Diageo's Syl Saller on 'ego-free' leadership and how creativity connects to growth

Syl Saller: Marketing Society's Leader of the Year 2015 talks to Marketing about leading with humility
Syl Saller: Marketing Society's Leader of the Year 2015 talks to Marketing about leading with humility

Diageo CMO Syl Saller last week was invited onstage to receive the Marketing Society's Marketing Leader of the Year gong, the coveted UK award given to a marketer in recognition of their commercial acumen, marketing vision and how they inspire others.

Marketing spoke to Saller about the year that culminated in her triumph, her views of marketing and how she sees its evolution not merely as a form of external communications but as an increasingly integral part of an advertiser's overall business.

Judges of the Marketing Society Awards 2015 were clearly impressed by Saller’s ability to have both a broad, global view of a business that is the home of more than 400 brands operating in more than 180 countries; while maintaining a focus on her people - inspiring teams and individuals with her personal approach.

Perhaps at the heart of this approach is Saller’s self-professed lack of ego (she recently stressed that good leadership was partly about "being ego-free") and a verging-on humble attitude.

Characteristically then, when Marketing asked Saller how she felt about becoming Marketing Leader of the Year 2015, her response was to sidestep the question; not, it should be stressed, in the manner of a wriggly politician avoiding an honest answer, but more in a manner that betrays her modesty.

"I believe the award really is in recognition of Diageo, its amazing brands, fantastically talented people and hugely creative agency partners," she says. "I am simply accepting it on their behalf."

Saller thanked her family Alexa, Jake and Rog, when accepting her award
Syl Saller thanked her family Alexa, Jake and Rog, when she accepted her award last week

Of course, being entirely humble and personable would not have carved out quite as epic a career path as the one that Saller has travelled since joining Diageo in 1999. Which is probably why she describes her leadership style as "paradoxical in some ways".

"I am both demanding and nurturing, serious and irreverent but generally highly democratic, and above all I care about people and the growth of our business and our talent," she says. "I view decisions through one simple lens – what is best for our business and our people."

Saller has been Diageo CMO for two years, promoted to the role in the summer of 2013 after spending eight years as global innovation director. Her relatively short tenure as marketing boss of a massive pan-global business makes her scooping of the Leader of the Year that much more impressive.

Not only that, Saller also faced an extremely tough environment in the first half of 2014, with currency issues, anti-extravagance measures in China and increasing competition in Africa among the numerous challenges faced by Diageo.

Yet she and her peers did not batten down the hatches and wait out the storm. Instead, Saller brought together Diageo's 60 marketing leaders "to ensure we were clear on how we would move forward, together, to drive growth". The summit resulted in an empowering insight - "the tough times are what shaped us – transformed us – enabled us to take on bigger challenges".

Her last 12 months, she says, have been filled with highlights "too many to mention", but she is particularly proud of the recognition Diageo has garnered for its creativity.

The drinks firm won more than 160 design and ad awards across 26 festivals, including 12 D&AD trophies at a ceremony which made it the second most awarded client. Saller is quick to point out that winning awards and recognition is not an aim in itself, but a welcome byproduct of good business strategy.

"We don’t set out to win awards, but we are clear on the undeniable connection of creativity to growth – especially in image driven categories such as ours," she says.

When Saller talks about ‘growth’, she is not merely referring to a percentage increase on a balance sheet; it runs deeper than that. The culture at Diageo is "results-focused, supportive, growth oriented", she stresses.

"We are obsessed with growth – of our business, our brands, and our people. We believe growth comes from great internal collaboration focused on winning with customers and consumers."

Forging strong bonds between brands and their consumers is bread and butter for any successful marketer. But in this day and age of buzzwords like ‘authenticity’, ‘storytelling’ and ‘content’, which suggest greater intimacy between brands and their customers, it is worth remembering there are limits.

"I believe it’s critical to understand the role brands play in consumers lives," Saller says. "Companies sometimes forget that consumers are focused on their lives, their experiences, their friendships, not brands. So I think it’s important to understand consumer passion points and go where they are interested rather than expecting them to come to you."

Smirnoff’s partnership with millennials-targeted media group Vice is a case in point, with its Sound Collective strategic partnership with 26 music festivals across the globe. Diageo actively taps into consumer passions and lifestyle preferences that would already exist without its involvement, rather than attempting to create entirely brand-centric platforms.

"Smirnoff’s purpose of promoting inclusivity manifests itself in many ways," Saller says, "Whether it’s our highly democratic approach to festivals, or our 'We’re Open' campaign in Western Europe. Inclusivity is rooted in millennial cultural insight – valuing experiences and relationships over things – and is highly relevant for Smirnoff, the biggest international spirit brand in the world."

Inclusivity, not exclusivity - that sums up Saller and by the same token, much of the marketing output of her employer’s business. And Saller is insistent that business success itself is increasingly dependent on those who inhabit the marketing discipline.

"Marketing needs to be the growth engine of the business, and if marketers aren’t business people, rather than people who create the comms, that will never happen," Saller says.

"You can’t be credible without discipline. And you can’t find growth without a bit of magic."

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