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

The Drum 21 Jan 2020 07:45
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's up to us as CMOs and as an industry to address it. But not by talking about it,” Saller tells The Drum.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.

“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’.”

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.

“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.”

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.

“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.”

“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."

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

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

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