3 questions I wish I’d asked as a junior marketer: Diageo’s Mark Sandys

Mark Sandys has worked at Diageo for more than two decades across various roles and markets, but if it weren’t for a few stern words of advice his career might have panned out very differently.

DiageoNavigating your career can be a tug-of-war, from the internal debate about whether to get experience working abroad, to worrying about career progression and prioritising one aspect of your job over another.

These are all common queries that might plague young marketers, and Diageo’s head of global beer, Baileys and Smirnoff Mark Sandys is no stranger to them.

Sandys has spent more than two decades at the drinks giant, working across a number of brands including Guinness and Baileys in both established and emerging markets like Russia, where he helped launch Captain Morgan.

“It’s one thing working at a global brand but another thing to help run a brand within an emerging market, like in Moscow. One year in Russia is worth five years’ experience in any other country,” he says.

While he might be an established marketer now, Sandys confesses what he lacked in his younger years was sense of perspective and an open mind, all contributing to why at the time he failed to ask a number of significant questions that might have helped accelerate his career.

Back then I felt Britain was the world and was the most sophisticated and exciting market to be in so there was no need to go anywhere else.

Mark Sandys, Diageo

“I didn’t ask some of these questions because I was asking much more irrelevant questions without looking at the bigger picture for myself,” he explains.

Sandys says if he could give young marketers and graduates one piece of advice it would be to expand their minds and not get lost worrying about what their colleagues and peers are doing.

“You can get so caught up in the pressures of what everyone else is doing and whether you’re going to get there ahead of them, but when you step outside of that, it’s all irrelevant and you can take a much bigger perspective about things,” he explains.

“Early-stage marketers can experience the same feeling of not being on a clear path but also not yet being able to trust in the fact that if you do today’s job brilliantly and are learning more about your current role, the right things will happen in the future.”

1. Is it worth getting experience outside the UK?

Sandys’ CV screams ‘well-travelled’ and displays a sense of curiosity. However, he says he initially had no desire to work abroad, and if it weren’t for a stern word from Diageo’s CMO Syl Saller it is something he might not have pursued.

“Back then I felt Great Britain was the world and was the most sophisticated and exciting market to be in, so there was no need to go anywhere else,” Sandys explains, referring to a time when he was offered two different roles, one in Dublin and the other in London.

“For me that was a really easy decision I was going to take the role in Britain. I had two young children at the time so moving country wasn’t on my radar at all.”

If Saller hadn’t approached Sandys and urged him to move to Ireland, his career would have “worked out incredibly differently”, he says. Sandys took the job in Dublin before moving to Russia where he navigated his way through a challenging emerging market.

And it certainly paid off: “The job in Russia ended up teaching me more than any role I’ve ever done. Things were moving so quickly that you first had to adapt to things changing within the environment. In those markets it gives you more of a chance to leave a legacy,” he explains.

“I always tell young marketers and graduates in the industry to think about [moving abroad], but I often find their reaction is the same as mine once was.”

2. Should I get more depth as a specialist marketer or breadth as a business leader?

“This was always a question on my mind while I was trying to figure out a career path. I suppose I no longer worry about it because I eventually figured out that it’s actually both,” he says.

When Sandys was younger he was under the assumption being a marketing specialist was the be-all and end-all. His view stemmed from working at Guinness during a time when the brand produced its famous ‘Surfer’ ad, which won a number of awards.

READ MORE: Guinness’s ‘Surfer’ ad didn’t do that well in research ‘but we ignored it’

“I believed the biggest success for a marketer was winning awards, making great ads and content, but that’s only one element of the business deliverables; you need to grow established brands,” he says.

The job in Russia ended up teaching me more than any role I’ve ever done.

Mark Sandys, Diageo

“You need to be specialist enough to be able to deliver great marketing plans, particularly as media continues to evolve, but also to do that in the context of what it’s going to take to win in business. You need to have the breadth to do both.”

According to Sandys, he learned the importance of focusing on both of these areas when faced with the task of turning around a brand that had fallen into difficulties or when launching a startup.

“These things are fascinating different challenges for marketers to go through and both of those situations really teach you the value of all-round business acumen rather than specialist marketing skills,” he explains.

3. Should I know exactly where I need to be in 10 years’ time?

Have you ever been asked, ‘where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?’ during a job interview? It’s likely.

But according to Sandys, you don’t need to know how to answer.

“I remember worrying that I couldn’t see what my next job was going to be and I was thinking about it in quite a narrow way. I remember hearing about the [book] ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ and thinking I didn’t have any of those habits,” he says.

“One of those things was having absolute clarity on where you were going to be. I never had that.”

I believed the biggest success for a marketer was winning awards, making great ads and content but that’s only one element of the business deliverables; you need to grow established brands.

Mark Sandys, Diageo

As he reflects on his career, he agrees it’s probably a logical pattern to go from working in a brand team in a market, to a global team, to a leadership position in an emerging market, then into a regional team, and eventually on to running a big global brand.

“You’d probably write that as the best path to take. But it never happened like that. It happened through trusting advice from great people, by doing whatever job I had brilliantly and always learning something new,” he says,.

“Some of the bigger opportunities come from unexpected places, but doing those things and keeping your mind open gives you the opportunity to get the biggest stretch. I felt by taking the opportunity to go to Russia and Singapore, I learned things I’d never have been able to get in the UK and following a traditional career path.”