A Ban on PowerPoint? How Diageo Changed Its Culture

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James Thompson, CMO at Diageo
James Thompson, CMO at Diageo

During his first two months as Diageo's North American chief marketing and innovation officer, James Thompson counted every single presentation slide he was exposed to in meetings. The final tally was 12,000, which to him was way too many.

"It stops conversation. It makes people feel secure they've communicated what they wanted to. But, in fact, it doesn't move anything on," he said. So he has instituted a PowerPoint ban in some meetings. "Just talk to me, please" is his plea. His goal is to ensure his marketing team is "not totally buttoned-up all the time," he said. "We just want people to be at their best, and that is usually when they are able to think and respond and build rather than sell."

It is one of the many cultural changes Mr. Thompson has instilled since August 2015, when he became CMO at Diageo, the marketer of brands including Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker, Cîroc vodka and Don Julio tequila. Mr. Thompson is hardly an outsider. He joined Diageo in 1994 from Unilever and has held multiple roles at the company, including six years as CMO for Asia-Pacific. But when he took the North American role, he realized changes needed to be made, including recruiting new and more diverse talent into Diageo's marketing department.

When he arrived, "it was frustratingly difficult to attract great talent to come want to join us," he said. "Not only had we had a difficult couple of years, which were well publicized, we hadn't created in those couple of years the sort of marketing or innovation that spans out and people go, 'Wow, I really want to work for that organization.'" But by looking outside of Diageo's historical recruiting pipeline of MBA programs and other spirits companies, Mr. Thompson has been able to assemble a new team, including recently luring some high-profile talent. Of the roughly 100 people on the marketing team, all are either new to Diageo or have moved into a new role in the past year, he said.

"I've got nothing against MBA programs," Mr. Thompson said. But Diageo's recruiting strategy had "too much conformity to a single source of talent where people came into the organization in a very conventional way and worked their way up in a very conventional way. And that didn't seem to reflect our consumer base."

Campaigns emerging from Mr. Thompson's new team include a Spanish-language spot for Buchanan's whisky that got general-market airplay during the World Series. In June, Smirnoff broadcast a same-sex wedding on Facebook Live from a Las Vegas electronic dance music festival. And last week as election news spiked, Johnnie Walker drew headlines when it debuted an ad called "Keep Walking, America" that set a reading of Woody Guthrie's classic folk tune "This Land Is Your Land" against scenes of hardworking modern citizens.

The changes appear to be working. In a report to investors last month, CLSA noted that while Diageo's U.S. share of spirits remains "pressured by newer brands like Tito's vodka and Fireball liqueur," organic sales grew 3% in the year through June, turnabout from a 2% decline the year prior.

In July, Diageo lured former Procter & Gamble marketer Vince Hudson from Samsung, where he had been VP-U.S. marketing and mobile business unit. He is now global brand director for Smirnoff vodka. Another former P&G marketer, Jay Sethi, joined the liquor marketer several months ago as VP of Smirnoff.

Then in September, Diageo made a splash with its hire of Sophie Kelly, the former CEO of digital agency the Barbarian Group, as senior VP-marketing for whiskey brands in North America. Her arrival marked a shift for Diageo, which had traditionally shied away from hiring agency executives for top roles because there had "been a suspicion that they might have only been able to do half the job," Mr. Thompson said. But "we asked her to come and help lead a complete change in how we do marketing and the culture of our marketing department—a culture which is more entrepreneurial, more experimental, does not fear failure," he said.

Mr. Thompson has also stripped away layers of bureaucracy, saying "nobody is more than three reports away from me." He asked brand leaders to earmark 5% of their budgets for marketing experimentation. "As long as they learn, they can fail as much as they like," he said, adding that "I've been quite open in talking about my own failures."

Sarah Van Dyck, a consultant with executive search firm Egon Zehnder, which has placed candidates at Diageo, said the company has sought marketers that have a "general manager mindset, as opposed to marketing as a creator of creative assets."

When interviewing, Diageo ensures that at least one candidate is a woman or is ethnically diverse, and the company makes certain that at least one interviewer has those same traits. Mr. Thompson says he is involved in every new hire. He puts a premium on curiosity, looking for people "who are open to the world, who are interested in things and don't have to be right all the time."

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