David Gates didn’t join Diageo’s pension scheme when he joined the company in 1991. After all, he didn’t intend to stick around for long. Nearly a quarter of a century later yu magazine catches up with the York graduate behind our favourite drinks.
Over the past 24 years Gates’ work with Diageo – global alcoholic beverages producers and the world’s largest producer of spirits – has taken him across the globe. As well as the UK, he has called Brazil, Japan, Singapore and Holland, home.
“It’s given me an extraordinary cultural insight into the world,” he says. “For me, that’s been a real gift. I don’t think I would have got that through many other jobs.”
Do interesting things
Gates, “worked for a few agencies before joining Diageo. In the agency world you tend to move roles every couple of years so when I joined Diageo I thought ‘I’ll get a few years’ experience here and then move on’. But actually, I loved the industry and loved marketing and loved the Diageo culture which is quite special.”
The decision to stick with Diageo has seen Gates move through the ranks to Global Head, Premium Core Spirits. As well as working with world-renowned brands such as Johnnie Walker and Bailey’s, Gates has worked with some of advertising’s finest, including John Hegarty – the creative behind the classic Laundrette for Levi’s campaign and “one of the legends of the ad industry.”
Levi’s commercial – Laundrette
When asked for advice for York graduates Gates says, “put yourself in danger… or to steal John Hegarty’s philosophy: ‘Do interesting things and interesting things happen to you.’”
Gates believes in, “exploring and trying new things and not knowing where it’ll take you but trusting it will take you somewhere interesting and you will somehow benefit from the experience.”
This is a philosophy Gates has lived well by. At university, he was never “one of these career-minded individuals [and] loved sports and socializing.” Like many graduates he had “no idea” what he wanted to do after graduating from York with a degree in Modern History in 1986.
After receiving three very different graduate job offers Gates chose to return to London (“where I’m originally from”) and take up a job with a PR agency. This decision set him in the direction of Diageo; after a couple of agency jobs Gates moved to Brazil to join Diageo in 1991.
He describes his four and a half years in Brazil as his “overall career highlight.” Soon after arriving in Brazil – with no linguistic skills beyond a scrapped French O-Level – Gates was told he would soon be required to make a four-hour presentation to 140 people – in Portuguese. He recalls “the absolute catatonic fear” this left him in.
With about five months to prepare, Gates mastered the presentation – and “by the time I left [Brazil] I was fluent in Portuguese.”
Today, the man with a “rubbish O-Level in French” speaks an impressive array of languages including fluent Portuguese, Spanish (limited working proficiency), Japanese (Elementary proficiency), and more surprising still, French (Elementary proficiency).
But Brazil delivered more than a taste of the linguistic accomplishments to come. Gates returned from the country with, “two beautiful daughters who both have Brazilian passports – and a beautiful wife, of course (although she’s not Brazilian).”
He said: “My first year and a half in Brazil was really difficult [but] when you take yourself out of your comfort zone and go and live in another country and operate in another language… well, my personal growth was greater during that four and a half year stint than any other time in my career.”
Transparency and EDM
In a recent presentation to Diageo investors’, Gates stated: “People’s trust in big institutions is being eroded… They are putting their trust in human scale endorsement, authenticity and transparency, and brands that share their values and contribute to their communities.”
I ask Gates how Diageo plans to meet this era of ‘authenticity and transparency’.
Think of the sausage and sizzle analogy, Gates tells me: “You’ve got the sausages – the genuine meat and substance – and the sizzle – the marketing spin on it.”
If consumers are putting their trust in transparency and the authenticity of brands, Diageo must go “back to our roots and talk more about the product and the makers.”
The other element, says Gates, “is about showing a real shared purpose with our consumers.”
Consumers today have “so many choices” and therefore “choose brands that fit with their values and contribute back to the communities they care about.”
“A good example of this,” he says, is the recent partnership between Smirnoff (Diageo’s vodka brand) and elements of Electronic Dance Music (EDM). EDM is quite a misogynistic genre,” says Gates. “There are female DJs but they have to fight to get recognition.”
Smirnoff recently linked up with ‘Disc Women’ (an agency ‘representing cis women, trans women and genderqueer talent in electronic music.’) to help promote “inclusivity” on the EDM scene. By partnering with Disc Women Gates hopes Smirnoff “will connect and resonate better with our consumer base.”
Between 2008 and 2010 Gates was based in Amsterdam as the Johnnie Walker Global Brand Director. During that time Gates joined forces with John Hegarty’s agency, BBH (John Hegarty is “the H in BBH.”) to create the acclaimed Johnnie Walker ad, ‘The Man Who Walked Around The World’.
The about a 6.5-minute film starring Robert Carlyle tells the story of Scotland’s Whiskey Legend, Johnnie Walker. It has won numerous awards including the prestigious Cannes Lions Gold Medal. Gates describes the film as one of his career “highlights.”
The Walker family were, “extraordinary entrepreneurs of their time,” he says.
“When I was heading up the brand,” he says, “the reference point I used was ‘what would Johnny Walker have done?’”