Deb Caldow Diageo

Most Creative Marketers

Most Creative Marketers: Deb Caldow

“Show me how you help today’s marketers traverse the tension of selling & building brands without costing the planet.” Diageo’s first global sustainability marketer issues a call to action for adland

By Jennifer Small

There's a new set of measures in town in service of achieving both business results and sustainability targets," declares Deb Caldow - Diageo’s first global sustainability marketing director. Caldow was support the marketing function to accelerate progress on the company’s sustainability agenda - which includes a commitment to spend 10 per cent of its marketing budgets with diverse-owned and disadvantaged suppliers and agencies by 2025, and 15 per cent by 2030; and also commits the drinks business to achieve 50 per cent female representation in leadership roles by 2030.

“This is what it means to be commercial sustainably, and it’s going to require the best of the marketing industry’s creativity to deliver,” says Caldow. “It's not only about moral obligations. It's about ensuring business resilience. You can't be in business and grow brands if the world isn't functioning.”

A thriving planet needs innovation beyond AI

Take tequila – the fastest growing drinks category and forecast to be worth around $25.4bn by 2026 – it’s made from the blue agave plant, native to the area surrounding the city of Tequila, Mexico. The spirit is one of the biggest agricultural exports for the Mexican economy, but the region is ‘water-stressed’. This is a real challenge for sustainable growth and an example of just one of the areas that Diageo is looking at in a mission to produce spirits sustainably.

“If we can't produce what the world needs because climate change is depleting natural resources, then there are no brands to build. This isn't just about saving the world. It's about having resilient businesses within a thriving planet where there’s a better balance between what we make and consume. Because AI can't grow an agave or coffee plant,” Caldow says.

A talent for innovation and transformation took root in the early stages of Caldow’s career, when she helped establish online shopping for Topshop at the turn of the millennium, when back then, people rejected the idea of consumers buying clothes on line. She polished her smarts with stints at Kellogg, Britvic, an earlier experience at Diageo as brand manager for Baileys and Gordons, and most recently as global brand, sponsorship, and sustainability director at Costa Coffee, where she had also led the global innovation team.

The Costa role was all about taking the brand into new markets, and making sure the $5bn that Coca-Cola had spent on Costa was going to pay back.

“Half my job was classic brand building, taking Costa Coffee into new markets post the $5bn sale of the brand to The Coca Cola Company. The other part of the role I was asked to do was new to me – the sustainability bit. But I love transformation and challenging briefs, so I think that’s why they gave it to me.”

Caldow’s first focus was on recruiting technical subject matter experts that knew how to do the work, to allow her to focus on how to take the business on the journey, and mobilise around a new sustainable agenda, she explains.

Learning how to build a brand in a sustainable way was “the ultimate gift of a role”, she says. Because it spanned everything from Costa’s corporate sustainability strategy, how to incorporate it as a brand building and engagement tool through storytelling, and even running the Costa Foundation.

“What I learnt in those four years, was how to pivot lanes and help the business focus into a more sustainable space,” Caldow says. “In this way, it’s a marketing job at the core, how to help people change behaviours and show them a new way forward.”

Her role at Diageo, which she began in February, sees Caldow working across the organisation on two aspects: one is innovation – defining the future of sustainable socialising.

“Life is all a bit bleak right now, but the category Diageo is in, is about celebration and socialising. I find myself in a business, not unlike coffee, which is about humans spending time together, connecting with themselves and others. It's about the moment and the occasion. People don't want to feel guilty about the world that sits behind creating these products. They just want to have a nice time.”

The other aspect of Caldow’s Diaego role is to mobilise the drinks giant’s community of 2,500 marketers to learn to embed sustainability in their brand strategies. Diageo’s supply chain teams have rightly taken the lead in this area, explains Caldow, and it’s the marketers’ job to “create a runway for growth.”

“The world has got to change. Marketers’ reason for being is to drive more people to buy more stuff, but what is our place in a world where, actually that's what got us into this mess?”

Many marketers are “terrified” and a little "lost" on the sustainability agenda

The real question, says Caldow, is how do marketers create better experiences that allow people to enjoy their lives and not negatively impact the planet while they're doing it? What a brief.

“Most marketers are absolutely terrified,” says Caldow, who admits that at this year's Cannes Lions Festival she was disappointed that these issues weren’t a big enough part of the conversation. Caldow references the WFA’s Sustainable Marketing 2030 report, conducted in partnership with Kantar’s Sustainable Transformation Practice, which showed that marketers are lagging behind other functions in terms of leaning in and leading the charge.

But she believes this is marketing’s big moment – the industry’s greatest creativity challenge to date.

The Diageo sustainability programme, known internally as ‘Spirit of Progress’, defines 25 goals that span across DE&I, positive drinking, and ‘grain to glass’, the supply and manufacture part of the business, which is Caldow’s main focus area. Diageo’s 200 brands are organised with priorities leaning towards specific elements of the sustainability programme. The J&B whiskey brand, for example, is using its "brand voice" to have a point of view on inclusion, whereas Guinness, stands very firmly for regenerative agriculture, but it doesn’t mean that DE&I isn’t important there too.

“The real trick for brands and marketers is not to get overwhelmed with doing everything everywhere all at once. On top of sustainability challenges, throw in AI... I know we always say there's never been a harder time to be a marketer, but now there really has never been a harder time to be a marketer. So, the way we organise ourselves is through very progressive agendas set against those priorities and bringing the best of our creativity to find solutions,” Caldow says.

As the world’s fifth-largest spirits producer by revenue ($20.8bn for 2023), Caldow believes Diageo has an opportunity to create change, using its voice and leveraging its billion dollars' worth of advertising and promotion budget.

“Imagine if we point our briefs and advertising budgets at some of the world’s most important questions…” she says. “The platform marketers have for supporting consumers to make good choices is so influential. At the same time, we recognise the tension when communicating in the sustainability space. Everyone wants to avoid being the next victim of greenwashing, but the opposite is just as concerning; reverting to green-hushing. No one wins when that happens. Acknowledging this, we have developed guidance for our marketers on how to navigate this whole area and launched it across the business.”

With the marketing function led by chief marketing officer Cristina Diezhandino, recently named Global Marketer of the Year by the WFA, Caldow is pushing at an open door. Diageo has phased out the use of 183m cardboard boxes from its premium scotch bottles around the world – in some cases offering personalised bottles for the gifting experience – and if consumer response is successful, it will roll out the move to other brands.

“Consumers care, but not enough”

There’s also innovation around reductions in glass, Caldow explains, but at this point, the moves are coming from Diageo – with an eye on sustainability targets and shareholder reporting requirements – rather than a push from consumers.

“Consumers care, but not enough to change behaviour unless there’s something in it for them. That doesn't mean we should wait until we think consumers are ready. The best way to do this is to give them a beautiful bottle that they want to have out on the shelf, to serve people from, but it's used half the usual weight of glass. And in doing so, we've decarbonised the impact of that bottle. But the reason they want it is not just because it's lightweight and sustainable, they want it because it's beautiful and the liquid is amazing.”

Caldow describes this as the tension between intent and action: “the ‘say’ and ‘do’ gap is more about the way we interpret it.”

The aim, she says, is to bring consumers something so desirable and sustainable, that they can’t say no to it. And while doing so, drive business and brand impact and sustainability targets – that’s the task ahead.

Diageo is also looking at reusing and recycling its massive bank of marketing and advertising assets rather than creating from scratch every single time. Meanwhile, blend AI into the mix and it gets super interesting, Caldow points out.

There’s a dedicated team at the drinks company who identify the right agencies and production partners, making sure those partners are working on the right brief and with the right guidelines around the impact of assets produced. Marketing activity accounts for 7% of Diageo’s scope 3 emissions, says Caldow, who explains that reducing the company’s own footprint is important, but also has an opportunity to influence the industry.

Solutions, not agitation, is required

Yet Caldow seems exasperated at the state of adland’s response to the sustainability brief, and believes that agencies with enough in-depth sustainability experience are a rare find.

“It’s a challenge to find the right agency doing this kind of work,” Caldow says. “Some of the bigger groups have appointed dedicated sustainability leads, but sustainability is not necessarily fundamental to the fabric of the agency’s thinking. Then there are the boutique agencies, which have been set up by people who have become passionate about the green agenda. They are brilliant, but sometimes lack the systematic approach that the bigger agencies offer.”

She sees an opportunity for an agency that takes the rigour from the big networks and applies the passion and creativity of the smaller boutiques.

The ideal, she says, would be a mix of the two: an agency that takes the systems and processes from the bigger agencies and applies the passion and creativity of the smaller shops.

So who are the agencies leading the charge in creating sustainable messaging, and delivering those campaigns sustainably? Caldow highlights independent creative studio Revolt, and consultancy for purpose-driven businesses Given, both of which are B Corps.

Her no-nonsense approach means Caldow is slightly exasperated by the agencies who “agitate” by taking a confrontational campaigning stance, rather than getting stuck in and helping brands make real change.

“As a client, I don't want any more agitation. I know what needs to be done. I need really brilliant work that drives consumer behavioural change. Sell me some great ideas. Show me the work. Show me how you help the marketer and brand traverse the tension of selling stuff without costing the planet and get business results. That's my call to action for the industry – where are those people? They're the people I want to hear from.”

Adland, it’s over to you.

The world according to Deb Caldow

Who is your creative hero or favourite piece of creativity?

My all-time favourite piece of creativity has to be (and unapologetically so), the Johnnie Walker ‘Keep Walking’ campaign. While the success is well accounted for year after year and the results of the brand growth speak for themselves, it’s the level of insight/foresight, cultural connectedness and bravery around the long game, which I admire. As well as bloody brilliant creative.

When the team landed on the idea of ‘Inspiring personal progress’ over 20 years ago, they hit on something big. It was something that could feel deeply human and connected locally, as well as being a consistent big idea that travelled without exception, across the globe. It also inspires creativity that is about actions as well as ads. That’s proper creativity.

We can get carried away in the moment of Cannes and awards for work over the past year – but creativity that is so powerful AND flexible that it can go long, far and wide, that’s the stuff we should be celebrating. Creative that stands the test of time. That what I am talking about!

What’s been feeding your imagination lately?

I am absolutely fascinated by the power and potential of ASMR. t’s my 11-year-old daughter that first introduced me to it. Makes me tingly just talking about it!

In a professional context, I am really excited about the potential to reimagine the possibilities from a design and experience point of view. Appealing to the senses – tactility, sounds, textures, rituals, mindful consumption. This is powerful stuff if we can get our heads around how to harness it.

What do you think has been your boldest creative play?

Rather than talk about a campaign, I’m going to share the focus I put creatively on how I bring ideas to life internally. Truly brave creative work often doesn’t get past the first post when it gets to the internal alignment stage, particularly in larger, less risk adverse companies.

In my previous role as global brand director at Costa Coffee, we were repositioning the brand and hit on a really big insight, that led to an idea I really believed could travel in all contexts – where the brand was a household name as well as emerging/challenger, in all corners of the world and cultures.

I applied creativity to the way I shared it with the local and regional teams that we need to engage – franchise partners, marketing directors and MD’s. Instead of PPT pre-reads, I did a two-minute film to land the big idea, More than a Coffee. Featuring real humans. And genuinely put lots of effort into working with the teams on how this could apply in their context. The resulting platform – Costa Coffee - More than just a coffee – has given creative freedom within an inspiring framework for local interpretations. I love this example of how the Southeast Asia team took the idea and made it their own.

How did it pay off, and what lessons did that teach you?

The power of storytelling – we talk about it a lot, and then as marketers, we forget to apply that to the internal ‘sell in’.

Also, the work got better, and the idea got bigger, through this engagement process.

And you have to remember this isn’t your idea – when in a global role, the ‘not invented here’ aspect can be strong. The trick is to bring something so compelling yet culturally flexible, that the local teams can’t say no, and get excited instantly about how they can apply it in their context to connect.

What do you enjoy most about being a marketer?

Focusing on humans and reframing problems into opportunities.

What makes a good creative marketer?

• Restless curiosity and perspective.

• The ability to see potential in ideas beyond the initial execution.

• The ability to both take people with you AND to hold your nerve when you believe in something.

What makes a good creative agency partner?

Like any good relationship: honesty, trust and pulling for the same end goal.

And what frustrates you?

When I get sold one offs, not big platform ideas.

What excites you about the future?

The role of marketing to pivot into contributing to the urgent and important sustainability transformation required. I get excited about the possibility of the industry pivoting from selling more stuff to consumers, to genuinely creating better experiences. And people and planet thriving as a result. It’s the wake-up call we need to change the paradigm and reframe what we can bring to the party.


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