Sarah Warby, Marketing Director, Sainsbury’s

Sarah joined Sainsbury's in 2012. As Marketing Director, she sits on the Sainsbury's Operating Board and is responsible for setting the marketing agenda, developing brand strategy and overseeing all aspects of execution

Tom Holmes

Founder & Chairman



Tom Holmes talks to Sarah Warby, Marketing Director of Sainsbury’s.

Sarah joined Sainsbury's in 2012. As Marketing Director, she sits on the Sainsbury's Operating Board and is responsible for setting the marketing agenda, developing brand strategy and overseeing all aspects of execution. Sarah also drives the development, management and marketing of Sainsbury’s own label portfolio, as well as commercial initiatives such as Brand Match and Nectar.

Sarah is a Mentor of the Marketing Academy and was recently voted ‘Marketing Leader of the Year 2013’ by the Marketing Society.


Creativebrief: As Marketing Director of Sainsbury’s what is your primary focus?

Sarah Warby: Our customers, our brand, the team. Does that sound trite? I hope not, it’s absolutely true. Everything we do starts with what our customers want, whenever we find ourselves straying into our agenda rather than their agenda we pull ourselves up short. 

In Marketing we have the privilege and the responsibility of looking after a remarkable brand. 144 years of dedication to quality and service with an innovative, progressive streak to be proud of. We owe it to John and Mary Ann Sainsbury to keep building on their legacy. When I spend time at our Archive (in the London Docklands Museum) I always come away inspired.

And lastly the team. Everything I say is just a bunch of words without them. A brilliant group who never cease to make me proud and open my mind. I was about to say that we’re a new-ish team, but maybe we’re not any more. Either way, it’s my job to invest in them as if it’s day one every day.

Creativebrief: Congratulations on being voted ‘Marketing Leader of the Year’ what makes you particularly proud and why?

Sarah Warby: Thanks, I was delighted. I feel proud of the work we do when customers thank us for it. Take our January campaign “make your roast go further” – a simple idea to help customers have a lovely Sunday lunch and stretch the leftovers to make Monday and Tuesday night tea as well. All lined up with half price joints and veg. Remarkable commercial results which is customers voting with their wallets and the cherry on the top was the way customers phoned our Careline to say thanks. The other side of the pride coin is internal – nothing beats the feeling of watching someone in the team playing a blinder.

Creativebrief: Your career has spanned Sainsbury’s, Heineken UK, Scottish & Newcastle plc, Leo Burnett Sydney and Van den Bergh Foods (Unilever), what have been the high points?

Sarah Warby: I’ve loved every role I’ve done. Working for Andy Duncan at Unilever taught me a lot about the intricacies of leadership, living in Sydney and understanding life in an advertising agency was fantastic and hopefully made me a better client. At S&N/Heineken, I got the chance to run a complicated portfolio which was immensely stimulating and I got my first shot at being on a Board. And now at Sainsbury’s, I get to look after an awesome brand, with more wonderful stories to tell than I know what to do with. 

Creativebrief: How are you going about changing consumer perceptions about groceries being more expensive at Sainsbury’s?

Sarah Warby:The great thing about that particular objective is that the facts are on my side. Ultimately marketing is, as often quoted “the truth well told” and in this case the job for me to do is simply tell the truth as well as I can. My evidence? Well, we track prices and promotions every day and our prices and promotions are competitive. And we put our money where our mouth is: every week we give our customers millions of Brand Match coupons, based on an instantaneous price comparison– and more than half the time the coupon reassures them that their branded shop was cheaper in Sainsbury’s today than it would have been at Asda or Tesco. And if the branded shop wasn’t cheaper, including all the deals and promotions our competitors are doing, then we give you a voucher for the difference for next time – pretty straightforward stuff.

Creativebrief: How important is content to your marketing activity?

Sarah Warby:I’m a big believer in content – if brands aren’t thinking like publishers I think they’re missing a trick.


Creativebrief: What have you enjoyed most about working with Channel 4 and how successful has the partnership been?

Sarah Warby: C4 are great to work with – we have had a number of successful partnership projects with them recently in Paralympics and What’s Cooking in the Sainsbury’s Kitchen, our AFP. They’re sharp, creative, tuned-in and brave – we get on well.

Creativebrief: How does Sainsbury’s stack up against the competition in the Ecommerce race?

Sarah Warby: We’re growing our groceries on-line business ahead of the market, which is terrific. 

With reference to my point about content though, I don’t think it’s just about ecommerce. It’s crucial to think about the quality of every interaction with customers, increasing numbers of which take place in the digital world. If you’re in the mindset that digital necessarily means ecommerce, then your definition of success becomes limited to a transaction and you’re missing the point.

As well as our ecommerce website, which is where people buy their groceries, we also have our more editorial website – This is where the always on strategy to fulfil our promise of helping and inspiring customers to Live Well for Less comes to life. It’s where we house a lot of our content – both evergreen and supporting campaigns. It’s where we experiment, test and learn.

Creativebrief: What are the main challenges for your sector/category over the next 12 months?

Sarah Warby: Grocery is fiercely competitive, the challenge is age old: we have to give customers the right balance of value and quality every day – of course that balance is different for each individual customer, that’s the trick.

Creativebrief: How do you see the media landscape unfolding in the next 5 years?

Sarah Warby: My point of view is very boring: it will continue to slowly evolve. Nothing will dramatically die; there will be no great exodus one way or the other.

Creativebrief: Do you prefer to use an ‘integrated’ agency approach or specialist agencies by individual discipline?

Sarah Warby: We have great relationships with our two main strategic partner agencies, AMV and phd. And to complement them we use a bench of brilliant specialists.

Creativebrief: What challenges do you face, managing day-to-day agency relationships?

Sarah Warby: I’m afraid I don’t get to do that any more, but the key to being a great client hasn’t changed from the days when I did – communication, trust, openness.

Creativebrief: How often do you look at new agencies or review your roster?

Sarah Warby: It’s not on a prescribed cycle – we do it when we need to do it.

Creativebrief: How do you monitor and stay-in-touch with the agency market to ensure you work with the best?

Sarah Warby: The team are very plugged into their bit of the landscape, and I have a dedicated media procurement manager in my team who keeps us all up to date.

Creativebrief: What’s your attitude to the ‘traditional’ pitch? Do you think there is a better/more modern way?

Sarah Warby: I think its horses for courses – but a full creative pitch will always have value as the only stage on which you can really get to see what an agency might be able to do for you. When I do them, I’m not looking for the pitch work to be The Answer; it’s a demonstration of how an agency thinks, how it tackles a brief and what their creative’s can do – so you know what you’re buying.

Creativebrief: Would you ever consider awarding an agency business without a pitch?

Sarah Warby: Yes, I’ve done that in the past.

Creativebrief: What would they have to do / demonstrate?

Sarah Warby: It’s a question of chemistry and track record.