Agencies partner with platforms like Instacart as retail competition increases

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Agencies are increasingly partnering with social and retail platforms to gain an edge in reaching consumers with direct access to their data.

With retail media rising as a mid-to-lower-funnel option for advertisers, signing partnership agreements with platforms can give agencies access to skills training and media strategies. Last week, grocery delivery platform Instacart launched its ad certification program for brands and advertisers, Ads Academy, to educate (and woo) more advertisers and their media agencies.

More agencies will “continue to partner with platforms like this directly,” said Rob Silver, evp head of media at Razorfish.

“Close partnerships like these between agencies and platforms … [in the digital space] historically drove a more holistic relationship looking at all aspects of how the agency and platform partnered, rather than a more transactional relationship,” Silver added. “It is a natural progression to move these relationships into more emerging partners that are fighting for a share of investment from the bigger existing partners in the space.”

Despite uncertain economic signals, IPG’s Magna unit expects the U.S. ad market to stay resilient in 2023 — with a forecast of retail media ad revenue growing 15% to reach $41 billion. Below-the-line marketing budgets into digital media is fueling growth for retail media networks, while in-store marketing budgets are being reallocated into RMNs.

The Instacart program will be available to all brands and agencies, with GroupM among the early partners using it to drive campaign performance. The Ads Academy covers topics from Instacart campaign skills to ad formats and automation tools, with course content provided by some 20 agency partners, including The Mars Agency, Ascential, Tinuiti and Publicis.

Amy Lanzi, newly named CEO of Digitas North America, but who was COO of Publicis Commerce at the time of this interview, said the partnership allows the organization to shape the curriculum and use it to provide training for its key commerce teams and brands. Some of Publicis Commerce’s marketplace partners also include Walmart and eBay.

“The [Instacart] certification enables our agencies to maximize campaign performance and drive brand growth by understanding the nuances of the platform and its offerings,” Lanzi said. “The training also enables us to continue to deliver guidance and growth in the new age of commerce.”

Lanzi added, “We expect agencies to strategically partner more closely with [Instacart] to ensure growth for their clients.” Essentially, agencies are trying to help clients identify current and potential customers, so being on Instacart helps them reach a wide audience of shoppers.

Based on Instacart’s internal tests on sponsored products in 2023, the company said advertisers saw more than 15% incremental sales lift. Instacart partners with some 6,000 CPG brands and operates services from more than 80,000 stores across North America.

The advantage for platforms like Instacart is that they also get to “differentiate themselves in a quickly maturing space with new entrants every month,” said Sifat Ullah, vp of performance media at Exverus Media.

Ullah said more agencies are entering these platform partnerships, as they give clients assurance that they are experts at newer media and tech partners. “It ensures we always bring beta opportunities and the newest thinking to our clients first,” Ullah added.

Rob Davis, CMO and president of independent agency Novus Media, said his agency also partners with many publishers and platforms now. For example, through its partner Viant, the agency buys digital audiences and gets access to millions of anonymized data points, plus the ability to build custom tools.

“So [the partner] gets more business from us than they might otherwise, and we get access to data that would otherwise be difficult or expensive to secure,” Davis said. “It’s true a win-win.”

Earlier this month, Reddit similarly expanded its partner outreach to independent agencies as it tries to make offerings more competitive to other social apps. The platform already has agreements with all the major holding companies. Horizon Media, PMG and Wpromote are among the latest independent partners.

“Reddit, in particular, is smart to deploy a program like this, because the platform tends to have a very black-and-white perception with advertisers,” said Nitin Sinha, head of paid media at agency Laundry Service. “Many clients, and often their agency partners, hold an outdated view of the platform as being the wild west of the internet, whereas others realize the value of a massive, engaged, and passionate audience.”

Sinha explained that media planning and buying strategies need to help differentiate from “brands that simply outspend their competition.” So there is more value in these platforms that try and educate buyers on how to use their offerings and secure an alternative advantage when outspent by the competition.

Spark Foundry’s evp of commerce, April Carlisle, agreed that platform partners are essential to the development of commerce and retail media — especially because platforms are constantly changing.

“Platforms like Instacart are perpetually reiterating based on ambitious roadmaps and keeping up with investment opportunities from brands,” Carlisle said, adding that there are often soft launches on features that come with no formal training or certification.

And as commerce media continues to expand through e-commerce, sales and traditional search performance, agencies will continue to seek out partnerships to keep up with the “measures with a mix of managed and self-service buying modalities,” added Carlisle.

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