Coke's Jonathan Mildenhall on working without agencies, a liquid approach to marketing, and Whitney Houston

Jonathan Mildenhall, vice-president of global advertising strategy at Coca-Cola, lacks no confidence in himself or his brand.

Jonathan Mildenhall describes himself as a 'diagonal thinker' - when the left and right sides of the brain pull against each other to find an answer. 'I can actually feel the mental tensions in my head as I birth diagonal ideas. This type of thinking is when I'm at my absolute best.'

Mildenhall, the vice-president of global advertising strategy and creative excellence for Coca-Cola, has never been one to shy away from his skills and achievements.

In a speech to graduates at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2008, as he received an honorary doctorate in business administration, he acknowledged his label as one of the most powerful men in global advertising. 'I have influence on one of the world's biggest marketing budgets and I do direct the strategy and creative content of some of the world's most powerful brands,' he said.

Brand evangelist

However, while Mildenhall is more comfortable than others might be in discussing his successes, somehow he does not come across as arrogant. Mildenhall is self-belief personified, but exudes a warmth that seems at odds with a corporate stalwart such as Coca-Cola.

For a man who describes himself as a great 'believer in brands', Marketing meets Mildenhall at an apt location: the London College of Fashion.

'I believe in the power and the roles brands play in the world. There are lots of brands that I admire creatively - and Nike is the most consistent,' he says.

His wardrobe is testament to this brand advocacy. 'I only wear Levi's and have 20 pairs; I only wear Nike Air Max and have 25 pairs; my suits are all Ozwald Boateng, but I don't wear so many these days; and now my T-shirts are all Coca-Cola, written in about 28 languages.'

Speaking earlier in the day at a student event hosted by the Association of Business Schools, Mildenhall fielded a variety of questions, some of which touched on the evils of huge corporations, from obesity to Coca-Cola putting sales above all else.

Of the former issue, he says: 'The correlation between a sedentary lifestyle and obesity is huge. We are not as active as we need to be. Coke has the ability to make behaviours seem cool and help kids understand the benefits of a more active lifestyle.'

Although Mildenhall won't reveal details of Coke's Olympics campaign for 2012, he says its sporting message will focus on getting children involved, as well as pushing London as an aspirational city.

'We want to make more kids take active physical participation. If you look back at (the football world cup in) South Africa, then some of what we did there can be applied to 2012,' he adds.

So does that mean Coke will release another song? Mildenhall smiles, but chooses his words carefully. 'Let's say it's more about a movement,' he replies.

He goes on to deny the charge that sales are the be all and end all for Coke. 'When I started at Coke I visited the South Africa office and was surprised to see a big bowl of condoms in the toilets,' he says. 'I was told it was about trying to de-stigmatise the use of condoms for a country where the HIV rate is incredibly high. Condoms have nothing to do with fizzy drinks, but it is the responsibility of Coke, as these are our employees.'

Mildenhall joined the Atlanta office five years ago after a 16-year tenure in the UK advertising industry. Coke's previous management had publicly declared the company 'creatively bankrupt'. As a result, the global advertising strategy and creative excellence division was set up - for which Mildenhall was head-hunted.

Under chief executive Muhtar Kent, Mildenhall was asked to come up with something 'more robust' than the 'Coke side of life' global strapline. 'With Wieden & Kennedy, we presented "Enjoy today" to Muhtar; he liked the strategic story but didn't like the end line,' he explains. 'His insight was that if there was a disaster somewhere and a Coke TV ad came on saying "Enjoy today", that would be awful.'

Back to the drawing board, and a simple global strapline, 'Open happiness', was born.

'The agency asked me to open a bottle of Coke, then explain what I'd done. What does Coke stand for? Happiness. What had I done? Opened the bottle. Sometimes the blindingly obvious also comes with a blindingly expensive price tag,' says Mildenhall.

Although Wieden & Kennedy was central to that creative, Coke is increasingly working without ad agencies. Mildenhall says he stores 'a lot of stuff in my head' when he meets creative people, later calling on them to work with Coke. ‘We know who and what we need, so we are spending more of our production budgets working directly with the creative industry rather than through the traditional agency model.’

Last week at Cannes, he presented a fresh approach for Coke's marketing. Running through the concept in our interview, Mildenhall is clearly caught up in the world of Coke speak, describing how the ‘liquid’ approach is now central to everything it now does.

'With such massive changes in marketing, with the advent of more and more technology, we need to rethink our approach. We want ideas that run everywhere and fill every communication channel, creating liquid. We want to earn a disproportionate share of popular culture and we need to develop the world’s most compelling content,’ he explains.

'Dynamic storytelling' is at the heart of the strategy, on the basis that the content is of enough value for users to pass it on. 'Nike is probably one of the world's best storytellers. Its short film The Black Mamba, which was released earlier this year, is a great example of that,' he says.

Mildenhall’s enthusiasm is infectious. Just hearing about Mildenhall's schedule is exhausting - he travels 60% of the time. While other marketers might try to improve their work-life balance when they hit their 40s, he says it is impossible for him.

'‘What you can have is work-life integration. Once I realised that it became easier. There is a certain global stamina that successful global people need to have. It takes time to build that up and in my first year I was very tired,' he adds.

Blurring work and personal life means gallery and museum visits take on a new dynamic: refilling Mildenhall’s ‘creative cup’. As a collector of art, he has also commissioned artists whom he has met through work to produce pieces for his home inspired by the songs of his music idol – Whitney Houston. 'Anyone who knows me, knows that I'm obsessed with her,' he confesses.

Mildenhall describes his story as 'under-privileged boy makes good'. Growing up on a council estate in Leeds, he was the middle child of five boys and the only one in his family who was mixed race; his father is Nigerian.

'Instead of becoming a victim of racial abuse, I became strong, independent and proud - characteristics that are still with me now,' he says. He cites a careers adviser's comment to him that ad agencies were 'white, upper middle-class institutions, which only ever recruit from Oxbridge', as the most motivating thing anyone 'other than my mother' ever said to him.

The responsibility that came with moving from agency to client side, gave Mildenhall a new perspective.

‘Before I became the client I had no idea how the great the responsibility you carry would be. The decisions that my team and I make really impact the performance of brands. As a client you're not just thinking about advertising, you're thinking about all the things that really drive the business, in an holistic way.’

Mildenhall doesn't rule out a return to agency life, but it's unlikely. 'When I joined Coke there was a sweepstake at London agencies about how long I would last,' he says with a laugh. So, as such a believer in brands, what could be next after Coke?

'There are rolling opportunities that seem to trap you here,' he jokes. 'I've already started working on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Then I'll be on to the next big thing.' This whirlwind of energy continues then, but there is clearly a plan to ensure that both he and Coke remain two of the hottest properties in the marketing world.

Inside work

1990-1993: Graduate trainee, McCann Erickson
1993-1997: Account director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty
1997-2000: Board account director, Lowe
2000-2001: Head of account management, HHCL
2001-2005: Managing director, TBWA
2005-2006: Advanced management programme, Harvard Business School
2006-2007: Head of strategy, Mother
2007-present: Vice-president global advertising strategy and creative
excellence, The Coca-Cola Company, Atlanta


Lives: Atlanta
Hobbies: Discovering creative talent, creative writing, exploring
Drives: Lexus convertible called 'Whitney'
Music: Whitney Houston