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20 years of Diageo: Syl Saller on how the world has changed, and marketing with it

Diageo was created on 17 December 1997 when spirits and hospitality company Grand Metropolitan merged with Guinness. Since then, the owner of Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker has navigated a world of rapid technological and social changes, turning out some of the most memorable campaigns of the era. Here, Syl Saller, chief marketing officer at the drinks giant, looks back on its first two decades.

20 years of Diageo: Syl Saller on how the world has changed, and marketing with it

Jump to Syl Saller's six key Diageo ads

I joined Diageo in 1999, because it was a tremendous opportunity to shape the culture of a young company with a portfolio of brands to die for.

We’re an inclusive company so the celebrations for our anniversary are at scale, and involve all 30,000 employees.  

We have buried a time capsule at Cardhu distillery in Scotland, the home of Johnnie Walker, to be unearthed in 2097 – on our 100th anniversary. The time capsule includes bottles of our most famous global brands, some amazing items from our extensive archives and most importantly a letter from our chief executive, Ivan, to our future CEO with some words of wisdom. I was moved to tears watching the film of our employees burying the capsule and thinking about how far we’ve come in just 20 years.  

All of our employees will receive a special commemorative bottle of Johnnie Walker Black whisky, which they can share with their family and friends over the holidays.  There’s an incredible buzz all over the world around these celebrations. 

20 years of change in our company

One of the shifts that interests me is the different expectations people now have of the role businesses and brands play in society.

Marketing used to be about making people want things – now it’s about making things people want, and doing things the right way.  For our consumers, customers, communities, and in our own business.

Take diversity, for example. In 2006 Diageo’s executive committee consisted entirely of men. Today, we are right at the top of the FTSE for female representation on boards and in leadership positions.Women currently make up 44% of our board, 40% of our executive committee and 30% of our global senior leadership team. In April 2018, our board will achieve gender parity when Ursula Burns takes up her position. Encouraging diversity is both the right thing to do and something that’s proven time and time again to drive business performance. I’m hugely proud of Diageo’s track record here.

The competition for people’s attention has never been fiercer

One important cultural change for the drinks industry has been the way we’ve embraced responsible advertising. In the early 2000s we launched the Diageo Marketing Code which ensures that globally our brands are advertised and marketed responsibly.

As we implemented the code there were of course concerns from some marketers that it would dampen creativity, but it has done the opposite. The code has enabled great creativity – liberating us from an overly simplistic approach and encouraging innovative, entrepreneurial marketing. Good for consumers and good for creativity. Take our award winning "Glass Car" for Johnnie Walker from Iris Worldwide, which dramatised the criticality of responsible drinking.  

The role of the marketer has been transformed

In 1997 when Diageo was formed, marketing was still broadly dominated by print media, TV and direct mail. The internet was still in its infancy, with people going "online" to do little more than send an email – think the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks movie You’ve Got Mail from 1998.

We’ve seen the huge fragmentation of media create opportunities to reach people on more occasions through more channels. The competition for people’s attention has never been fiercer and it’s creativity that makes the difference.  And I mean all kinds of creativity – in the content, in the way you use media, in the partners you choose.

Today’s marketers must be storytellers who are data lovers – they must have a balance of left-brain and right-brain skills.

If the 50s and 60s were the golden age of advertising, today is the golden age of creativity: there are more platforms, channels, and formats open to us than ever before. As a marketer, that’s tremendously exciting.

But among this period of rapid change, what endures and continues to be defining in our industry, is the power of film that emotionally connects with people.

In this new world, a great marketer is a business person who happens to excel at marketing. Marketers must deeply understand consumers, customers, stakeholders, markets and the competition while speaking the language of the company, which is growth: of our brands, our company and our people.

Today’s marketers must be storytellers who are data lovers – and by this I mean they must have a balance of left-brain and right-brain skills; they must be creative minds who also have demonstrable skills in analytics, customisation, personalisation, and optimisation to drive sophisticated investment decisions. Becoming more digital and data driven is paramount and represents a massive shift culturally to balance a creative ballast with understanding of effectiveness.

At Diageo we’ve met these challenges in a multitude of ways, including creating a Global Centre of Digital Excellence and rolling out our Catalyst tool which is a breakthrough in how we use advanced analytics to measure return on investment.

But for each brand we start with our purpose and how we can connect that purpose to consumers, rather than starting with the tools.

Marketers who can be creative and critical – so they keep learning how to optimise their work through data, rather than selling a finished solution – will thrive in the golden age of creativity.

Data and technology will shape the next 20 years

There are some fundamentals to brilliant marketing that will never change – they merely reinvent themselves for a different environment. For me, great marketing has always been part art and part science; great insight + great creativity + great analytics + great execution = great results. 

Authenticity, and craft in the product, have sustained many of our brands for centuries, and will continue to be important to people. Like all industries, I think the biggest change will be in how we use data to connect with people in the way it suits them and respects their privacy. There will be a massive shift in how we use the ever increasing amount of data to sharpen and refine consumer insight and then create the right content at a deeply personalised level so that we are communicating with people in such a way that we are providing either utility, entertainment or ideally both.

Worrying does nothing but drain energy when you need it the most

Specifically within the world of drinks, we are seeing changes in the way that people socialise and this is at the heart of how we will need to adapt our marketing.

How will driverless cars impact the way that people spend their evenings out? How will AI help us understand individual taste preferences to allow us to bespoke distil and brew? How can wearable devices help people stay in control?

These are the types of questions and a lot more that our Futures team at Diageo are working on both with our internal teams and with external start-ups across the world.

The thing I wish I’d known back then

I wish I had known 20 years ago that I should relax more and worry less. I used to have a lot more fears than I do now: that I wouldn’t be able to work effectively once I had children; that I’d get promoted and get "found out"; the list goes on.

Worrying does nothing but drain energy when you need it the most. Over time I’ve come to accept that the only thing I can really control is my own choices. Whatever comes my way, I trust I will find a way through it. I spend a fair amount of time sharing these lessons with others in my coaching  none of us gets to where we are because of our fears, we get here because of our strengths.  

The journey we are on is one of continually raising the bar on what we believe we are capable of.  And we only discover that by continually trying, and accepting that sometimes we might fail.  

Diageo has a huge learning culture – this is one of the incredible things we are celebrating with this 20th anniversary.

Syl Saller’s six key Diageo ads 


Three personal favourites...

Guinness, Swimblack, 1998

"Good things come to those who wait"  |  Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

In 1998 AMV BBDO and Diageo developed the "Good things come to those who wait" campaign for Guinness which dramatised waiting in iconic and memorable ways. The campaign was all about turning what was a negative consumer opinion on the time required to pour a perfect pint of Guinness into something they understood and valued.   

"Surfer" has been voted the best ad of all time by the British public but the defining ad of the campaign for me is "Swimblack", which tells the story of a local hero’s annual swimming race timed against a pint of Guinness being poured. Shot in Monopoli, Italy, it is beautiful, a warm human story full of humour and emotion, underscored by amazing copy and music.  Guinness grew, and isn’t that what advertising is all about – messages that capture hearts and minds, and get pints in hands.

Smirnoff, Keep it moving, 2017

"We’re open"  |  72andSunny

Smirnoff’s brand purpose is to use the power of good times to move us all to be more inclusive. We’ve done various studies of Millennials that reveal they passionately value diversity of all kinds. The "We’re open" campaign is a simple declaration of inclusivity of all kinds: gender, sexuality and disability, to name a few.

I have long believed that the money we spend shapes society’s views of what’s normal and acceptable. We can put our money to good use – to grow our brands, to be a powerful catalyst for social change and to create work that matters. Our ad with Chris Fonseca, a deaf dance teacher who inspired us to create content around his story, perfectly captures this ethos for me – a great story, beautifully told in an way that inspires joy and prompts inclusion.

Pimm’s, London bus tour, 2007

"Pimm’s O’Clock"  |  Mother

This campaign featured Pimm’s Harry, played by British comedian Alexander Armstrong, popping up in different scenarios with the message that Pimm's is a perfect accompaniment for any occasion. As an American who has made my home in the UK, there’s something unique and wonderful about the British sentiment of optimism and humour – and for me, this campaign captures that.

The ads in the campaign are full of quintessential British tongue-in-cheek humour. They made "Pimm’s O’Clock!" a national catch phrase –something all marketers aspire to, but is actually hard to achieve.

And three of the most influential

Johnnie Walker, The man who walked around the world, 2009

"Keep walking"  |  Bartle Bogle Hegarty

Johnnie Walker is at the very heart of our business and we’ve been building the same purpose "inspiring personal progress" for the brand for nearly 20 years. The "Keep walking" campaign created by BBH in 1999 has been hugely influential, spawning iconic work and powering Johnnie Walker to become the world’s number one whisky.  

The campaign was launched with an ad fronted by Harvey Keitel, telling the story of an actor’s personal journey, which put a totally different take on Johnnie Walker’s century-old image of a striding gent with top hat and cane.

But one of the most influential pieces in the campaign has to be this film, starring Robert Carlyle, which tells the story of how the grocer John Walker achieved his vision of becoming the largest, most renowned Scotch purveyor in the land and how his son Alexander took the brand global – convincing Glasgow’s ship captains to travel to all four corners of the earth.

Over 200 years later Johnnie Walker is still walking and showing no signs of stopping. This work redefined brand storytelling. The brand purpose keeps providing us with inspiration to tell current stories in a changed cultural context. Progress is no longer about the determined pursuit of personal status or wealth, it’s about hope and helping others to progress.

Guinness, Never alone, 2015

"Made of more"  |  AMV BBDO

Guinness as a brand is 258 years old and has a history of innovating and experimenting – so truly the last 20 years are just a small chapter in an extraordinary history, but a defining chapter no doubt.

In 2012, working with AMV BBDO, we created a new brand positioning for Guinness – "Made of more" – telling stories rooted in the brand truth that Guinness is a beer of substance for people of substance.

I am particularly proud of our work with Gareth Thomas during the 2015 Rugby World Cup, recalling his struggle to go public about his sexuality and how the unconditional support from his teammates gave him strength.

I’ve always believed brands have the power to disrupt social norms and start conversations that drive tolerance and diversity. It can feel risky for a brand to put its head above the parapet and talk about these issues, but Guinness had the credibility to do so because it was a story in the context of rugby – our heartland.

Baileys, Antlers, 2017

"Don’t mind if I Baileys"  |  Mother

At a time when the premium adult treating category is exploding in a riot of colour and energy, Baileys is offering the world bite-sized, lick-the-screen delicious content capturing the indulgent and playful spirit at the core of Baileys. We are flipping treats into real, grown-up treats. It’s versatile, true to the brand and allows us endless creativity. And it is delivering results  we’re in our third straight year of remarkable growth for the brand.

The stand-out of the campaign for me is Antlers, on-air at the moment, in which a woman has to improvise at the end of a dinner for friends when she runs out of glasses. She irreverently severs the heads of chocolate reindeer and serves them up with Baileys inside, whipped cream on top, chocolate shavings, straws for antlers and a twinkle in her eye.

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