How this Diageo chief's transformation plan provides a major industry blueprint

Lara O'Reilly
Executive Producer

When Syl Saller graduated from business school in the mid ‘80s she had a choice between two job offers: a brand management position at Gillette, or a role at Boston Consulting Group, which offered precisely double the salary and plenty more perks.

Ultimately, she opted for razors over razzmatazz and worked her way up the ladder at Gillette over the next six years.

“Gillette had a sales training as part of the marketing programme, where I knew I’d be doing things like stacking shelves, so I was trying to weigh up... stacking shelves [versus] flying around in jets talking to the c-suite,” Saller said on Yahoo Finance UK’s Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded show.

“I took the marketing job because I felt like I could be a good consultant but I thought maybe I had a shot at being a great marketer.”

Saller is now the chief marketing officer of Diageo, a global alcohol giant that spent almost £1.9bn ($2.3bn) on marketing last year. She is regularly recognised as one of the world’s most influential marketers and also serves as president of the Marketing Society.

Watch the full Syl Saller Global Change Agents interview (above) for:

  • How Saller’s early life shaped her career

  • Why Saller doesn’t set out a five-year plan

  • What Saller loves the most about her job

  • The thinking behind Diageo UK’s new policy to grant male and female employees 26 weeks of paid family leave

  • Why Diageo wants consumers “to drink better, not more”

  • Diageo’s £150m investment Scotch Tourism, which will include the creation of a Johnnie Walker visitor experience in Edinburgh

  • Saller on re-framing work-life balance

Diageo and diversity

In recent years, Saller has taken several high-profile steps to advance Diageo’s diversity and inclusion strategy — not just internally, but also with the suppliers the company partners with and the work it produces. In 2018, she wrote a letter to Diageo’s agencies, requiring they provide their gender split and pay gap stats.

“What I wanted to really explore [was] what are the blocks” for agencies having more diversity in senior, creative roles, said Saller.

“One of the things they said is: We lose talent as women have children and more complicated lives. We lose talent as people are in the sandwich generation and looking after their parents and really need flexible working.”

Diageo CMO Syl Saller. Photo: Diageo

In the same year, Diageo reviewed its creative work around the world to see where it needed to change the way it portrayed gender in its ads. The company drew up a framework for future campaigns with a view to banishing dated stereotypes.

“We trained it into 1,200 marketers across the world,” Saller said. “There’s no sense in having a framework if you don’t train it into both your marketers and your agencies — and the work that we’re seeing back from that is moving is forward.”

‘Purpose is an interesting minefield’

Asked about the big challenges the marketing industry currently faces, Saller said marketers must not get distracted by viewing data and technology as an ends unto themselves.

“Marketers have to stay rooted in the fundamentals of marketing, in what the consumer really needs, in what the company really needs to achieve,” Saller said.

Another challenge is brand purpose, Saller said. She used the example of the Baileys brand, which used to centre its marketing around the maxim “[making] women shine.”

Photo: Getty Images

“When we really dug into it, we found [women] don’t need Bailey’s to make us shine, we can do that for ourselves thank you very much,” Saller said. The messaging was changed to focus less on empowering women and to position Baileys as a pleasurable alcoholic treat.

“Purpose is an interesting minefield in getting it right — if you’re too heavy handed, the consumer says, ‘come on’,” Saller said. “It’s in the subtleties that you can communicate the right message.”

Update: Procter & Gamble acquired Gillette in 2005. A previous version of this article implied Saller had joined “Procter & Gamble’s Gillette,” in the 1980s, which was prior to this acquisition. Separately, Diageo is making £150m investment Scotch Tourism, which will include the creation of a Johnnie Walker visitor experience in Edinburgh. A previous version of this article stated Diageo was investing £115 million in a Johnnie Walker visitor experience.

Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded explores the journeys of some of the world’s most inspirational women across business, tech, and academia. Catch up on all the latest episodes here.

Yahoo Finance is also supporting diversity and inclusion network INvolve’s role model lists across EMpower, HERoes, and OUTstanding. Nominations for the OUTstanding role models lists are open.