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5 minutes with retail media powerhouse SMG’s Helen Johnson

5 minutes with Helen Johnson, Media & insight group director, SMG.

Illustration by Reagan Hicks / Shutterstock / The Current

By now, one might think the advertising world would have run out of superlatives to describe retail media’s ascendancy.

Maybe not quite yet: after all, GroupM just name-checked the category as the shining star behind its prediction that the global advertising market will reach $1 trillion in value faster than it initially predicted.

To Helen Johnson, however, it’s not all rosy. The retail industry veteran and key exec at SMG, one of Britain’s top retail media players, told The Current about the challenges she sees hampering retail media’s development in the U.K. and beyond, from fragmentation to a lack of standardization around measurement.

But she also sees opportunities, like the growth of offsite retail media and the channel’s brand-building potential. And for marketers moving past cookies, Johnson lays out why she thinks retail data is simply the superior option.

Can retail data really sub in for the cookie?

Retailer’s first-party data is a powerful alternative. Firstly, the scale of data is attractive, with 80% of British shoppers being members of at least one loyalty scheme, which means many UK retailers can tap millions of consumers as an addressable audience.

Secondly, the data is incredibly rich with advertisers being able to understand consumer behavior dynamics such as breadth of basket (both in store and online), propensity to purchase a brand or a category and customer lifetime value.

This, combined with the closed loop measurement gives advertisers ROI visibility answering the holy grail question of, “did my campaign actually deliver sales and net pay out in the short and long term?”

Critically, it is the advancement in tech over the past five years which has made this data accessible to advertisers in a sophisticated way across in store, on site, and off site. A key example being the partnerships with clean room providers, enabling retail media data to be matched to identity solutions such as EUID creating privacy conscious, interoperable identifiers that can be used to activate across the open web.

I would argue retail data is not just a sub for the cookie, but superior.

What frustrates you about the current state of retail media in the U.K.?

A lot! Firstly, the market is incredibly fragmented, with each RMN offering its own standalone solutions that can’t provide a single platform for advertisers. This makes activating retail media resource-heavy, complex, and difficult to control frequency and efficiency. It also means it’s hard work for advertisers to build up a clear national picture of their retail media plans.

Secondly, measurement is not standardized, making it difficult to understand true performance and compare results across different RMNs. From my experience, this is not because retailers don’t have the desire to standardize but more than it’s incredibly hard to do with many different, complex, and often archaic data systems. Most of the key retailers are working with industry boards such as IAB and IBSA in a collaborative manner to advance in this space but it’s not an easy fix.

Furthermore, within the measurement space, brands are often looking at retail media with the historical focus of short-term ROI and as such missing out on the role that retail media could play in driving longer term brand objectives.

With most retailer in-store touchpoints giving consumers more opportunity to see versus TV adverts, advertisers need to be curious to learn how retail media can build awareness, shift equity perceptions and not just drive immediate sales.

What excites you about retail media?

As more advertisers discover the power of retail media outside of the traditional “shopper media” space, which is boosting revenue flows, we’re seeing more focus from ad- and mar-tech companies, both small and big, new retailers building networks and better talent coming into the industry and cross collaboration. This, in turn, brings better innovation, solutions, capabilities and services to the industry.

The explosion of offsite opportunities and partnerships across the past 6 months in both managed and self-service provides a good example here. But it’s the tip of the iceberg.

What’s one thing in retail media that marketers are not paying enough attention to?

The quality of the creative. There is a huge focus on the quality of audiences, touchpoint buying, optimization tactics and measurement – but fundamentally many marketers are not focused enough on the message and creative execution. Nearly 50% of ROI is driven by creative quality and you can have the best media plan in the world but if the creative isn’t right, it’s not going deliver the desired ROI.

Retail media has historically been seen as a very transactional, rational form of marketing leading to creative executions such as packshots and price. But if you want to really build a genuine connection with a consumer, they also need to be inspired and educated.

Where does British retail media go from here?

I see three key trends from the next 12 months and beyond.

Further advances in omnichannel (not to be confused with multi-channel) and measurement capabilities through identity solution integrations into new channels and advanced analytics.

Smart integration of AI will transform both the efficiency and effectiveness of every part of the retail media ecosystem and enable one to one real-time personalization on a mass scale.

Greater collaboration across retailers (of all sizes) and tech companies in building national solutions offering advertisers a richer and easier way for them to plan, buy, optimize and evaluate seamlessly within the RM space.