Two indie media agencies tackle e-commerce in distinct ways, including via Amazon, Shopify, for a more full-funnel sync with consumers

The world of e-commerce has suffered a whiplash of sorts since the pandemic started more than two years ago.

With consumers stuck at home, the segment went into overdrive growth — then hit the brakes hard the next year once people felt safe shopping in stores again. Now as the holding company players put on their neck braces and get back to business, a few independents are seizing the moment to beef up their own offerings in the broader commerce media space

CourtAvenue, which has its hands in agency media and creative, social, consulting and digital development, quietly got an e-commerce unit up and running behind the scenes since its founding in early 2020. Meanwhile, the newly rebranded Cincinnati-based Icon Commerce (formerly Icon Marketing & Communications) is working with three locally-based startup companies to help them grow their e-commerce and retail media businesses by tapping them into relationships it has with both Amazon and Shopify — Digiday has learned — access they wouldn’t have on their own.

(In a small-world coincidence, Michael Stich, general partner and CEO of services at CourtAvenue, and Jason Bender, chief experience officer at Icon Commerce, worked together at Rockfish, a digital agency that was sold back in 2011 to WPP.) 

For CourtAvenue, the secret to success in commerce media is based on a combination of beefing up content while also ramping up consumer research. Working with clients including  Elanco (a pet pharmaceutical firm backed by Eli Lilly, Bayer and Pfizer) and Epson, Stich and head of commerce strategy Bourke Kelley, agreed technological advances have helped enable some of what the agency is doing for clients, particularly in business-to-business (B2B) marketing.  

“We’re betting on some of this future stuff and finding cost effective and automatable ways to do things that have historically been expensive,” said Stich. “What is inexorable, I would argue, is our ability to see a consistent curve of increase of e-commerce rates to continue for most spaces. And that has a lot of good implications for what we want to do as marketers in terms of our own mix.” 

To Stich, consumers’ constant thirst for short, snackable content, especially video, is fueling the agency’s moves into content in e-commerce. “We all have less extensive attention spans than we’ve ever had before — thank you TikTok. [Every platform] is overhauling to increase video or [add] more animation.”

Laura Gustafson, senior director of e-commerce growth & innovation in global digital marketing at Elanco, said CourtAvenue’s content-intensive approach has some potential.

“We used to in the industry really just take brand creative, crop it and spec it out for the digital shelf and just put it up — OK great,” said Gustafson. “This time around, beyond just SEO optimization, CourtAvenue’s doing dynamic, insightful testing and learning as well as customization for the retail last mile based on retailer algorithm. That approach has been really helpful in advancing our digital shelf content.” 

But CourtAvenue also does a lot of homework before diving into content, added Kelley, mostly in the form of consumer research — to make sure what’s being built is actually of appeal to clients’ customers. 

“We go to the customer and ask them what they need instead of us dictating what that looks like. So we put customer research really central into what we create from a commerce practice perspective,” explained Kelley. “And we were able to bubble up some of those learnings and synthesize them to use those in planning for other B2B clients to say, ‘You really need to make sure you’re increasing how you’re doing visualizations.” 

Meanwhile, the freshly rebranded Icon Commerce over the last three years has invested some $7.5 million into building out the tech, personnel and other needs to get its commerce media operation up to snuff, said CEO and founder Shawn Murdock. Part of that was acquiring SpaceShop, a firm run by Brandy Alexander-Wimberly, who’s now Icon Commerce’s senior director of strategy. 

“As fast as commerce and marketing and technology is moving, agencies who don’t move fast and stay with it and continue to look at what’s next to try to stay ahead of that curve will die, said Murdock. “We made a very intentional and big investment to move in this direction.”

And now, Icon has started a business incubator that uses its access to Amazon and Shopify tools to help three local businesses in its hometown of Cincinnati apply those tools for growth. Case studies that can help Icon attract other clients seems to be the payoff for its benevolence toward CinSoy, a locally produced artisanal soy sauce; Metromont, a 3D printing farm that makes tech accessories; and District 78, a Black-owned candlemaker.

“As part of our membership in the Amazon Ads Creative Services Marketplace, we’re given access to emerging data that we are utilizing to develop a new tool that will be available in the Amazon Selling Partner Appstore,” said Alexander-Wimberly. “We’ve used this tool, which is currently in development, to help these micro-brands with their Amazon store launch creative and advertising targeting.”

“You can close a sale today, but what if it’s not good for the brand long term?” added Bender. “You need to be thinking about closing the deal and building the brand all at the same time.” In other words, full funnel wins the day. 

Icon’s clients seem to appreciate the access they wouldn’t otherwise get. “When we tried to do Amazon ourselves it was… very confusing,” said Sam Pellerito, CEO and founder of CinSoy Foods. “Without a streamlined onboarding process, we simply didn’t understand every element that needed to be completed to be successful … Previously I had inventory on Amazon for six months and hardly sold anything. Now we are in phase 2 of the incubator and we have already sold out.”

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