Feature

Yahoo! Report: Drinks with Diageo

Diageo's R&D chief, Syl Saller, settles into the Yahoo! Big Idea Chair and reveals her choice of tipple, how responsible drinking sits at the top of Diageo's agenda and why, if she ever becomes like Madonna, she should be shot.

Syl Saller runs innovation and research and development globally for Diageo, the world's leading manufacturer of premium alcoholic drinks. Although the function is run centrally, her teams are geographically dispersed into eight regions to address key cultural differences and ensure that programmes are linked closely to regional business needs. She was promoted into this role three years ago from her job as the marketing director of Great Britain, where she oversaw a team of 140 people running more than 40 brands.

On starting out The last place I expected to find myself was in business. I double-majored in psychology and communication at university, with the intention of going into the helping professions. Realised that I didn't quite have the patience for that, and set out on a career in university administration. Where I live has always been a priority and my husband and I wanted to move to Boston for grad school. Flipped a coin between law school, business school and a masters in education - and business won the toss. Harvard had a pretty impressive MBA programme, so I went there. I joined Gillette to get some diverse experience before going back into higher education - and found that I loved it. My entrepreneurial instincts are pretty high so I left Gillette after seven years - a classic "bigger fish in a smaller pond" move - and ended up becoming a general manager for the US's leading photo album manufacturer. Working at both big and small companies rounds out the different parts of your business brain. Big companies give you stellar training; small ones help you to realise this isn't a game - a series of meetings or PowerPoint decks. It's about delivering real results and that is dependent on stellar leadership and market conditions.

On becoming a US expat in the UK It's a little-known secret that meeting new people is hard for me, so I've always resisted moving away from close friends and family. When I was offered a fantastic job with Allied Domecq pubs here, I turned it down. I came home and told my husband and he said: "Are you crazy? This is a great opportunity - our kids have been too sheltered, it'll be good for us as a family. Go back and tell them you've changed your mind." It has been a fantastic experience but I think it's critical to make career decisions with family first, in mind. We may live here forever, but I'll never consider myself a native. I work hard at keeping my American accent - there's nothing worse than the Madonna Anglo-American accent. Please run me down in the parking lot if I start saying "bloody hell!"

On life as a working mother You know, I think it's both harder and easier than it looks. I invest a lot of time in creating the right infrastructure - a low maintenance house, a fantastic au pair, and not sweating the small stuff. But most of all, I have a hugely supportive husband and two happy, healthy kids, Alexa, 19 and Jake, 14. So I consider myself lucky. I work a lot actually, but in all honesty, it doesn't feel like work because I love what I do. I keep a pretty non-traditional schedule. The big message to my team is that they need to construct the work/life balance that also works for them. I encourage all of my team to understand that if they get e-mails from me at night or on a weekend, I don't expect a reply during traditionally "off hours" - I want them to work to a schedule that works for them and delivers results. Unfortunately, there still aren't enough senior role models for women, who often have the additional responsibility for children and the house, in how to juggle all this. Diageo is incredibly flexible and supportive of women. And Wacl is a great source of inspiration to me, and to all the women we touch, on these issues.

On my favourite tipple It depends on the season and situation. In a good London bar, I'll order a Ciroc martini, very dry, extra olives. In your average local, it will be a Gordon's and tonic because chances are they'll get it right. At home, my life has been made easier by the discovery of Stirrings - a high-quality range of cocktail mixers. And, in the winter, there's nothing like Johnnie Walker Black over ice.

On the number of product innovations produced by the drinks market each year Ours is a funny industry when it comes to innovation. Most people think there's not a lot of NPD. We actually studied this recently and found that drinks has the highest number of launches of any category, but very little of it sticks. So I'm advocating that, as a industry, we test more and launch less nationally so that we are more disciplined about what we are doing with the architecture of our brands and asking our customers to support.

On the importance of brand heritage to Diageo Heritage is everything in drinks. Guinness is coming up to its 250th anniversary, Bushmills is turning 400, and Johnnie Walker is more than 180 years old. How many brands do you know are that old and still so vibrant? Innovation in our industry, should emphasis heritage, dialling up quality credentials while making sure we send the message that we should be consuming better quality, not greater quantity.

On the importance of pre-testing and consumer research My message to our regional team is to focus on strategic judgment and live testing, moving away from any potential over-reliance on pre- testing. That's not to say that some pre-testing isn't useful - particularly when it comes to judging if you have the liquid right. But the results are not sufficient for making national launch decisions. You will see us doing more of our work in bars and in the off- trade. The issue that can arise from this approach is that the press may assume we're going national with what it sees, and the truth is we'll test a lot, launch a little. We've had very few big national failures, despite the fact we have the most aggressive innovation agenda in the business, and it's because of our commitment to "test lots and be willing to fail small". We are really pleased, for example, at the success of Guinness Red in test which was approached this way.

On a big idea in the alcoholic drinks market We are incredibly serious about big ideas, so have gone to the trouble of defining specifically what it means for drinks innovation. To us, big innovation ideas are simple, highly differentiated, have scale and grow sustainably. They are also inspiring. Sounds easy to say, but we've pressure tested the definition against industry successes and failure and it holds up. Take Baileys Flavours - it's a simple idea on a brand with a big global footprint and tastes great. As a result, we've rolled it out to 20 countries in less than a year.

If you live on planet Earth, you will have heard of Russell Davies, Campaign columnist and blogger extraordinaire at russelldavies.com. He talked about this interview on his blog and we invited people to submit questions for Syl. Here's one, posted by Lucas:

How important is it for Diageo to encourage responsible drinking? Diageo's responsible drinking agenda sits at the heart of everything we do - it is our number-one priority. It's important to understand that our actions aren't lip service to the government or interest groups. As individual leaders, we understand that the success of our industry rests on people consuming alcohol in moderation. We do this at a corporate level in our partnerships with governments and NGOs, but also can make a difference as individuals. The number of conversations I have with my kids, their friends and their parents on this topic is considerable.