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30 June 2023

Retail Media is a $120 billion platypus 

Tips and advice on one of the most talked-about media channels of the past few years, courtesy of The Digital Voice’s Retail Media Accelerator event at Cannes

Retail media is a $121.9 billion industry, a branding platform as much as a conversion tool, and also a platypus – according to the experts who spoke at the Retail Media Accelerator at Contagious’ Cannes villa on 20 June.

The event was put on by The Digital Voice, a boutique PR agency that specialises in B2B adtech, to introduce some much-needed clarity into discussions of retail media, which has risen to prominence over the past few years.

Julia Linehan, the founder and CEO of The Digital Voice, MC’d the event and began by putting the scale of the opportunity into perspective, quoting WARC’s estimate that global investment in retail media would reach $121.9bn in 2023, making it the fourth largest channel.

Colin Lewis, an advisor at marketing consultancy Grace & Co, gave an introductory talk. He outlined the case for why retail media is so important by reminding the audience that in approximately 400 days Google will deprecate third-party cookies across Chrome, making first-party data – the kind held by retailers – more or less the only game in town when it comes to targeting customers.

Lewis also likened retail media to a platypus. People tended to define the platypus based on what they already knew about animals, said Lewis. If someone was interested in birds, they would look at the platypus’ bill and assume it was some kind of bird. If someone was interested in mammals, they would look at its fur and claws and assume it was a mammal. Similarly, depending on your viewpoint, retail media can be either a performance marketing play, a brand building tool, or even a margin-boosting side business for retailers. But, said Lewis, ‘it is actually all of those’.

Amir Rasekh, director of Nectar360, gave the first of the event’s four seven-minute expert talks, and he used his time to drive home the point that when it comes to retail media, everything must start with the customer.

‘If you're not doing the right thing for the customer, if you're not thinking about the customer experience, if you're not thinking about the value exchange that you give customers [in return for their data], the rest of the flywheel is broken,’ he said.

Rasekh also said that retail media can deliver marketers the Holy Grail of closing the measurement loop by tracking ‘actual sales’.

Tara Carroll, director of partnerships for insights and media solutions at Delivery Hero, was up next and offered tips on getting started in retail media from the perspective of a mobile-first retailer.

Her first tip was to get buy-in from a senior sponsor who can see the opportunity in retail media because ‘you're not going to get very far without a tenacious doer’.

Carroll also advised thinking like a venture capitalist to assess not just the capabilities of retail media partners but also their strategy and teams in order to choose wisely, and also to adopt a ‘growth mindset’ because there is so much to learn.

‘If you're in a company that has multiple divisions or categories, said Carroll, ‘it's a good idea to let one of those categories lead the way and forge the path and set the benchmarks.’

Nixing the idea that retail media offers brands a quick fix or a shortcut, Carroll added: ‘It takes at least six to nine months of a concerted effort to move past the testing phase and to start to scale up.’

Kate DuBois, the EVP of omnichannel growth at Skai, was next and she spoke about how to scale a retail media programme. She counselled marketers to remove complexities from their programme because ‘it's really about streamlining all of your retail channels in one place.’

‘Once your teams have nailed the basics,’ said DuBois, ‘this is when things really take off through automation [...] You need to think about AI algorithms as your copilot: they're going to help you navigate, accelerate, and understand how to get you to that destination in a way that rules-based automation by itself could not.’

Amir Malik, managing director at Accenture Song, was the final speaker and argued that retail media platforms should create their own norms and practices, rather than just imitating what’s going on in other channels.

‘[Retailers] need to carve out their own experience of ad sales, which is unique,’ said Malik. ‘It cannot look like typical ads online. And the experience goes off site, it goes in store, and they need to be thinking about how they transform that.’

Malik also cautioned retailers to protect the customer experience when it comes to new channels and monetization strategies because ‘we know all too well, about data abuse, about ad format abuse.’

Lewis returned to host a panel discussion, which included Malik, as well as Alice Anson, digital media director at Nectar360, Nich Weinheimer, strategy EVP at Skai, and David Peterson, global head of retail media at Epsilon / CitrusAd, which is a partner of online food ordering company Delivery Hero.

Responding to a question about what retailers should think about when establishing a media network, Peterson echoed Rasekh’s earlier point that everything should start with the consumer.

‘If you do that right,’ said Peterson, ‘[customers] get a good experience and they're gonna convert. If they convert, the brands are going to get the performance they desire. If the brands get the performance they desire, they're going to put more money into the retailer programs.’

In answer to a question from an audience member about lessons from brands and platforms that have got retail media wrong, Weinheimer talked about Walmart’s early mistakes ignoring industry standards and trying to create its own naming conventions and methods.

‘But that standardisation is extremely important for the brands to continue to invest,’ said Weinheimer. ‘I think that's an area where Walmart got it wrong, even though they're absolutely crushing it now, in many different ways.’

Anson meanwhile offered what she referred to as a ‘politician’s answer’ to a potentially difficult question by taking a broad view of what companies get wrong with retail media.

‘I think any retailer that is resting on their laurels and not acting in a consumer-first way, and any brand that is still operating in silos need to…think more horizontally,’ she said.

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