In the Marketer’s Chair with Syl Saller

25 Sep 2014|Added Value

Syl Saller took on the role of Chief Marketing Officer at Diageo in July 2013. We caught up with Syl at our first ’In the Marketer’s Chair’ event at The Soho Hotel where our CEO Bart Michels chatted with her about her journey, experiences, relationships, passions and her views on culture and innovation.

Syl Saller; a mum, a wife, a good friend and CMO at one of the world’s biggest drinks companies. Syl, a graduate of Harvard Business School, has had a hugely successful global 20+ year career, bringing brands from Gillette to Guinness to our attention by growing them into well-known household names and increasing profits wherever she goes. Her impressive CV is jammed full.

Syl is a non-executive director of Domino’s Pizza, a member of the Marketing Group of Great Britain, a fellow of the Marketing Society as well as a member of WACL, a unique club for the most influential women in the UK Communications Industry.

With such a busy life we asked Syl how she manages such a hectic lifestyle. She explains that her family helps her to make work easier; “The people that are the cornerstones of my life, my family, give me a perspective on work that I think helps me make better decisions.” Although Syl is adverse to the phrase ‘a work life balance’ as more and more people spend so much time at work, she clarifies, you have to integrate. “It’s (life) never really in balance, so I think it’s about making life work. Everyone has their own answer, but for me, that’s about creativity and choices.”

Describing herself as a real academic, Syl’s life choices have all been about learning. She always asks herself “Am I still learning?” It’s her passion for learning that is the ultimate decider when choosing her next move “as long as I’m learning, life is good.”

Syl has learnt throughout her career not to play it safe, explaining that in order for people to grow and develop you need to put yourself in uncomfortable situations to realise what you can do. “I learned that the way I needed to progress my leadership was to deliberately choose to do things that I didn’t think I could do.” And additionally Syl has the attitude, and as she says now being post-fifty, to consciously give up worrying as “there’s no upside to aging except this idea called wisdom”.

Syl mentions throughout the whole discussion that she has great people around her, whether that is teams of people at work or her friends and family. She states that her success and achievements have been down to having good relationships: “The most undervalued skill is trust – the ability to have trusted relationships. It is also the rarest skill to have”. Syl goes on to support that having the right team around you is important in getting the right results, “picking and putting people together that complements their skills, that grows the business and who are right for the job, makes an enormous difference. Working as peers in a team is powerful”.

Being a great believer in mentorships, Syl expresses that people can find mentoring anywhere, they just need to look for it. Her goal is to mentor as many people as she can, as opposed to one-to-one relationships. “Sponsorship is key to making sure that you have one or two of those people, who have your back and support you in your career is really, really important.”

Syl has many passions and aspirations, and one which she speaks about regularly is innovation. Syl has had many innovation success stories, including being part of the team who introduced the Guinness widget. She has proudly embedded innovation in the Diageo business over the last seven years, which has helped to contribute to Diageo’s steady growth.

Syl thinks that innovation is the heart of marketing, and is terrific training for marketers as it involves so much more beyond the marketing plan; “You have to own the whole thing; the proposition, the value chain, the question of it being right for the company and for the consumers.”

Syl has exploited her mind-set in implementing innovation at the forefront of Diageo’s thinking; “The first thing I did was to put in a P&L to measure innovation so that our goals would be aligned”. Having a commercial case backed up with evidence generates interest in an idea and gives you leverage to excecute; “Hey, do you like this idea? I think it’s really good, you could make a lot of money” vs. “We’ve established a track record where innovation is 40% of the market’s growth.”

Syl goes on to say that being culturally aware of the environments your brand and products are in is very important, critical, in fact; “We’ve learned a lot about (culture) in our US business. Part of it is acknowledging how critical it is, that sometimes we can run an ad over and over again when it’s much better, actually, to have Ellen DeGeneres talking about it in her very amusing way on her TV show. Working with Sean Combs, aka P. Diddy was very eye opening. It’s not just the celebrity factor. He is not just the frontman in our ads, he lives the brand. He does not go on a chat show without a bottle of Cîroc in his hand. That brand was plateaued at 80,000 cases for a long time and he took it into the stratosphere.”

Being good at culture means you understand that it’s not just about the brand and the brand surroundings, it’s more than that. “I’ve always said, ‘Nobody goes out for a Smirnoff evening, they go out to have a good time.” She explains that brands are actually a very small part of people’s lives, if you understand that then you will have a better (cultural) radar than others.

We often say to people at Diageo it’s important to experience more, engage with culture and really get to know other markets to enable you to move up the career ladder. “We’re a big global company, you need to understand developing markets and you really need to have lived in a couple of different places. Your career options are multiplied by the number of languages you speak and the places you are willing to live.”

Being an incredible role model for women in business and standing as a member of WACL, Women in Advertising and Communications London, we can’t let Syl’s interest and passion for women go unmentioned. It’s her drive for women that lead to the success of Diageo’s ‘Understanding Women’ project. Working with Diageo’s Futures team they noticed that most of their targeting was to men, for fear that targeting women would alienate men. Syl wanted change. “I was a little offended that feminising was seen as a bad thing, so we just took that on and worked with a great partner, Added Value, who did great work with us, to identify ways of culturally being in the lives of women with our drinks.”
The project generated really good growth for Diageo, who now see people like Christina Hendricks fronting up Johnnie Walker in the States. “When you had a company that had a whole paradigm about ‘feminising’ brands and then you see everything shift, it’s really exciting,” she enthused.

To close, we asked Syl how she would like to be remembered, and she boldly states “I want to be known as somebody who made a tremendous difference to everybody I came in contact with.” The people she works with know she is driven by results, but underneath all that she absolutely knows the results are a means to an end – a way to be able to create an environment in which people can flourish, have fun and do the best work of their lives, concluding “It’s a simple goal, but I really want to make a big difference to whomever I touch.”


Watch the interview in full:


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