Interview with Syl Saller

Syl Saller is the Chief Marketing Officer at Diageo and a member of Diageo’s Executive Committee. Diageo is the world's leading premium drinks business with a collection of beverage alcohol brands including Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, Baileys, Captain Morgan, Tanqueray and Guinness. Diageo has over 200 brands and operates in 180 countries. Syl oversees all global marketing, innovation, design and Reserve, their luxury division worldwide.

Before Syl was appointed CMO, she was Diageo’s Global Innovation Director, responsible for Diageo’s innovation strategy including all new product development, launch programmes and R&D worldwide. Prior to that, Syl was Marketing Director for Diageo Great Britain.

Syl has been a Non-Executive director of Domino’s Pizza Group plc where she chaired the Nominations committee and served on RemCo. She is a member of the 30 Club, the Marketing Group of Great Britain, Women in Advertising and Communications of London and is the President of The Marketing Society.

We caught up with Syl prior to her appearance at The Ogilvy Lecture at Amplify 2018.

You studied at Harvard Business School. What was your experience like there and how did your studies shape your career?

When it came to choosing a grad school I’d love to tell you that I set my sights on Harvard business school at the age of 10. The truth is, I wanted to live in Boston so I flipped a coin to decide between law school and business school. I’m lucky it came up as business school because I’d be terrible at law! When I was there, HBS ran a “look to your left, look to your right, one of you won’t be here” system, and because I had no business experience, and was a state school grad, I thought for sure that would be me. I was convinced I’d be way behind the room full of consultants, investment bankers and accountants. I wasn’t. From this I learned never to doubt my intellectual capabilities, which frees me up enormously to ask really stupid questions. In doing that, you learn faster, and sometimes it helps people who are missing the obvious. In a world where I feel most people have stronger spikes than me, the one thing I know, is I’m a fast learner. It helps a lot!

You’ve been with Diageo for just shy of 20 years. That’s dedication! What’s kept you there for so long?

I joined Diageo in 1999, because it was a tremendous opportunity to shape the culture of a young company with a portfolio of brands to die for. Nearly 20 years on, we’re a much more mature company, and the challenge of delivering consistent sustainable growth in a volatile world is incredibly intellectually stimulating. We have more than 200 brands in 180 countries, so I can honestly say there is never a dull day. But what has really kept me at Diageo is the culture of the business. At a corporate level, Diageo’s purpose is ‘celebrate life, every day, everywhere’ and by that, we don’t just mean raising a glass. It governs how we operate as corporate citizens, as team mates with each other and acts as a beacon for our brands, so our culture is deeply rooted in this purpose and our values. I honestly think Diageo is the best company in the world – the people are hugely talented, and equally driven, kind and helpful. It’s a winning combination.

What’s been your career highs so far?

There are too many wonderful moments to choose between – I’ve been very lucky.  Becoming a GM, which was totally out of my comfort zone and turning around a division at Holson Burnes was a real high. Creating a new Innovation function which delivers almost half of Diageo’s growth year on year was an incomparable experience. In my current job, having such a broad remit is constantly challenging.

In your eyes, what are the most noticeable changes that have occurred within the industry over the years?

Twenty years ago the industry was still broadly dominated by print media, TV and direct mail. The internet was in its infancy and as marketers we had a limited choice of media to play with and our audiences were concentrated in a small number of spaces. One TV ad in the right break could reach a lot of people – but not always at the times when they were making decisions about what to buy and what to drink. The fragmentation of media has created opportunities to reach people in more occasions through more channels, but we have to work hard to personalise communications and still deliver scale. The competition for people’s attention has never been fiercer and it’s creativity that makes the difference. If the 50s and 60s were the golden age of advertising, today is the golden age of creativity: there are more platforms, channels, and formats open to us than ever before. There are so few rules left anymore beyond, reach your customers with the most compelling messages and over deliver on their needs. The exciting part is that we have to be redefining the future constantly. And our ability to do that comes down to talent. In this new world – a great marketer is a business person first who happens to excel at marketing. Marketers must deeply understanding consumers, customers, stakeholders, markets and the competition while speaking the language of the company, which is growth – growth of our brands, our company and our people. Today’s marketers must be storytellers who are data lovers – and by this I mean they must have a balance of left-brain and right-brain skills; creative minds who also have demonstrable skills in analytics, customisation, personalisation, and optimisation to drive sophisticated investment decisions. Becoming more digital and data driven is paramount and represents a massive shift culturally to balance the criticality of great creative with an understanding of effectiveness.

What’s your favourite Diageo campaign?

That’s like asking me which of my children I prefer! So much great work that I’m proud of across Guinness, Baileys, Captain and Johnnie Walker. But let me talk about one that is close to my heart. Our brand purpose for Guinness - ‘Made of More’ – has allowed us to tell some incredible stories and our work with Gareth Thomas during the 2015 Rugby World Cup holds a special place in my heart. The work tells the story of Gareth’s struggle to go public about his sexuality and how the unconditional support from his teammates gave him strength. I’ve always believed that brands have the power to disrupt social norms and start conversations that drive tolerance and diversity. It can feel risky for a brand to put its head above the parapet and talk about these issues – but Guinness had the credibility to do so because it was a story in the context of rugby – our heartland. The Gareth Thomas work proves that brand purpose can be a source of commercial success. The results of our Rugby World Cup program were beyond our expectations: £8m in incremental sales and we gained share over the official sponsor. And, importantly, both Gareth Thomas himself and we felt that we made a difference in people’s lives: and we won a Glass Lion at Cannes for the work in a new category for creativity that makes a difference in the world by highlighting inequality, imbalance or injustice. 

It’s not just Gareth that matters – there’s so much good work in the Made of More campaign, from Sapeurs in Europe to our football work in Africa

What do you hope to see for the future of the marketing industry?

The future of the marketing industry rests on the extent to which we can grow bold marketing leaders – that’s why this is the mission of the Marketing Society and why I accepted the honour of becoming its president. But let me highlight the area Gráinne Wafer and I will be focussing on in the Olgivy lecture and that is a call for us as an industry to prioritise creating work with progressive gender portrayals we can all be proud of. It’s unacceptable that there are twice as many male characters in ads as female characters. It’s unacceptable that of those characters shown as employed and having jobs, 75% of them are men and 25% of them are women. As an industry we must do better. Our aspiration at Diageo is for our marketing to normalise equality, diversity and inclusivity. We’ve analysed our own work, identified where unconscious bias has impacted our creative, and we’ve developed a progressive gender framework and training. We’re moving with pace, and have rolled out this training out to our 1300 marketers and agencies around the world in just six months. We’ve also signed up to the Unstereotype Alliance and Free the Bid to promote equal opportunities for female directors in the industry. The money we spend helps shape society’s views of what’s normal, acceptable and aspirational. As marketers – let’s put our money to good use! We can grow our brands and be powerful catalysts for change at the same time. 2018 is a tipping point for gender equality – and making a difference is about deeds not words. The time to make a difference is now. 

Any advice to young marketers for making their mark?

My advice to young marketers is that it’s all about a growth mindset and optimism.   Without a doubt young marketers have a lot to contend with. We operate in a highly volatile world, the media mix is unbelievably complex and we are all under pressure to deliver growth and expand our margins. But even in this context, I’d tell young marketers to relax more, worry less and focus on learning.

Worrying does nothing but drain energy when you need it the most. Over time I’ve come to accept that the only thing I can really control is my own choices. Whatever comes my way, I trust I will find a way through it.   I spend a fair amount of time sharing these lessons with others in my coaching - none of us gets to where we are because of our fears, we get here because of our strengths.  The journey we are on is one of continually raising the bar on what we believe we are capable of. Samuel Becket said it best - “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Make sure you join Syl when we hear her and her colleague, Grainne Wafer, deliver The Ogilvy Lecture at Amplify 2018.