bring their own actions that can start to forever change this debate.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.