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Ryan Robertson

The Spirit Of Excellence

Director and Head of Multicultural Marketing at Diageo Ryan Robertson, shares his outlook of the wine and spirit industry, and his goals to enhance the consumer brand experience.

By: Naomi A. Burrell

Pour A Glass

Ryan Robertson, who originally hails from Memphis, but currently resides in Brooklyn, NY, is taking the marketing media and advertising industry by storm, simply by doing what he loves to do. His favorite quote, “No one has ever influenced the world trying to be like it,” speaks volumes about his character and values. This statement suggests that in order to truly leave an impact on this world, you must be authentically and unapologetically you, which is a sentiment that Ryan has demonstrated in his own life. Excellence is not hinged on perfection, rather it is marked by finding your purpose, the fearless pursuit of happiness and continued growth, both professionally and personally, as Ryan so eloquently expresses. It is the connection to one’s true purpose that produces what is outstanding and extraordinary.

Recognized in Ad Age’s Class of 2019 Top 40 under 40 professionals shaping the marketing, media and advertising industries, he has indelibly imprinted the spirits industry in which he works. As innovation director and head of multicultural marketing at Diageo, Ryan led the charge in creating a cultural model that stimulates vibrant brand experiences in the hearts of those communities that Diageo serves.

Ryan is no doubt multifaceted as he has worked on several projects in the independent film industry, like “Brooklyn. Blue. Sky.” on BET.com and “Sauce” on BRIC TV. His love for music and entertainment has afforded him the opportunity to serve as the executive producer for the short-form episodic series “Issa Rae Presents: King Ester.” Ryan believes that his steps are ordered and only time will tell what Ryan will do next.

Monarch magazine: What are some of the myths or misinformation people commonly have about the alcohol industry or alcohol in general, that you are aware of?

Ryan Robertson: I think people think, ‘oh that’s easy because you guys are all about celebration. It should be easy to market your brand because it’s all about parties and day parties and brunches’. But when we think about it, we have brands that actually need strategy. We have brands that have targets to achieve. And so, we actually have to plan and we have to strategically think about what target consumers are really looking for. What kind of products or experiences do they want? How are we going to offer them? What are the prices? So the same rigor that goes into brands I’ve worked for previously in more traditional categories like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola, is the same rigor that goes into our brands here at Diageo.

Monarch magazine: As the innovation director and head of the multicultural marketing department, what are some of the strategies you’ve implemented to encourage diversity in marketing?

Ryan Robertson: So, on the multicultural front, I’ve worked with a team and I led the thinking to create a cultural model that’s really enabled brands like Ciroc, like Crown Royal, Johnny Walker, to really engage with multicultural consumers, meaningfully and locally. Really, the purpose of that is creating the vibrant brand experiences in the hearts of those communities that we serve. This spans from lager tentpole properties like Essence Festival, BEt Experience, and Afropunk… all the way down to the sort of bespoke programming in diverse markets like Atlanta, Houston, Miami, DC, and Chicago. These are the on-the-ground things that people who live there know about because they’re plugged into the local culture, not the larger national properties that I mentioned before. And I think this is important because we live in an experience-driven economy where experiences are kind of the new cache, and through this work, we’re seeing really impactful results amongst our diverse consumer base.

Monarch magazine: What brands do you currently represent?

Ryan Robertson: Right now, at Diageo, I lead multicultural marketing across all of our brands. So without running you a laundry list of all our brands, I would say the brands that we activate heavily are Crown Royal, Ciroc, Tanqueray, Johhnie Waller, Don Julio, Bailey’s, Smirnoff, and Bulleit Bourbon. I also head up innovation for our North American whiskey brands like Crown Royal, I.W. Harper, and Bulleit Bourbon.

Monarch magazine: What are some of the gaps you’ve noticed in how products and brands are marketed to specific ethnic groups?

Ryan Robertson: I think the biggest gap that I often see in the marketplace is brands not really understanding the consumer. I think that’s what it is. A lot of brands have positive intentions of targeting an ethnic consumer base, but they have a very surface understanding of that consumer, at best. And that’s dangerous. I think that’s where you can truly get into hot water. I always say that multicultural consumers are not monolithic. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for marketing or communicating to minority consumers. We all think we all act, we all behave differently, and I think brands need to stop thinking in broad generalizations when it comes to diverse consumers, because failing to understand the smallest nuance can result in the greatest offense. So that’s definitely the biggest gap I see.

The other gap I see is insufficiency in spending. I sit on the Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing, which recently conducted a study that shows that while multicultural consumers make up about 40 percent of the population in the U.S. and almost 100 percent of the growth, overall multicultural media investment is only 5 percent of total spending. That is ridiculous! That’s crazy! And so, with multicultural unquestionably being the largest growth opportunity, why is that investment so minimal? So, I think investment is a huge gap and a huge opportunity.

Monarch magazine: What is your opinion of the spirits industry?

Ryan Robertson: It’s interesting because a lot of people feel that working in the spirits industry is like a huge party. Party all the time, right? And I would understand why they would perceive that, but the truth is that Diageo’s purpose is all about celebrating life every day, everywhere. Celebration really means a lot of different things to us than just having a cocktail. Diageo really takes our role in promoting positive and responsible drinking really seriously.

Now what we often like to say is we don’t want people to drink more, we want them to drink better. And so, we also believe in giving consumers choice and variety. Even though we’re a spirits company, we actually have some brands that we invest in which are low and no alcohol brands. Brands like Seedlip and Ritual. These help us to provide choices for people that don’t choose to drink alcohol, and obviously we have choices for those who do.

Monarch magazine: You have been able to secure several notable partnerships throughout the course of your career. Can you talk about the importance of collaboration with other brand entities? How have you benefited from those relationships?

Ryan Robertson: So, I think collaboration is important because I definitely don’t think any one entity can do everything alone. And in the world of brand management, collaborations and partnerships really allow you to benefit from the equity of a partner and expose your brand to a different audience that it may not have been able to reach alone. And the key to successful partnership is that they are mutually beneficial and not one-sided. Brands are like people – like in a personal relationship, a one-sided relationship never works long term. So why would a one-sided partnership work, you know what I’m saying? I think a successful collaboration is always synergistic. Both parties have to understand each other’s needs and that’s how you truly begin to build a sustainable relationship versus just a transactional one.

Monarch magazine: On your side of the fence, what have you been able to do to help those brands you’ve partnered with to expand?

Ryan Robertson: I think it differs based on what the partnership is. I come into the partnership understanding what my brands need. But I also enter the conversation with a partner saying “what do you need? What’s important to you?” Whatever benefits my brands can provide to help them reach their goals and vice versa. That’s when we’re able to reach a level and say “hey, this is what we’re able to do.” That’s where I think it’s synergistic. There is not one magic bullet that works for all. It really just depends on what the needs are for that partner and what they’re looking for. It’s different for everybody and it changes with different partners.

Monarch magazine: When you think of the word excellence, what does it mean to you? How have you or do you demonstrate excellence in your own life?

Ryan: I think excellence is being authentic and I think it’s being fearless in your professional and personal pursuits. It’s finding your purpose and achieving personal happiness. So, for me, it’s continuing to grow and develop professionally. It’s trying new things. It’s exposing myself to other cultures, other ways of life. I really firmly believe that we all have seeds of greatness inside of us. We just individually have to figure out how to water them so they can flourish.

Monarch magazine: Speaking of trying new things. I noticed in your bio that you’ve worked on some indie film projects and you are into music. Can you talk about some of the projects you’ve worked on and maybe some things you have coming up?

Ryan Robertson: I’ve done music supervision for some independent web series in the past. There was one called “Brooklyn Blue Sky,” which BET.com ended up acquiring and distributing. I’ve done music supervision for a recent project called “Sauce,” and that’s with BRIC TV, which is a local Brooklyn production company. It was released in early March.

Then I am super excited and proud of my first foray into executive producing, and that’s with Issa Rae Presents “King Ester.” It’s a web series created and directed by brilliant emerging black creator, Dui Jarrod. I’m really proud of that project because it came from his mind, and we all had to figure out how to bring it to life. It’s been on the film festival circuit for the last year and it has done extremely well. So yeah, that’s really been a really exciting project… and still more to come (wink)”

Monarch magazine: What do you really love the most about working in the film industry and the music supervision industry? What is it about it that really attracts you?

Ryan Robertson: For me, music is a big passion of mine. I grew up in Memphis which is a city that’s very rich in music history with Stax Records holding down the soul music scene, a lot of blues, gospel, etc. So, with music supervision, it’s really understanding whatever story we are trying to convey to the audience. There is nothing that has as much as an emotional tie as music does. When you’re looking at tv, or at a series or at a movie, the difference between how something can connect with you can literally be the music that is playing. So I find a lot of beauty in that. It’s just awesome to be able to see a scene and say “Yo, I feel like we need to strike this kind of chord emotionally,” and know exactly the right track that needs to go there. Honestly, about 30% of music supervision is creative, and 70% is actually contracts, music rights, permissions, approvals, cue sheets, and that stuff. But the creative piece outweighs the other side for me..

Monarch magazine: Wow, top “40 Under 40” brand innovators is quite an accomplishment. Did you ever image that you would be able to accomplish so much so early in your life?

Ryan Robertson: First off, thank you! I really appreciate that. But to answer your question, no. I never imagined that I would be recognized like this for something I love to do. Like I mentioned before, I’m a kid from Memphis and it’s the place that really shaped my love for music, for culture, for community. And the notion that I could parlay these passions into a legit career was unfathomable to me. It’s interesting, when I first started my marketing career, I remember seeing Ad Age, the leading media and marketing publication, had a top “40 Under 40” list. I think they had just started the list when I first started in marketing, and I recall saying to myself, “Wow, I want to be in that one day.” And fast forward 13 years, I was actually named to that same list recognizing top professionals in the country shaping marketing, media and advertising. And it’s still a bit surreal. I’m kind of like, “are they talking about me?” But hey, I will take it.

Monarch magazine: In the industry and market that you’re in, innovation is the ultimate buzz word. What does it truly mean to you to be innovative? How do you incorporate it into the work you do? In its truest form, innovation is simply about solving problems. And they don’t have to be big problems either. It can range from coming with a new- to- world brand or product idea, all the way down to evolving a current offering or service to make it more accessible or convenient. At Diageo, we call it “shaping the future.” On our innovation team at work, we always try to approach things from a possibility mindset. What that means is we talk in terms of “what if.” What if we could do X or what we could offer Y? I think that type of thinking just breeds a culture of consistently thinking and approaching things from an opportunity mindset. You have to suspend feasibility initially, and not really worry about if you can make it happen, because oftentimes, that kills the disruptive thinking. When you think about innovation, especially when you start, you want to be expansive in your thinking to think about those big ideas. And feasibility will always come later. But you don’t want to kill that disruptive thinking, because at the time, you are not able to feasibly create it or make it happen.

Monarch magazine: What are some of the major challenges you’ve faced as you’ve evolved in your career?

Ryan Robertson: I think earlier on in my career, I always tried to make everybody happy. Even if it meant assimilating to the values and thoughts and views that were expected in the organization or expected from certain people. And as I’ve matured professionally, I realized that there’s really much more value in being authentically and unapologetically myself. And that means being unafraid to express my viewpoints, even if it means I’m out there on the island or I’m the only person in the room that doesn’t agree with the prevailing opinion. I’m a big fan of quotes because they inspire me. One of my favorite quotes is, “No one has ever influenced the world trying to be like it.” And so that speaks to being authentic and being unapologetically yourself, and that’s what I really try to do, which I didn’t necessarily do early on in my career.

Monarch magazine: Speaking of influencing and influencers, do you or did you have any major influencers in your life as it relates to your career?

Ryan Robertson: My parents definitely have been huge influencers for me. I like to say they are where I get my hustle and heart from. I mean, I really have a whole village. This includes, my siblings, my family, my close friends. I’m constantly inspired and encouraged by them. So, they have been a big influence on me. I have quite a few professional mentors whom I look up to and I really often seek their advice and their counsel when I need some professional guidance. And finally, I truly believe my experiences have shaped me I think they have given me exposure to different people, different places, ways of doing things and that’s truly helped me become as open-minded and as empathetic in situations as possible.

Monarch magazine: Was there a pivotal moment in your life where you realized that media and marketing was the industry that you were meant to be in?

Ryan Robertson: I think like most people, in college I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and career. I actually thought I wanted to be a pediatrician for the longest, but when I took that med school admissions test and I saw my MCAT scores I quickly had a change of heart. I had to reconsider my path quickly! And then at one point I wanted to be an actor, but I knew that this starving artist lifestyle was going to be hard for me. However, I was always intrigued and interested in the psyche of why people make the decisions and choices they make. So, marketing just made sense to me. And plus, my parents are great creative marketers as well. So, I was exposed to marketing at a young age. And what I really love about marketing is that it’s all about finding out what drives people and getting them to do a desired action or outcome. And that’s both challenging and fun to me.

Monarch magazine: As a busy professional, what do you do to try to balance out the demands of your career as well as your own personal life?

Ryan Robertson:That’s a great question and I give the same answer every time I am asked about this. I think balance really comes from what I was saying before, determining how to fill your well, which obviously is very personal and different for everyone. For me, balance is about ensuring happiness and fulfillment, both inside and outside of my work and career. And this really manifests in me having to carve out time to focus on the things that really bring me joy, which are spending time with friends and family, traveling and exposing myself to new ways of life. But it’s also finding an outlet for my creative energy and passions like we were talking about before. That’s really how I try to keep balance.

Monarch magazine: You’ve already achieved so many successes in your life so far, but what’s next for you?

Who knows, honestly. I would really like to leverage my passions and do more with music supervision. I want to do more in entertainment. Maybe do more film production. Certainly, more meaningful things for my community, because that’s really important to me. Right now, I’m really just basking in the moment enjoying the now. Trying to take it all in. I do know that my steps are ordered. So I guess time will tell what’s really in store.