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The three hottest advertising trends from OMR, Germany’s festival of marketing innovation

A robotic hand paints a shopping cart on an easel.

Illustration by Holly Warfield / Getty / The Current

Europe is facing soaring inflation and business uncertainty brought on by global economic forces, but the mood on Hamburg’s fairgrounds on a rainy May afternoon was an optimistic one.

At the Online Marketing Rockstars (OMR) festival, one of Europe’s largest digital advertising events, 70,000 marketers, advertisers, and techies gathered to attend talks and masterclasses from a star-studded lineup that included tennis legend Serena Williams.

Flitting between cavernous hangars while munching on vegan fish and chips, some of Germany and Europe’s top marketers — from companies like Audi, SAP, and Siemens — discussed the future of European marketing in front of packed audiences, with three main themes emerging: how generative AI is changing marketing, the rise of retail media, and the quest to make advertising more ethical.

AI everywhere

It seems hard to remember a time before generative AI and the worldwide frenzy that ChatGPT unleashed upon its release. Many marketers from firms of all shapes and sizes are looking for ways to draw on its fantastical promises to optimize their operations. At OMR, this enthusiasm was hard to miss.

For example, German-born meal kit company HelloFresh illustrated how it leveraged advances in AI to make hyper-personalized content marketing possible. While before, the company couldn’t make use of all the insights it collected from consumers, at OMR it showcased custom-built tech that allows it to create content at the individual customer level for its customer relationship management (CRM) operations, in addition to at the customer segment level.

Google and Snap also showcased the possibilities of AI, from how it can be intertwined with augmented reality to how it can bring positive change at a societal level.

But some struck a more cautious tone, with German philosopher and author Richard David Precht debating whether AI’s capabilities could make it not just an opportunity but also a threat, with the potential to displace humans from work.

Retail media advances

While Microsoft, Google, and other tech titans duke it out in the generative AI arms race, another class of titans is quietly building a back-end business model for the advertising of the future: retailers.

Retail media has emerged as one of the hottest trends in digital marketing in recent months, and it was clear that OMR attendees wanted to hear about it. Even the morning after OMR’s famously raucous parties — one of which had an end time of 6 a.m. on the official program — a retail media session featuring REWE, a large German retailer, was standing room only.

At another session discussing the future of e-commerce, business leaders noted that while lagging in the U.S., the growth of retail media in Europe is inevitable. “Everyone is in panic mode and trying to make up the lost time. The business model has changed, and it will never go back to how it was,” said Andreas Reiffen, CEO and founder at Crealytics, a retail media supply-side platform (SSP).

Tarek Müller, co-founder and managing director of About You, a German online fashion retailer, added that at his company retail media accounts for roughly 2.5 percent of revenue, but will likely increase to 3 percent to 5 percent “with high margins.”

However, he cautioned: “I don’t think consumers like advertisements. It really depends on how you execute retail media. You shouldn’t aggressively push it to the limit; it needs to stay relevant.”

Behind retail media’s rise is advertisers’ hunger for first-party data, said Philippe de Chanville, founder and CEO of ManoMano, a French online DIY store. “Data is becoming critical. In a cookieless world, having that ability to collect the data and give it to your sellers is priceless.”

Ethical marketing takes center stage

Amid the palpable excitement for technological innovations powering the next wave of digital advertising, industry leaders at OMR also firmly put the spotlight on privacy.

From bath-bomb maker Lush to Mozilla, companies at OMR were keen to showcase their commitment to privacy, with Lindsey O’Brien, Mozilla’s CMO, pointing to Gen Z as one of the main catalysts behind advertising’s reckoning with privacy.

Mozilla’s stance toward a privacy-conscious internet likely found a keen ear in Hamburg: from advocating for collecting only the data that’s needed for a service, to ensuring consumers get a clear value exchange from offering up their data, much of the company’s philosophy mirrors recent developments in European policy, such as the Digital Markets Act, targeted at reining in Big Tech advertising players in favor of consumer privacy.

It isn’t just regulators that are turning up the pressure on Big Tech, though. Brands are starting to question the large sums of money funneled into walled gardens, said Marc Bresseel, CEO at Utiq, a pan-European advertising joint venture that launched at OMR and is backed by telecom giants Vodafone, Telefonica, Orange, and Deutsche Telecom.

Formerly known as TrustPid in its testing phase, the service creates pseudo-anonymous, untraceable tokens representing users, which brands can use to connect with them. Users will also be able to give or refuse consent in a centralized “privacy hub” that will house all their data preferences. Utiq is already working with the likes of Axel Springer and Unilever, said Bresseel, and is soon expanding beyond Germany to Spain and France.

“An ad-funded internet creates economical value and employment. And we’re shooting ourselves in the foot if we don’t do things compliantly,” Bresseel said. “Privacy is a right, not a setting.”