Diageo’s CMO Syl Saller on leadership, diversity and her ‘shock’ at reaching the top

As Saller prepares to retire, she reflects on her career and her ‘shock’ at climbing the ladder to become Diageo’s CMO.

If you cut Syl Saller open she will “bleed Diageo”. It’s a reputation she’s earned over her two decades at the drinks giant, first as marketing director, then as global innovation director, before becoming chief marketing officer in 2013.

Saller is also bold. With her big American accent and unfailing optimism, Diageo’s long-serving top marketer – who announced her retirement earlier this year – is no stranger to making her voice heard.

She has dedicated almost her entire career to pushing gender diversity. However, the success she has achieved at Diageo still comes as a surprise.

“I thought I had reached the peak and gone beyond my expectations when I was a brand manager,” she tells Marketing Week with a genuine note of shock.

“I grew up in a very humble home and humble family, so to be in business at all [is a bit of a shock]. I never expected to scale the ladder.”

But Saller has more than scaled the ladder, she has become a leader both at Diageo and within the marketing industry. That is through her focus on gender diversity, ensuring that metrics are used to measure progress both in Diageo’s ads and on its boards.

The company has topped multiple league tables for its commitment to women, who now make up 44% of its board and around 40% of its executive committee. In the UK generally, women hold just a third of board roles and little more than a quarter (28.6%) of leadership roles, according to figures from the government’s Hampton Alexander report.

I grew up in a very humble home and humble family, so to be in business at all [is a bit of a shock]. I never expected to scale the ladder.

Syl Saller, Diageo

It is Saller’s background that has inspired her fight for gender equality in the boardroom. She explains: “I grew up with my mother and her sisters who were born in the 1920s and at that time there were really limited career options for women. My mum was a nurse and her older sisters were a teacher and librarian, and that kind of covered the roles women could be.

“One of the reasons gender is so close to my heart is I don’t want women to ever feel confined.”

Her aunt Mary, who became the director of the Pentagon Library, inspired her in particular: “She made me think there is more.”

Despite the progress made for women in business, Saller is quick to point out “there is still not enough” being done. In particular, she sees a continuing issue with the line-up at conferences, and believes gender is not the end of the diversity struggle.

She explains: “It makes a difference for both men and women to be equally represented. If you fill the gender bucket you are more likely to have other kinds of diversity. You still need to make an effort on things like BAME but you have a better chance.”

It is not just diversity within the exec team that Saller is proud of. She is adamant that Diageo’s ads must “drive tolerance and diversity” and tell the stories of under-represented people.

“Culture thinks by the stories we tell, and advertising is just storytelling that is backed by billions of dollars to get it heard. We as advertisers have the power to shape what in society is normal, aspirational and acceptable,” she says.

Her favourite ad from her time as CMO reflects this and, she admits, still makes her cry. Created in 2015, it shows Gareth Thomas, the first openly gay rugby player, discussing coming out.

Although she credits companies including Procter & Gamble and Unilever for their work on diversity and inclusion, she notes: “I am still looking for more companies to join us in this space.”

How to be a great leader

When Saller joined, Diageo was just two years old – the result of the merger between Guinness Brewery and Grand Metropolitan – but had centuries old brands in its stable. Saller saw this as an opportunity to “develop a new culture”.

She has whittled down three and a half decades of marketing experience to her three greatest achievements: transforming marketing, innovation and talent.

She believes the key to transforming marketing is simple: have a mission.

“Every CMO has to have a five-year plan for the function. That doesn’t have to be some big strategic piece of work that takes months and months. In my case, it was just a vision roughed out in my head.”

Despite her confidence, Saller is quick to credit her team or highlight the reality of a situation. “Of course when you look back it sounds like I knew exactly what I was doing, which is not true,” she notes.

Marketing Week Meets… Diageo CMO Syl Saller

She adds: “You have to have some idea of where you want to go because if you think you’re going to achieve it all in a year, you’re not, it needs to be longer term and you need to know what milestones are along the way.”

She believes that a business is only as good as its talent and the same goes for leaders: “Every job I’ve ever had I’ve achieved more than I’ve ever expected, that is really down to building [the right team].”

She says one necessary way to lead is to embolden teams. “I start every call saying, ‘Everybody is a leader’. If you’re not leading people you are leading their projects or their agencies. People are always leading.”

She adds: “Leadership for me is more than managing people, it is helping them live their best lives.”

Fail, fail and fail again

Unsurprisingly for someone who has spent quite a large part of their career working in innovation, failure is a word Saller embraces.

“If you visit our archives they will have so many different products and so many things I am proud of but I will also go, ‘Oh that’s a failure, that’s a failure, that’s a failure’.”

How does she get comfortable with that? “You look for learning.”

In fact facing up to failure isn’t a challenge for Saller, instead for her it is how to be bolder. “The challenge is always why aren’t we being bolder? I am always asking, ‘how quickly can we get that into a live test market?’ because when you do that [you know] what’s really going to work. There is nothing like a live experience.”

If you measured me by those results [in my early time as CMO], I was the worst CMO Diageo has ever had but what’s interesting is that I spent less time worrying.

Syl Saller, Diageo

The other factor is fostering a culture that allows for failure. She says: “What’s stopping people, when you talk to them, is fear of others, looking stupid. But if you can get them to feel safe, for people to speak their mind and take big risks, that’s when you really make a difference.”

Despite her belief in embracing failure, Saller has still faced difficulties in her career, notably when she first started as CMO.

“If you measured me by those results, I was the worst CMO Diageo has ever had but what’s interesting is that I spent less time worrying. We all have doubts and worries and I’m at the top of that, but when I am in the thick of it I have to devote my time to the mission rather than the noisy voices. Sometimes when things are calmer I ask ‘Am I doing enough?’.”

Her solution to helping both herself and others stay the course is to take stock of their success and failures. “Make a list of everything you’ve succeeded in and everything you have not and you find out you’ve been through a lot and you always find a way.”

Saller is retire from Diageo and being a CMO at the end of this month, passing the reins to Cristina Diezhandino.

What’s she going to miss most about Diageo? “In a word? Everything.”

But after 22 years at the same company what is her next step? She is keen to take on non-exec roles, although she will take some time to figure out which companies might be right for her.

However, one thing she does know is that she is going to keep learning: “I think life is completely about learning. When you stop learning you’re dead and I am still learning.”

She concludes with the same unflappable optimism that has dominated her career: “Not all of it has been easy but it’s all be great.”