Meet Sarah Engel, chief marketing officer and chief people officer at January Digital, a strategic digital consultancy and media agency (and one of Women in Retail Leadership Circle’s amazing partners). In this exclusive interview, Engel shares details about her unique role at January Digital, the retail trends she’s currently tracking, her leadership style, how she gives back to her community, and more.

Inner Circle: Let’s start by talking a bit about January Digital. What types of services does it offer?
Sarah Engel: January Digital is a strategic digital consultancy and media agency that works with values-driven, high-growth brands like The Honest Company, Cariuma, David’s Bridal, and Peapod Digital Labs to drive digital success all the way from strategic vision to media excellence and measurement with clear, actionable data.

IC: Can you discuss your role at January Digital? What are you tasked with, and what do you love about the job?
SE: I serve January Digital as the chief marketing officer and chief people officer. I don’t run across too many people who lead both the human resources and marketing organizations, but for us this makes perfect sense. We’re a purpose-driven organization with a clear purpose to make lives better for our employees, our clients and the world around us. So, for me, this role is about creating an organization that’s inclusive, authentic and genuinely industry leading, and then marketing that reality to the world.

IC: What are some retail trends you’re currently tracking?
SE: This is such an exciting time in the industry, when brands and retailers are exercising and strengthening what they’ve so stressfully learned and put in place over the last two years. If 2021 was a year of constant agility in terms of health and safety, shifting consumer behaviors, and supply chain issues, 2022 is the year that they can leverage all of the improved infrastructure, new customer services and internal strengths they’ve developed in the past few years. It’s important right now to take the time and review what has been accomplished, evaluate what’s working and what’s not, ensuring you’re focused on your unique customers’ needs and not the industry’s latest shiny object. Rather than trends, our expert consulting team is focused on working with retailers on what they can’t ignore at the start of this year. A few key topics on that list include:

  • Media mix diversification is crucial for every brand in offsetting rising ad costs.
  • Social commerce is vital to test into or elevate as more platforms roll out commerce features.
  • True personalization and creative, customer-driven loyalty programs are back — and for good reason.
  • Collecting first- and zero-party data is the way to survive in a cookie-less future.
  • Quick delivery and painless returns are now a customer expectation, and the need for speed will continue.
  • Customers will embrace purpose and demand sustainability more than ever before.

IC: How does January Digital meet the needs of retailers that are communicating with a new type of consumer?
SE: We tend to work with brands that are very clear about their purposes, and we help them connect with their customers on a deeper level than a promotion or product — driving acquisition as well as long-term loyalty that comes with aligned values between the consumer and the brand. We also work with brands that are open and eager to test new ways to connect with customers, think big, and open to measuring in more modern ways. This approach gives them the confidence to test, to respond to customers’ shifting behavior quickly and push the limits while still being rooted in the core business objectives.

IC: Let’s switch gears a bit: I would love to hear more about your leadership style. How would you describe it?
SE: I would say I’m a realistic optimist who leads from a place of empathy and advocacy. This means rolling up my sleeves and showing team members how to achieve certain tasks, and then getting out of their way and supporting their greatness. It also means being more than a mentor and focusing on being a sponsor. For me, one of the most important roles I have as a leader is to bring others up with me. If you have a seat at the table, slide up an extra chair and make sure you bring along a great future leader.

I also consider it my responsibly to advocate in big and small ways, whether that’s being the person in the room who speaks their names when work is great, or coaching them privately when a misstep is made. I’m also a very curious leader. I love to look at challenges from various angles and think of creative solutions. I’m a question asker, and not only a solution provider. I absolutely love when one of my team members has a better idea than mine or when they take a spark of an idea or project and make it so much more than I could have envisioned. When team members are bringing their unique perspectives and backgrounds to the discussion, and have the psychological safety to share openly, the shared language to debate respectfully can help reach new heights in alignment. This is when team magic is happening!

IC: How are you motivating your teams right now, especially with so much uncertainty in the world?
SE: This will sound overly simplistic, but it’s the truth: two of the greatest motivators right now are empathy and clarity. In terms of empathy, listen with a goal to understand your team members’ unique experiences, then learn from them as they bring their full selves to the workplace. Whether this is our working parents struggling with closed daycares and sick children or team members experiencing deeper emotional impacts of Zoom fatigue and remote work, there has never been a time where we’ve had the privilege of understanding and connecting with our employees on a deeper level than we do now. When leaders model empathy, teams become more comfortable in expressing their ideas, sharing their insights, offering support and asking for help. This elevates the entire organization, as diverse thinking and authentic idea sharing sparks creativity and innovation, and leads to both company growth and employee fulfillment and retention.

IC: What are you most looking forward to, personally and professionally, in 2022?
SE: What I love is that more than any time in my career, what I’m most hopeful and excited about this year professionally and personally are completely entwined and supported by one another. I cannot wait to create new experiences with and learn from my two sons as they continue to take on new challenges of their own, and I have the ability to balance my family and work with the support of my colleagues at this family-supporting company. I’m looking forward to working more deeply with the Lutheran Settlement House, a services organization in Philadelphia that supports community members and focuses on domestic violence, homelessness and senior services. Giving back to the community is also fully embraced by January Digital, as every employee volunteers and supports their communities through our Good Works program. We offer PTO for volunteer work and celebrate team members who uplift their communities in the same way we celebrate amazing work achievements. I will be focused on whole health, on staying present and fully embracing moments with those I love, on sponsorship and advocacy of women and underserved colleagues and communities, and on reconnecting with myself through the outdoors as much as possible.