Q&A: Diageo’s incoming CMO Syl Saller

Diageo’s Syl Saller officially takes up the role of chief marketing officer on 1 July, from her current position as global innovation director, joining new chief executive Ivan Menezes on the same day. Marketing Week caught up with her at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

syl saller

Marketing Week (MW): What is your strategy for Diageo as its new chief marketing officer?

Syl Saller (SS): The expectation is always that we will take it to the next level. We are in very good shape but marketing strategy will certainly be aligned to the business so you won’t have Ivan’s vision and my vision going in different directions. 

You don’t want to confuse the organisation by seeing daylight between his vision and marketing vision. Any changes we expect in marketing will be aligned to the long term vision. And we have been talking for a while now about the move to developing markets, but North America and Western Europe will remain critical parts of our business.

Emerging markets make up 42 per cent of the business and we expect that to be 50 per cent by 2015.

MW: How are you preparing to respond to the fact that 50 per cent of the business will be in emerging markets? 

SS: We have great talent all over the world, we just need more of it. In developing markets they may not have developed the talent to the standard to where we would want to take it in. For example, in Africa we took around 80 graduates this year. We require pretty sophisticated marketers so you are not going to be able to put people from other companies into those roles – so that is homegrown talent.

Moving people around is another strategy, so we might train someone in a developed market and then move them back to their home market. Or we might recruit in North America or Britain for people from other countries who really want to go back to them. When I talk to [people on] MBA programmes they are not English students, these days I am talking to people from all over the world.

We are just at the beginning of figuring out how we are going to do that but I would like to put that on steroids.

MW: As the business shifts from West to East, are you concerned that there might be a brain drain from Western markets?

SS: We can’t afford to let that happen, that is the challenge. So when I’m talking to Ivan about our priorities it would be really easy to say ‘well the future is Africa, LAC (Latin America and the Caribbean) and Asia’ but the US and Western Europe are well over 65 per cent of revenues so they have to keep on chugging, all of our marketers need to be successful, so it is prioritising the efforts and the focus within those against our biggest growth that is the challenge.

MW: Can you give an example of the work you do in emerging markets?

SS: We have sold an £80,000 cask of whisky in the Johnnie Walker House [luxury experiences in Beijing and Shanghai] to individuals – you can pay that to work with the master distiller to make your own blend of whisky. 

We understand how critically important our Reserve [luxury] business is, because even in the depths of recession luxury consumers were still buying luxury products. For many people, buying a bottle of our newly launched Odyssey whisky for $1000 a pop would be the male version of me considering spending that much on a handbag.  

You may gasp, but think of the credibility that some people would get from having that whisky. 

We have just redesigned our King George V [whisky] our first luxury play [part of the Johnnie Walker portfolio]. It was a case of going ‘we see these other competitors doing this stuff at these high prices, let’s do something.’ And I’d love to tell you we had all kinds of pricing studies to say how much should it cost. However, the duty free limit in Korean is $400, so we put out this product [at that price] and we were really proud of it. 

MW: What kinds of new technology have you been impressed with?

SS: That not an area I am long and deep in, but I would say that we have discouraged our brand teams from creating loads of apps, for example. To be successful in that you need to be more entertaining than Angry Birds or more informative than Wikipedia and that is a tough ask. 

Things like thebar.com [a US website set up by Diageo to help people make cocktails at home] do it very well. I am really pleased to see us tailoring content for each device. We put up all the work that the consumer sees and say ‘how good are we?’. When we as marketing leaders give up [on a particular brand or device] after five minutes we go back and correct it. 

MW: How will your new role as chief marketing officer differ from your current position as global innovation director?

SS: There will be a lot of learning in it for me. Of course innovation is marketing but I have a lot to catch up on in terms of what has been happening in technology and marketing innovation, I really look forward to learning all that.

I also want to build my understanding of what’s happening in the agency space, [looking at] who is great and trying to hold that at bay for a while. The first thing I need to do is get out to the markets and really listen to them. 

My connection with them has been in the innovation space versus what they are doing in marketing: understanding the landscape of where we are playing, getting out and talking to them and paying attention to their talent needs in conjunction with our general managers. 

Read Syl Saller’s columns for Marketing Week on innovation and talent and look out for her next one being published on 11 July 2013.

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