Diageo's Syl Saller on determination, tough times and sipping Scotch with Jude Law

Syl Saller, CMO of Diageo on the power of determination and delivering today while planning for the future.

My Month - Syl Saller
My Month - Syl Saller

Being a lover of history and books, I often think in quotes. When Marketing asked me to describe the past few weeks, there were a few that I felt were useful themes. 

"Determination determines your destination." Qwana M BabyGirl Reynolds-Frasier, author.

It’s no secret that Diageo operated in a tough environment in the first half of 2014. Currency issues, anti-extravagance measures in China, increased competition in Africa and other headwinds, meant this incredibly powerful business didn’t perform as we expected it to. For a company that lives by ‘promises made, promises kept’, falling short was hard. 

We’re not the sort of company that has a lot of big ‘set’ meetings, so it was unusual for me to bring together our top 60 marketing leaders to ensure we were clear on how we would move forward, together, to drive growth. I opened the summit by asking people to think about when they had grown the most in their careers; when everything was smooth sailing; or when they faced difficult times and had to find new capabilities – a new inner strength and unexpected ways forward. We all agreed that the tough times are what shaped us – transformed us – enabled us to take on bigger challenges.

Opening was the easy bit. The team did the real work. They shared their challenges. What it was like for our team in Turkey to still deliver growth despite losing its marketing freedoms (no advertising, promotions or digital). What it took for Europe to move forward against years of GDP decline. How our Latin American and African businesses succeed in the face of volatility on a day-to-day basis. 

We closed with a former employee telling his story of overcoming an accident that left him a walking quadriplegic. It moved us all, and put our current business challenges into perspective. For more, see bit.ly/1tEgZnl

How did we leave the meeting? In a word, determined. Determined to win in the market. Determined to deliver our strategy. Determined to grow our business and our leadership. Our ability to win depends on our individual and collective leadership, and on how well we inspire our teams to deliver. 

"If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea." The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupéry. 

"History is what we make today." Asian proverb.

So what’s it like being CMO of a company that has more than 400 brands in 180 countries?  Stretching, exhilarating and fun, and, in all honesty, never lonely. There’s always someone to talk to about what’s hard – whether it’s my boss Ivan, my exec colleagues or my team. The variety in what I do is often mind-blowing, and I love every minute of it.

Perhaps the most demanding part of the job is the bifurcation we all must juggle – delivering today and developing future possibilities. This month’s exec meeting was focused on this year – driving hard for every case, moving quickly to beat the competition and building our brands. For that one meeting, we were all about ‘now’.

Similarly, I spent a week in our US business, reviewing our annual plans. There, they use a simple analysis format called ‘The situation we face’, to get to the heart of the business issues; honest assessment of what’s working in our strategy and what’s not. My goal in these meetings is to help the team build successful plans, but also, more importantly, to encourage the team to reach for greater heights, to be bold in everything they do and to stretch themselves to achieve what they once thought was impossible.  

I spend just as much time working on the future. We had a Distil Ventures board meeting where we make decisions on funding spirit start-ups: a 15-minute pitch; 15 minutes to make a decision to invest. We’ve kicked off our Tech Ventures business, where we will be funding partners who can solve some of our biggest business issues. We don’t pretend to have all the answers in-house – why not aim the power of technology at things at the core of our business?

The night before I left for the US, we had an event called the Johnnie Walker Symphony in Blue. Our Reserve business, the luxury arm of Diageo, is already bigger than Tod’s, Zegna or Dior, and events like this create the foundation for an even-stronger future. 

The Drapers’ Hall in London was transformed into a magical journey through the sensory elements of Johnnie Walker Blue. The evening was hosted by Jude Law, while the lovely Gemma Charles from Marketing was one of our guests. She asked me to write this piece, and thought it would be great for me to share my conversation with Mr Law. But what is said when you’re sipping Scotch should melt away with the ice, leaving only warm memories. I’ll simply say, he’s a lovely man, a joy to work with and quickly becoming a Scotch aficionado.

I’m now in Scotland, where the past and future are colliding. We launched Haig Club this weekend, our new, very special, single-grain Scotch whisky, developed with David Beckham to bring a modern twist to a traditional cat-egory. The partnership between his company and ours leads to a real diversity of ideas, and that makes for a stronger programme. 

I’m also here for the Keepers of the Quaich ceremony, where the industry honours those who have made an outstanding contribution to Scotch. It is a ceremony full of century-old traditions.

In all that we do to drive our business forward, we are clear our job is to shape the legacy of our brands for future generations. I remain both humbled and honoured to be part of the team that stands on the shoulders of giants like John Walker, Arthur Guinness and John Haig.

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