‘This is the evolution of the advertising market’: Criteo’s Megan Clarken on cookies, retail media and where the industry is headed

Megan Clarken is one of the ANZ market's biggest advertising industry exports. With a career that spans the advent of Google to the demise of the third-party cookie, Mumbrella's Kalila Welch sat down with the Criteo CEO to get her take on what comes next.

There are few ANZ advertising exports who have enjoyed such longevity at the global level as Megan Clarken.

While historically more media shy than some of her counterparts, Clarken’s career has so far managed to intersect critical points in the evolution of digital media and marketing measurement, making her well placed to weigh in on some the key issues facing the industry at present.

Since 2019, Clarken has overseen a significant strategic transformation at the helm of global adtech company Criteo, amping up its commerce media platform and programmatic offering.

But stepping back some 25 years, she first found her footing in the Australian market after moving across the ditch from her native New Zealand to join the ‘start up crew’ of nineMSN’s Sydney operations.

After the dot com bubble burst several years later, Clarken found herself consulting to the likes of Akamai Technologies and News Corp, before landing her first role at measurement giant Nielsen. Here, her 15 year trajectory took her to New York City, as she climbed the ranks from a Sydney-based product specialist role, to become the company’s global chief operations officer in January 2019.

Less than a year later, Clarken left the measurement company to take on the top job at Criteo.

When asked what drew her to the French-head-quartered company, Clarken is frank that she was already on the hunt for a CEO role. But it was the opportunity to build out the business’ retail media assets that got her across the line.

“What I liked about it was the challenge – and there was a challenge. There was a lot to do. It was in the ad tech space, which is different to the measurement space, but close enough [for me] to be dangerous and understand it pretty quickly,” she said.

While the company “needed a lot of work”, Clarken was encouraged by its 19,000 strong customer base that to date processes about a trillion [US] dollars of e-commerce every year – which she points out is more than Amazon.

“What I saw in the corner was a very small startup or toe into retail media, and I thought, ‘okay, we’re going to pivot this business across to retail media’ – because retail media is the future.”

Her plan, she says, was to “mitigate the decline of the legacy business with the growth of the retail media business” to eventually become a “retail media company”.

“So I could see the path very clearly. I knew it would take a bunch of time. I didn’t expect some of the hurdles that came up along the way. But that’s the way it rolls.”

The comparison between the Australian and the US market

Based in New York City since 2013, Clarken has her own opinions on how the Big Apple truly compares to the local industry in Australia.

Of course, she’s quick to point out the difference in scale, alluding to a Sydney conference earlier in the day that “almost the entire market” attended.

The size of the US market, she says, can evolve into a “war of the heads”, meaning industry-wide change can be difficult to push forward – particularly from a measurement perspective. But when it moves, “it moves quickly”.

She also underlines the influence of global economy on the US advertising environment, through which political turmoil can very quickly have major impacts. By contrast, she says Australia is more likely to see these impacts over time, by way of a global “trickle down” effect.

While its geography can buffer the local advertising industry from some of the negative effects of global economics, Clarken notes it can sometimes see the market left behind during major changes – such as the deprecation of Google Chrome’s third-party cookie.

“Australia needs to make sure that they’re right on top of that, and because it’s changing by the day that’s quite challenging to do. So making sure the information flows through [to Australia] is critical.”

On what the death of the third-party cookie means for marketers globally

Globally, Clarken says the “lack of information coming through” about how to effectively prepare for Google’s deprecation process has left many marketers with the notion that “somebody else will fix it for me”.

But already this year she is encouraged by a growing acknowledgement of and effort to address the challenge ahead.

“I do think that’s because Google, to some extent, has pushed the agenda. I think Google has been very clear on their earnings calls that this is going to happen. And I think that there are more players stepping up to become part of the testing framework, and talk and understand what it is they need to do to be ready.”

In the fragmented digital environment, the loss of the third-party cookie will raise questions of the currency of new and evolving cross platform measurement systems. And one of the key hurdles, notes Clarken, will be in finding new technology to deduplicate audiences.

“In cross platform measurement, the currency is Reach – how many people did I get to – and Frequency – how many times did I get to them,” she says. “You lose the ability in a digital environment, on a desktop through a Chrome browser, to do frequency.”

“So that sort of technical capability to get to what the currency is, is the challenge. And again, it doesn’t need to be perfect, but it needs to be something that everybody is aligned to.”

“It may be that it’s viewability, or it may be that it’s something quite different,” she continues. “But it needs to be worked on really quickly.”

For Clarken, the priority moving into the cookie-less future will be to “to preserve the integrity and the use of the open internet, through every means that we have – so that we don’t end up with an internet that is just half a dozen walled gardens.”

On the growth of retail media

Retail media is the latest buzzy media channel to take adland by storm, and for good reason, says Clarken.

With typical margins above 70%, retail media offers an attractive secondary income stream for businesses that have the capability and the demand, meaning the exponential growth of the channel is no surprise.

“So many retailers, they’re not used to margins of that size. So this is a really attractive proposition for them to get into,” says Clarken.

Clarken says its also possible for non-traditional retailers to play in space, pointing to Uber’s sale of sponsored ads on its Uber Eats platform. She notes the ride share giant is a client of Criteo’s.

“The retail media sector, if you like, will get broader and will become more about commerce media – anybody who’s able to attract an audience, and then sell advertising space to that audience.”

It’s also a channel that will have an “enormous advantage” in the aftermath of cookie deprecation, because of its typically “logged on” environment.

“They have this closed loop environment that’s able to be measured backwards and forwards from the ads that appear on their site to advertise them, that they might send into the open internet.”

The ability to track both digital and in-store trade marketing activity in that closed loop environment offers a “proof point” to brands, says Clarken.

With a total addressable market “somewhere south of search but north of social” and a return on investment that’s “hard to beat”, she’s asserts retail offers a highly compelling proposition for advertisers.

On what’s next for the industry

Clarken says that while it is hard to see past what could be a very “mountainous” year ahead, in terms of cookie deprecation, she sees most players coming out the other side in good form “so long as they act quickly”.

“There’s a lot of challenges – everything from measurement to customer experience – and what we don’t want to do is give the consumer a terrible experience.”

Retail media and connected TV, she says, will be attracting a growing amount of advertising dollars, putting pressure on search, social and traditional platforms.

“I think that there’s probably going to be consolidation coming through because of cookie deprecation, which might give really interesting opportunities to some players to branch out in different directions or take advantage of what’s going on. But, you know, in my career, I’ve seen ebbs and flows and things come and go over and over again.”

“This is the evolution of the advertising market and we’re facing a really big potential change here.”


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