Marketing – it's a perpetual moving beast: Diageo CMO

Pippa Chambers
By Pippa Chambers | 10 November 2015
Syl Saller

Ambiguity and abject volatility, that's modern day marketing, according to Diageo's CMO, Syl Saller, who also dubs those that work in the sector as “heroes”.

Speaking at the recent AANA Reset conference in Sydney, the US marketing honcho addressed hundreds of eagle-eyed marketing and agency execs. From adopting “joy” as the new foundation of Diageo-owned Johnnie Walker's latest campaign, to her career path and “playing the game”, Saller was full of wise words and personal antidotes.

An area she was keen to zone in on was talent, and the type of person it takes to work in the fast-spinning, ever-changing and high pressure world of marketing.

She discussed, as marketers, facing trials everyday, but stressed it's these trials that help you grow into a more extraordinary person, in such a challenge-riddled business. In the theme of the event, 'resetting' was also ever present.

“I believe that one way we can reset our leadership is to think of ourselves and our colleagues as heroes,” Saller said.

“Not in an arrogant better than others way, or in what Australians say in a tall poppy way, but as just ordinary people who are called on to do extraordinary things and want to learn something – that framework helps.”

Saller said as marketers we live in an uncertain and volatile world, which can prove difficult, particularly when working across different global territories, and trying to navigate through varying bureaucratic processes.

“Marketing is a perpetual moving beast, but those who get comfortable with the ambiguity and the abject volatility will succeed – as they have to know that this is the game they are playing and they have to be able to play it well,” she said.

She said if that wasn't difficult enough, if you look internally, in all areas of marketing, there are repeated truths about how marketing works which have fundamentally entirely different philosophies.

She said there are no simple set of rules of how to connect with consumers, and things like the digital Lumascape, highlighting the vast array of touch points, can be somewhat overwhelming. She added it was “certainly a struggle to measure return on investment” when you look at the ecosystem.

“These kinds of circumstances make our lives as marketing leaders difficult,” Saller said, adding she had a huge amount of respect for marketers.

“We could see it as “difficult” and ambiguous – or we can see ourselves as heroes, willing to take on really difficult things. In all honestly I see a world of heroes in marketing today,” she added.

"Look after the business and your career will take care of itself"

On finding top marketing talent, she said it's really difficult to define what makes the difference; who is it that is going to make the biggest difference to your brands and businesses, and what are the skills you need to cope with this volatility and complex world of marketing?

“We generally talk about technical skills – the ability to handle uncertainty, digital, big data – there are so many different technical skills we need to have which are very important, but I think most people will agree, what sets people apart is their leadership skills,” Saller explained.

She said while there are many models for looking at people skills and securing suitable talent, her chosen example model was built around the concepts of judgement, drive and influence – qualities deemed critically important to success.

It was developed nearly 20 years go using data and insights gleaned from our psychological profiling of and work with more than 20,000 senior executives globally. It was then further strengthened by research into the unique qualities that drive success in wide variety of walks of life.

“When I'm thinking about talent and I want to boil it to the simplest element, I shut my eyes and picture the person and say “do they have good judgement? Can they simplify things down to the most important issues – look at a bunch of data, have an intuitive feel of the situation and generally get to the right conclusion, or at a least a conclusion that they are going to try,” Saller said.

“In terms of drive, I’m really interested in people who have drive for the business, not for themselves – trust me, look after the business and your career will take care of itself. And finally there’s influence – can they bring people with them – it's these there things that will make an enormous difference.

She added three other things to that too - the ability to manage ambiguity and volatility; to be able to foster collaboration with a single minded focus on the growth of the business and people. and the third, of course, to do it with joy.

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