How WPP’s Triad Media is turning retailers into ad sellers

When Sherry Smith joined Triad Retail Media back in 2007, her first task was to build an office in Bentonville, Arkansas, to help Walmart-owned Sam’s Club sell ads and run product promotions.

“The concept of digital retail was unheard of at the time, and we started with Walmart as the first client,” said Smith, who was promoted from chief customer officer to CEO for Triad in September. “The thinking is that customers browse and shop on retail sites, so there’s an opportunity to educate them on products available and promotional offers in-store. What we do is connect shoppers, retailers and brands together.”

Today, Triad’s Bentonville office of around 30 employees is mainly dedicated to Sam’s Club, while the Walmart-specific teams are spread across cities like Chicago, San Francisco and New York City. With 500 employees across 12 offices globally, Triad is headquartered in St. Petersburg, Florida, and now part of WPP Group. But throughout the years, Triad has helped Walmart and Sam’s Club build both insertion order-based media buys on their websites and a managed-service programmatic network called Walmart Exchange. Brands like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola also pay Triad to create ads on or

Triad’s success with Walmart has helped it strike deals with other major retailers. Replicating some components of the Walmart model, Triad today is helping brands like CVS, Kohl’s and Staples create ad units to sell on their respective websites. Triad declined to share its most recent revenue numbers, but the company said its gross revenues were more than $500 million in 2015, with over $120 million in net revenues.

“Walmart is the foundation of my time at Triad,” said Smith. “A big piece that retailers are interested in is the media revenue we bring in that can compensate for their e-commerce initiatives like free shipping and promotional offers, et cetera.”

While Triad has run Walmart’s ad sales for a long time, the concept of retail media didn’t go mainstream until Amazon became a formidable player in advertising around two years ago, according to Smith. “The rise of Amazon is good news for us as it brings the voice of retail to media agencies,” said Smith. “But Amazon only represents around 11 percent of the U.S. e-commerce market — there’s a much bigger world outside of Amazon for brands to connect with shoppers.”

Triad’s goal, said Smith, is to help retailers monetize the remaining 89 percent of the U.S. e-commerce market through their own advertising offerings. For each retailer, Triad has a big team to support the brand’s ad business from ad sales and account management to program management, media operations and ad creative, according to Smith.

“We have developed and maintained deep relationships with big retailers for years,” she said. “We don’t have any competitors in terms of monetizing a full retailer program.”

Brian Wieser, senior research analyst for Pivotal, agreed. “Triad is very quietly building an interesting ad business, and I can’t point you to a competitor,” said Wieser. “Except for Amazon, no other retailers have the scale to establish their own ad sales force, so selling ads for retailers is a niche that Triad has been doing.”

Holding group WPP saw an opportunity in retail media last year, with GroupM-owned programmatic arm Xaxis acquiring Triad for around $300 million. Triad still operates as a standalone company, and it works more closely with other WPP agencies — including Geometry Global, Kantar Retail, Rockfish Digital and Mindshare’s Shop+ division — than with Xaxis, according to Brian Gleason, global CEO of Xaxis and mPlatform.

Wieser believes Xaxis’ acquisition of Triad makes perfect sense, as both companies don’t belong to the traditional agency business that buys media and create ads; both Triad and Xaxis sell media. Because of that, Wieser sees Triad as an ad network instead of an agency.

“Triad will help Xaxis branch out into the fast-growing e-commerce space, selling ad inventory beyond Facebook, Google and Amazon,” he said.

Gleason thinks that as big retailers understand and use their online and in-store sales data better, they’ll be able to prove the value of a dollar spent on an ad on their website. And the ad demand for retail media will continue to grow, as retailers’ first-party data allows advertisers to reach consumers at scale based on their demographics, geography and behavior in-store, online and on mobile, according to Smith.

“We are at the infancy of understanding retail media,” said Gleason. “As technology evolves, you can see lots of [ad] innovations on mobile, and you will see lots of exciting things from Walmart.”

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