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2023 proved that everything really is an ad network

A megaphone rotates on the yellow display on The Sphere in Las Vegas, NV.

Illustration by Nick DeSantis / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current

It’s an omnichannel world, and we’re just living in it.

Back in 2021, quantitative marketer and author of Freemium Economics Eric Seufert declared that “everything is an ad network” due to factors like the uptick in privacy restrictions, the industry moving past third-party cookies, and the rise of first-party data.

If anything, 2023 has shown how accurate that assertion was. The amount of inventory and channels available to advertisers is at an all-time high. As IAB Tech Lab CEO Anthony Katsur tells The Current, “There is no question that advertisers have more options to reach their customers and prospects via more mediums across more environments than ever before.”

Seufert pinpoints the growth of retail media networks and connected TV (CTV) as the catalyst for more reach and inventory.

“Over the past year, the ad market has seen a torrent of retail media networks and CTV advertising offerings emerge as advertisers pursue expanded reach beyond traditional social channels, especially with products that can bring their first-party data to bear for ad targeting,” he tells The Current. “Advertising offerings from Netflix and Disney+ reached impressive scale, and an entire set of retail media channels from the likes of Uber, Lyft, Marriott Hotels, Dollar General, Roblox, and many others either surfaced or blossomed.”

At the same time, there has been huge growth in digital out-of-home, as old billboards convert to digital screens and companies get increasingly crafty with screen placement at critical shopping opportunities — from the grocery aisle to electric vehicle charging stations.

We reflect on three pivotal industry shifts this year that moved the needle on inventory and reach for advertisers.

1. Retail media networks went omnichannel

This year retail media networks truly came into their own, with Insider Intelligence projecting that retail media ad spend will overtake linear TV ad spend by 2025. With brands wanting a piece of the retail media pie, it’s been a race for platforms to get their networks in place. For instance, in August, Lyft launched in-app ads to further compete with Uber Eats, which added video ads and sponsored products to its app a few months prior.

And the race is not stopping at the platform level. In October, Instacart made a huge announcement that it would start letting marketers use the app’s retail data to reach consumers off the app for omnichannel campaigns. In May, Macy’s introduced a new self-service option for marketers in which they can use shopper data to support digital campaigns on channels like display, CTV, and audio. And this month, Walmart’s Sam’s Club introduced ways to reach consumers through video search ads and interactive product videos on its site, and off-site through CTV.

“In 2024, we’ll continue to see retail media mature and see more sophisticated campaigns that enable off-platform executions to have stronger performance muscles and stronger measurability,” Instacart CMO Laura Jones predicts. “The overall industry is headed in the same direction of measurability and really connecting those purchase loops. We’re just starting to see the power of retail media and next year will be a huge year to unlock what retail media can do for advertisers.” 

2. Streamers got into the live sports game

If there’s one major CTV story of 2023, it’s the addition of live sports to viewers’ content lineups, which streamers see as an opportunity to gain more subscribers. In October, Max added live sports. And for the first time, Amazon’s new Black Friday NFL game — which sold out its ad slots — could be viewed by anyone with an Amazon account, not just Prime members. Looking ahead, Disney+ is set to stream ESPN, and Netflix will introduce its first sports livestream next year.

Streamers are also opening more ad opportunities to advertisers across their content offerings. Disney+, for instance, just celebrated its first year of ads, recently expanded its offerings to biddable private marketplace deals, and introduced more ad formats and targeting and measurement capabilities. Disney+ said half of all new subscribers chose its ad-supported plan.

“There’s a direct relationship between share of viewing and share of advertising and share of revenue,” Brian Wieser, CFA, principal at consultancy Madison and Wall, tells The Current. “If you spend more on content, you’ll get a greater share of viewing. That alone drives viewing into streaming environments.”

Meanwhile, the worlds of linear and streaming continue to merge. With the new Charter and Disney agreement, ad-supported Disney+ and ESPN+ subscriptions are now offered as part of cable plans, and European media powerhouse RTL enabled marketers to purchase ads programmatically across both linear and CTV inventory.

3. More digital screens, more inventory

Marketers can take their pick from a slew of new digital out-of-home (DOOH) ad slots. In the past year, Outernet London, a public gallery with Ultra HD screens, has become one of London’s most popular tourist and brand attractions; the NYC subway system matured to selling ads programmatically; Lyft launched in-app ads; and screens started popping up in grocery stores all over the U.S. from companies like Grocery TV.

Perhaps one of the largest stories the DOOH space has seen in a long time is the launch of Sphere in Las Vegas, the 366-foot-high, 516-foot-wide digital screen (four football stadiums long) that is shaped exactly as its name purports. Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corp., which built the massive structure, calls it the largest screen on the planet with the highest resolution. A number of brands — from Xbox to the NBA to Autodesk — have already experimented with designing enticing campaigns for the enormous screen, which opened to the public in September. which opened to the public in September.

DOOH is also increasingly becoming more omnichannel. Take Volta, a company that operates EV charging stations with more than 5,800 digital screens in front of locations with heavy foot traffic, like grocery stores or gas stations. “When a brand is targeting across CTV, they are also able to activate that same audience across Volta and follow that consumer and do it with different messages,” says Brandt Hastings, president and CEO of Volta.

The company now sees a billion impressions a month and works with brands like Stellantis and Dole, the latter of which saw an 8 percent sales lift in front of grocery stores across the U.S., according to Hastings. “Marketers have a myriad of choices these days, but what really matters is what stands out,” he says.

The Current is owned and operated by The Trade Desk, Inc.