Deja Vu: A Hard Look at Retail Media Networks

Are we on the path to repeat the missteps of ad network history? Yup. Will there be a collective gasp of disbelief when the realties fall well short of the hype? Count on it.

Travis Lusk
Travis Lusk

I'm about to drop a 2024 prophecy: We're hitting 'peak retail media network.'

Imagine a gold rush, but instead of miners with pans, picture every big box retailer scrambling to unveil their unique digital advertising powers. It's going to be a frenzy of investment reallocation, with dollars flowing like a river redirected.

But, as with all frenzies, the second half of 2025 is where the music stops, and the scramble for chairs begins. We'll witness a grand consolidation - not the merging of e-commerce titans, but a fusion of their behind-the-scenes tech and activation platforms. It's about streamlining transactions for brands and shaving off the excess overhead for retailers.

A repeat of Network sins

Ahh the good old days of ad network hand-to-hand combat.

Let's take a walk down memory lane, but not for nostalgia's sake. Remember our ad network ancestors? Those behemoths from 2000 to 2015?

I sure do…I worked at a few.

Brace yourselves: Retail Media Networks (RMNs) are their doppelgängers.

Here’s a quick refresher course: What were those OG digital ad networks really about? Strip away the fluff, and you get two things - a heap of undifferentiated inventory and some snazzy user-targeting tricks. That's it.

Since the inventory was not unique, what were you really buying? You were essentially gambling on their targeting genius, delivering more outcomes at a cheaper price. Not an unreasonable ask by any means.

Enter programmatic.

It waltzed in and declared, “Guess what? We can do all that jazz – minus the army of humans and long-term ball-and-chains.” And just like that, most ad networks got a taste of obsolescence.

Fast forward to 2024: RMNs. Picture ad networks from 2009, now with shinier tech. Retro, but not in a cool way.

There are two buzzwords I want you to watch like a hawk. First, “network.” The moment someone pitches you a digital ad network, I want you to hear alarm bells and revisit this very newsletter.

Second, “partner(s).” Sounds warm and fuzzy, right? Like they've been handpicked for excellence. Spoiler alert: It’s just a network in a tuxedo.

Now, for the million-dollar question: What sins are we blindly repeating under the RMN banner?

  1. Transparency: Where are our ads really prancing around? Many brands believe they're exclusively on premium retail sites. Reality check: Most find their ads on a motley slew of domains and apps, previously unknown to mankind.
  2. Measurement: We're obsessed with outcomes. Or more accurately, the perceived outcomes. Our attribution models are overly positive, showing fantastic ROIs almost always. But hey, where's the demand for granular, domain-level measurement?
  3. Incrementality: The art of robust incrementality testing is as rare as a polite political debate. Remember, the inventory in these networks isn’t some exclusive club. It’s the same old sites you can find in any major DSP. You're just paying for the privilege to target known retail customers.
  4. Cannibalization: How much of the RMN magic is just cannibalizing sales that would've happened anyway, and then taking a victory lap for it?

Paid search inside a retailer’s site might be an outlier, but it's probably the champion of organic conversion theft.

Paid search ads on retail sites work like Google and Bing ads. But here's the twist: the shopper is already on the e-commerce site, wallet in hand, so to speak. This proximity to the checkout might seem like a marketer's dream, but it's also where lines blur.

How much of this is just scooping up conversions that were bound to happen anyway? It's like claiming credit for the sunrise just because you happened to be awake.

Sooo pull all the RMN investment?

Does this mean it's time to yank all your investments from Retail Media Networks (RMNs) this year? Of course not – that's not what I'm suggesting.

Instead, what I'm advocating for is a kind of digital advertising enlightenment. We've been down this road before, and we've learned – sometimes the hard way – what works and what backfires spectacularly. Now it's time to use that hard-earned wisdom.

RMNs, armed with first-party shopper data, are not just tools; they're potential game-changers for driving performance. But – and this is a big 'but' – they require masterful oversight. It's like being handed the keys to a Formula 1 car. Sure, it's powerful, but without the skill to drive it, you'll end up just making a lot of noise and going nowhere fast.

Proper due diligence and governance are the keys here. This isn't just about keeping an eye on your investments. It's about deep diving into how these networks operate, understanding the intricacies of their data usage, and ensuring transparency and ethical practices are more than just buzzwords – they're the foundation of your strategy.

We need to evolve from being passive participants who occasionally check the dashboard, to active, informed investors who understand the field and make strategic moves. It's about knowing when to push forward and when to pull back.

So, before you make any drastic moves with your RMN investments this year, take a moment. Assess not just the 'what' of your strategy, but the 'how' and the 'why.'

Question for the Room

Here's a question that's been rattling around in my head over the holiday break:

Are exchanges and DSPs that facilitate transactions on Made for Advertising (MFA) sites crossing into the territory of predatory business practices?

And yes, I'm genuinely on the fence about this one.

Let's break it down.

On one side, there's the free market argument. If there's a meeting of minds between a willing seller and a willing buyer, more power to them, right? As long as they're not tiptoeing over legal lines or engaging in outright fraud, it's all fair game.

But then, there's the other side of the coin, and it's a bit more unsettling.

These platforms, they're not just passive bystanders. They know the score - that a significant chunk of buyers are out of their depth, trying to navigate an ocean of domains and vet an endless parade of suppliers.

It gets thornier. The platforms are acutely aware they've got a roster of clients who might as well be buying magic beans. They’re not just selling ad space; they're selling the illusion of savvy investment.

Sure, buyers should arm themselves with knowledge, build their own safeguards. But let's not kid ourselves. When ignorance is part of the business model, things start to feel less like ignorance and more like exploitation.

So, where does that leave us? Are we okay with this "buyer beware" ecosystem, or is it time to call out the elephant in the room and demand a cleaner game?

What do you think? Because, honestly, the more I mull it over, the more it all starts to feel a bit… yucky.

Leave a comment, and let me know your thoughts.

Retail Media

Travis Lusk Twitter

Opinionated digital advertising practitioner, consultant for Fortune 100 Brands, and writer at