Why the media network craze is just getting started

    Marriott broke ground earlier this month by launching the hospitality industry’s first media network. It is unlikely to be the last hotel owner to do so, and marketers shouldn’t be surprised if other sectors, from airlines to financial services, chase the same early-mover advantage in the months ahead.

    The demand for first-party data isn’t going anywhere with the death of cookies looming in 2023. Companies that own reams of personally identifiable information derived from digital properties like apps and websites are wizening up to the fact that those assets are very monetizable. As in, break out a new revenue segment monetizable. But as these media networks proliferate and scale, questions arise as to whether they’re lessening complexity for brands or simply adding another layer in a landscape that’s already notoriously hard to navigate. Marketers faced with a surfeit of options might get pickier in their choice partners and more demanding of transparency, narrowing the playing field.

    “In the wake of third-party cookies disappearing, companies that have a lot of first-party transaction or sales data and customer data really understand that’s a true source of competitive advantage,” said Julie Jeancolas, global head of media and customer engagement solutions at Dunnhumby. Dunnhumby works with Walmart, one of the leading retail media players, on a customer data-sharing platform called Luminate.

    “Any sector that has access to addressable first-party data that you can actually then target — and you have the consent of the customer — or any sector that has a large media estate can build a retail media network,” Jeancolas added.

    Retail has set the trend when it comes to media networks, and the pace is staggering. Companies ranging from big-box stores like Walmart and Target to niche and local players are rushing to stand up offerings that combine aspects of ad sales, technology and commerce. Ulta, the beauty brand, unveiled a UB Media network in May, speaking to how category-specific companies are coming around to the idea. Sephora, a rival, was hiring for a position that would help build a similar-sounding platform earlier this year.

    Retail media is the fastest-growing segment of media behind only connected TV, according to Michael Harrison, managing partner at Winterberry Group. Spending on retail media in the U.S. alone doubled to $40 billion in 2021, according to research from the consultancy. A major factor supporting growth has been the pandemic, which pressured companies to accelerate investments in digital transformation and make the jump to e-commerce and mobile channels. That’s been a rocky journey but provides clear benefits now that all eyes are on first-party data.

    “They’re riding the wave of everything becoming more digitally-driven,” said Harrison. “The shift to commerce is driving all of these retail media networks or media networks populating. You’ll continue to see it.”

    Fresh coat of paint

    Marriott’s announcement was noteworthy in billing the platform, which draws on the Bonvoy loyalty program comprised of 164 million members, specifically as a “media network” versus a traditional marketing arrangement.

    “Marriott has historically sold advertising targeted around the hotel you’re staying at,” said Harrison. “They have done that as one-offs or within email, so it’s been more like a newsletter rather than a real media network. Now, they have so much traffic to their properties that they own and operate, they can drive media revenue off of that.”

    UB Media, which relies on the brand’s Ultamate Rewards loyalty scheme, takes a similar approach. While Ulta has operated a marketing practice for years, this is technically its first retail media network.

    Other categories adopting the media network moniker recognize the success that retail has had with the branding and potentially see it as a method of attracting more advertiser dollars. These companies could “reposition, replatform and resell an existing marketing partner or points program or display program into something a little more sophisticated and modern,” said Chris Parker, founder and managing partner at the ad agency Scrum50.

    “The more interaction you have with the customer, the more you learn about them, the more you capture their preferences and the more you can personalize.”

    Julie Jeancolas

    Global head of media and customer engagement solutions, Dunnhumby

    That’s not to say all media network rollouts are simply slapping a fresh coat of paint on old goods. Marriott Media Network brings a full tech-stack collaboration with Yahoo, leveraging its sell-side and demand-side platforms.


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