Professor Andrew Stephen talks to Syl Saller, Diageo’s Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer
What is your style of leadership and how do you approach being a leader in a large global organisation?
What most people seem to find unusual about my style of leadership is that they perceive me as passionately committed to results and also passionately committed to people. It may sound obvious but I think the two go together. When you have been a general manager in a difficult situation – as I have – you realise that if you don’t get the results you are not going to be able to create the environment in which people can flourish. So I have understood the importance of results, but for me it is really all about people and the effect on their lives of where they work and how they work.
This means that as a leader I have been described as both incredibly supportive and incredibly demanding. That combination also works because when you are demanding, people have to feel your absolute support: you value them, and because you value them you want them to stretch themselves.
I guess the final thing is that I see marketing as the engine of growth of a company. You have got to take growth really seriously and that means you have got to be much more than the voice of the consumer; you also need to bring your boss with you, you need to bring the entire senior management, you need to bring the whole company with you in pursuit of that growth.
Where does the growth come from in a company like Diageo?
We are a big multinational, but we are in one business, which in many ways makes it a little simpler. We feel like a small company, so a conversation with our CEO wouldn’t be an unusual thing; a conversation with me wouldn’t be unusual. This means that we can be very clear on our strategies. With over 200 brands and operating in 180 countries we have to know which price segment, which categories, which sectors, and which countries we are going to get growth from. And it’s through a combination of internal development, external investing and the way in which we manage our portfolio that we think we can win in all the growing sectors.
Innovation is a big part of that, but it’s not always about being out in front and being a first mover all the time. Sometimes it’s about spotting smaller scale trends – such as craft breweries and distilleries – and building on them. That does not mean that Diageo leapt into investing in craft breweries, but what we did was realise that the trend indicated that people were getting more sophisticated in their taste around beer. And what is one of the best tasting beers in the world? Oh yes, that would be Guinness.
Now, we couldn’t ever claim that Guinness is a craft beer. But what we could do was create the Guinness Store House and Open Gate Brewery in Dublin which is a visitor experience and experimental brewery – and which has become effectively our fifth largest ‘market’ for Guinness. That’s the sort of innovation that can bring growth.
What else does a marketer bring to a large multinational corporation at executive committee level?
When you are on an executive committee you need to be a business person first and a marketer second – so you have to understand the CEO perspective and operate from there because otherwise you niche yourself. You can’t just talk about marketing; you have to be involved in all of the discussions, because you have to be at the heart of growth and thinking about the whole company moving forward.
Years ago everyone was talking about marketing not being heard in the board room and asking how marketing gets power. I am just not having that conversation anymore: if you want to be a power in the boardroom, just be it. It is in the way that you operate: you understand your finances, the part of the CFO, you are not talking about my investment you are talking about return – that is the language of the company and you can have an enormous influence.
You have been quite public in making statements about what Diageo is doing in terms of diversity and gender portrayal in advertising. Could you talk a little more about that?
It starts with a core belief that what you see on television or in the media shapes society; to some extent what you see shapes what you believe you can be and if people are seeing stereotypes of either just male or female behaviours that becomes the norm.
I think we can normalise gender equality by being more progressive in gender portrayals, and going further than just eliminating stereotypes.
A study by the Geena Davis Institute analysed 10 years of advertisements and branded communications in the Cannes Lions database. This found that despite all the industry talk and some great campaigns such as Dove’s Real Women and Always #likeagirl, statistically nothing much had changed. Men are still featured more in advertisements, they speak more in advertisements, they are more likely to be portrayed as working, and they are more likely to be portrayed as smart and funny.
The fact that as an industry we had moved things so little was amazing and influenced me to sign up to the Unstereotype Alliance, and also to Free the Bid because sometimes the eye of the camera has an awful lot to say about how women are portrayed.
Of course men are as trapped in stereotypes as women are. If you are interested in this I urge you to watch our Gareth Thomas Rugby ad. Gareth Thomas was the first professional rugby player to come out as gay and we not only shot the ad but we shot an interview with him which talks about the impact that coming out had on his life. And he also talks about the number of letters that he got from people who said that his talking about this had changed their lives. I think we can make a difference in the way the world sees people with what we show.
On a related subject, what is Diageo doing to reduce the gender pay gap?
The gender pay gap is a complicated thing. It is important to understand that it is not about equal pay for equal work: it is about the proportion of men and women in management and the salaries at that level.
I am very proud of the fact that our Diageo exec is 40% women and our senior marketing leadership team is 45% women because I think those role models are important and it changes the tone of the conversation.
We push for 50/50 short lists from head-hunters depending on the legalities in different countries. The reason for that, particularly at the senior level, is that most marketing teams start out at 50/50 and I always look at the figures and wonder why it does not continue like that all the way through. But the head-hunters will present you with 80% male short list if you don’t ask for 50/50. At the same time you have to look at all your internal policies and see what you can do to make it really easy for both men and women to progress. And you have to talk about it in a way that men don’t feel that they are now being penalised and that they will never get ahead.
My basic rule of thumb is that I am going to push for equality, and if we have absolutely equal candidates and in service of moving towards our targets I might choose a woman – but I would never choose a woman who was not equal to a man because I honestly think that hurts the cause. Whenever people say, ‘she got that job because she is a woman’ it hurts the cause. It is important that men and women join together thinking about our daughters and thinking too about our friends, sisters, brothers. A more equal world is a better world.
Andrew Stephen was talking to Syl Saller as part of the Oxford Saïd Distinguished Speaker Seminar series.