Ex-Diageo CMO Syl Saller talks talent, growth and what’s next

Syl Saller first joined Diageo in 1999 as marketing director for Great Britain

Diageo was but two years old when Syl Saller first joined in 1999 as its marketing director for Great Britain. Now, after two decades with the drinks giant and mammoth campaigns for Guinness, Baileys and more under her belt, the global chief marketing officer has hung up her hat.

Last week, Cristina Diezhandino, the former global category director for Scotch and managing director for Diageo’s luxury brands business, assumed the top marketing role, marking a new era for the company.

As well as presiding over a portfolio of brands that consistently deliver profit, Saller has most recently championed gender diversity issues, setting benchmarks for its internal marketers and agencies to improve the representation of women in their teams as well as on-screen – both of which have since been emulated by many other organisations in the industry.

A member of the 30 Club, the Marketing Group of Great Britain and Women in Advertising and Communications of London, and the president of The Marketing Society, Saller certainly isn’t short of things to do post-Diageo. However, that doesn’t mean she isn’t already charting her next move.

On the week of her departure, Saller took part in The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, telling executive editor Stephen Lepitak over a cup of tea about her decision to step down, as well as what she considers her greatest achievement and what’s still to come from her.

On leaving Diageo…

“It’s very unusual to leave a job you love. Usually, you get to the point where you’re tired and looking for something different, but that wasn’t the case for me.

“What I realised was, I wasn’t going to be able to chart the next decade until I stopped. Diageo is all consuming. I have complete passion for the company and brands, but I could literally work round the clock if it weren’t for friends and family. I left my non-exec role at Domino’s because [with Diageo] I had to hit the road to make sure that our local and global teams could produce great work without that middle layer. So it wasn’t fair for my to split my time.

“But once I got that settled, I started thinking about taking another board position – it’s great experience in terms of bringing that external perspective. And I realised I hadn’t done [much in that area]. So I thought that if I was going to do anything to chart the next 10 years, then I had to stop.

“[My decision to leave] is really down to a combination of having a team in place that’s going to take things way beyond where I ever could, and the need to have a bit of time to myself to think.”

On her biggest achievement as CMO…

“The biggest thing for me has been the opportunity to transform things. To me, making things incrementally better just isn’t interesting.

“My greatest highlight is our marketing team and our talent. Developing great marketers who go across 200 brands and 180 countries has been the most rewarding and successful thing for me.

“Growing people is the most important part of a chief marketing officer’s job.”

On what’s next…

“This is the first time in my career that I’ve had to plan something. I have a blank sheet of paper. I’ve never charted my career by saying ‘I want that job’. I come from humble circumstances, so by the time I was a brand manager I [had already achieved] more than I expected.

“My focus has always been on doing a good job in the job that I’m in, and that has ended up being recognised and I’ve been pulled into the next role.

“So now, it’s for me to decide. I’m interested in really interesting non-exec roles and I’m going to be very selective about that. It’s not enough that it is FTSE 500, it needs to be a business I’m passionate about and feel I can add value to.

“I care deeply about leadership development, so stepping into C-suite coaching as an extension of the work I’ve already been doing with The Marketing Academy is really exciting to me.”

Saller spoke with Stephen Lepitak as part of The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

Sign up to watch forthcoming sessions and see the full Can-Do schedule here.

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