Power 100 2018: How Syl Saller brought innovation to the forefront at Diageo

'The Syl I see at work is the Syl you'll see at Marketing Society events. She's candid, honest, so much fun and not afraid to talk about her failures as well as her successes', writes Gemma Greaves, the chief executive of The Marketing Society.

The most important thing to know about Syl is that she puts her family first in everything she does and stays true to her core values. It is admirable. She is admirable.

There are many reasons why Syl deserves a top position on this list. For starters, there’s her day job: CMO for Diageo and a member of its executive committee with responsibility for more than 400 brands across 180 countries. She was named The Marketing Society’s Marketing Leader of the Year in 2015 and one of the 500 most influential people in Britain.

Syl joined Diageo in 1999 from Allied Domecq Retail. She’s been marketing director, Diageo GB, and then became global innovation director (responsible for Diageo’s innovation strategy). 

When Syl decides to take something on, like becoming our president, she commits to it 100%

She is a bold marketing leader who can rise to any challenge. She says that one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do was create a new innovation function that would deliver £1bn of net revenue for Diageo in five years. Yes, she was scared that she wouldn’t be able to deliver, but she worked hard, put the right team in place, built relationships, inspired people and smashed the target.

She’s also the president of The Marketing Society and that’s how I got to know her. When Syl decides to take something on, like becoming our president, she commits to it 100%.

Watching her in this role has given me a clue to her success. Syl is incredibly hardworking. When she tries something new, she learns it to the nth degree. She’s not the kind of leader who wings it – she’s the kind of leader who respects what she knows and what she doesn’t know.

Syl cares – she "interviewed" me when deciding whether she wanted the role. She was curious, she challenged and listened. Halfway through, she said: "The answer’s yes, by the way." I was already learning in that conversation and, since I met her, I haven’t stopped.

She’s a big listener. A marketer who believes that other people’s views matter. Having said that, Syl’s great strength is that she has a very clear North Star about what’s right.

But the main reason she stands out to me is her ability to bring her true self to everything she does. The Syl I see at work is the Syl you’ll see at Marketing Society events. She’s candid, honest, so much fun and not afraid to talk about her failures as well as her successes. Syl believes in her people in a fierce, loyal way. She talks about the way she’s incredibly demanding and incredibly supportive. It’s a combination that works. As she says: "The stretch is big." I know her standards are very high, but I also know she’s got my back and will support me in any way she can.

At the start of 2017, when she became our president, she challenged me on our brave agenda, wasn’t convinced it was relevant but gave me the chance to persuade her. And now she’s brave’s biggest fan and together we are doing incredible stuff. She also talks candidly about how important it is for marketing leaders like herself to be brave. One of her favourite quotes is: "The way you become brave is one terrifying step at a time."

I know I’m not the only person in our industry and beyond who counts Syl as a mentor, coach and friend. She is an incredible female role model showing the next generation of female marketing leaders what the future for them might look like.

In February of this year, Syl spearheaded Diageo’s signatory of Free the Bid, calling upon ad agencies to put forward at least one female director as part of any creative bid. She was also recognised in the "100 women to watch" list by the Cranfield University School of Management and acknowledged the potential impact senior women can have on others, saying: "It’s about enabling them to believe ‘I can do that’." And that’s one of the great things about Syl. She inspires us to think: "I can do that."

To you, Syl Saller is the global CMO of Diageo – the innovation queen, the growth driver, the global marketing leader with a seriously big marketing budget. But she’s also mother to her gorgeous Alexa and Jake, wife to Rog, a mentor, friend and the woman who encouraged me to be me at work, rather than pretend to be someone else. Syl, you inspire me every single day.

By Gemma Greaves

Chief executive, The Marketing Society

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