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'Credibility is not automatic': Diageo's Syl Saller on the precarious future of CMOs

Syl Saller

In order to find the world's top marketer, The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) has once again partnered with The Drum for the Global Marketer of the Year award. Here we interview nominee Syl Saller, chief marketing and innovation officer at Diageo, on the role’s evolution within the boardroom.

After a year in which global chief marketers at fellow businesses have seen their roles drastically change – or cut altogether – as boards question the value of a CMO position, Diageo's Syl Saller admits that she has “concern” over the future of the job.

Uber, Johnson & Johnson, Beam Suntory, McDonald’s, Kellogg's, Taco Bell, Netflix, Walmart and Coca-Cola (though it later reversed that move) have all come to the conclusion at some point in the past year that ‘chief marketing officers’ are no longer a business necessity. Responsibilities have instead been baked into broader ‘customer’ or ‘growth’ remits, or simply been spread across a team.

It prompted the president of the WFA, Mastercard’s Raja Rajamannar, to express his unease over the future that marketers face unless they can prove their value, a worry Saller – a 15-year veteran of the drinks company – shares.

“It's up to us as CMOs and as an industry to address it. But not by talking about it,” Saller tells The Drum.

“By talking about how to get credibility in the boardroom all the time we were perpetuating this problem of ‘do we have credibility?’. It’s like, ‘thou doth protest too much’ when in fact what we all need to do is get out there and talk the language of ROI and stop looking at things from a marketing perspective. I look at things from the perspective of our CEO and say okay, what do we need to do as an enterprise? What is our growth agenda? And then what do I need to do to deliver the growth agenda? Credibility is not automatic.”

At a broader level, Saller urges her fellow CMOs to think carefully about the organisations they join. If marketing is not a driver of the business, then “people can’t be surprised if you don’t have power”. She also urges more marketers to mentor each other in how to “be at the heart of the P&L”, not just comms, and embrace initiatives like the CEO Programme offered by the Marketing Academy, where she currently sits on the board.

Internally, Saller has driven a number of projects designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its marketing in an ongoing effort to prove the value of its multi-billion dollar investment to the Diageo board. Chief among them has been her long-running push to bring more diversity into its advertising, not because it’s been a topic in the trade press or even simply the right thing to do – but because it makes commercial sense.

Last year, she reviewed the company’s creative work globally to see where it needed to improve and then developed a comprehensive creative ‘framework’ for agencies to work against, as well as a training programme for its 1200 marketers. She also ushered in partnerships with third parties including the UN Unstereotype Alliance and Free the Bid, which aims to increase the number of female directors in the industry, both of which she plans to extend and build upon this year.

“I'm really pleased on a whole bunch of levels and yet really clear on how much further we have to go,” she adds. “Diageo is number one in the world for gender equality [according to Equileap's 2019 Global Gender Equality Report and Ranking] and second in the Refinitiv diversity and inclusion index. These are really credible indices.”

To climb these indices she put more pressure on creative and media agencies to improve their own diversity efforts if they wanted to continue working for its brands and take a slice of the £1.8bn it spends on advertising each year.

“Our interest is not in hitting our agencies over the head with a stick; it is in understanding their issues and working with them,” she says, pointing to a survey it conducted among its roster on the biggest challenges they face in improving their own diversity and pay-gap statistics. That survey found that the attracting and retaining senior leadership in creative departments was the priority issue.

It has since worked with Creative Equals on a Returners Programme which encourages women back into the agency workplace after they have taken an extended break. Over the past year, 58 women have completed the training, 41 returned to work and 15 have been permanently hired into Diageo's creative shops. It’s now expanding it from the UK trial to the US and India.

Initiatives like these have consequently had a direct impact on the portrayal of women in its advertising. A formal tracker was launched internally to measure the impact that improved diversity in advertising has had on the bottom line. Though Saller declines to go into detail (Diageo was in a closed period ahead of its Q1 financial update at the time of the interview, and unable to share commercial results on any projects) she did indicate the dial has shifted for the better.

“We feel really strongly about this and it’s not something we're going to keep to ourselves, this is something that we are going to share with as many people as we have time to share it with,” she continues, indicating the tool will be opened up for other agencies and brands to use.

Her second major focus of last year was the Trusted Marketplace which was launched at the height of the brand safety scandal that engulfed digital advertisers using platforms like YouTube and Facebook. As Saller’s bosses looked on at Diageo’s reputation being potentially eroded by appearing next to “content funding terrorism” as The Times revealed on its front-page expose in 2017, Saller took immediate action.

“You'll hear our CEO say very pretty frequently: ‘we can take all kinds of risks. I want you guys to swing big, but not with reputation’.”

She instantly removed all ads from YouTube and despite test and trails which began last year to put the brand's marketing back on those channels, it still hasn’t made a full return.

Trusted Marketplace, now running across 180 markets, aims to ensure that all of Diageo’s digital adverts are appearing in brand safe, exclusive, environments and the suppliers its works with are legitimate.

“We can see the impact of the return which is increasing by tightening up where we run our work viewability is higher. In some cases, it's doubled. And we can see reduced fraud,” she explains.

“Google and Facebook and all the platforms are making real progress, but until we're all at a place that we're really happy about, [advertisers] should not be satisfied. There needs to be a fair amount of resource within those media owners to solving these problems, because their reputations depend on it.”

Saller’s laser focus on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of its creative and media spend has also been positive for its agencies in a landscape where CEOs are questioning the extent to which they should be funnelling big budgets to external production or media buying companies when they could, conceivably, do it much cheaper themselves.

P&G and Unilever, for example, were among the first of the global advertisers to slash ad costs by setting up in-house teams. The savings made now regularly feature as key performance indicators for the businesses during quarterly finance calls with banking analysts and investors.

By contrast, Saller has been on a mission to prove that the service agencies provide is still vital to brand success.

“We are of course experimenting in-housing adaptations, but we have a huge focus on having the very best relationships and ways of working with our external agencies,” she says. “All too often clients can be quick to blame the agencies [for business performance] and our approach is to say, 'okay, let's make sure we have the very best agencies in the world. But what can we do to be a better client?' I think we're very good client but there's room for improvement.”

She adds that “honest conversations” are the cornerstone to her plan to improve. Honest conversations internally about the state of the briefs that brand managers had out – something Saller will spot check to make sure they are to a high standard – and honest conversations with agencies about the work they get back in return.

“It’s not about me running the agency relationships or making the decision, but because I see a situation where people just aren't saying to each other that the work isn't good enough."

This year, Saller was recognised for her service to business in The Queen's New Year's Honours list. The marketer was named a Commander for her service to business and equality in the workplace.

Her boss, global chief executive Ivan Menezes said it was "well-deserved recognition" for her "leadership and tireless work" in the company.

"Syl has long been a passionate advocate for equality and I know this honour will encourage her to achieve even more progress on diversity within the creative industries," he said at the time.

You can vote for Saller, or the other finalists for the WFA Marketer of the Year Award, here.

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