Justin Sparks on How Criteo Built a Retail Media Platform

Jane O'Hara
Jane O'Hara
Justin Sparks on How Criteo Built a Retail Media Platform

On May 27, Criteo launched a self-serve Retail Media ad platform for its media network. The new platform offers advertisers more granular targeting, optimization, and measurement for their ad buys — and greater transparency with a flat SaaS fee and percentage of media spend.

With e-commerce surging this spring and expected to continue beyond the pandemic, I was curious to learn how Criteo’s new platform might make it easier for advertisers to reach consumers without resorting to the standard ad platforms of Facebook and Google.

My recent interview with Justin Sparks, Director of Strategic Partnerships for Criteo’s Retail Media division, offers a behind-the-scenes look at this product, plus advice for others looking to build products that respond to advertisers’ needs and consumer trends.
"Be relentless in your pursuit to solve a challenge for your customer base. The most successful products are the ones that become foundational to a customer’s ability to manage their business."
Justin Sparks, Criteo

When did you first begin working on the Retail Media platform?

Criteo first stepped into the retail media market in 2016 when we acquired HookLogic. We saw the impact that sponsored product placements had on fueling media monetization for retailers and integrated this strategically into our wider offerings for advertisers. We also saw an increase in demand from brand advertisers for more awareness-oriented ad offerings, which led to our acquisition of Storetail and its Commerce Display solution in 2018. Through both of these solutions, we sought to enable brands to increase consideration and conversions with display placements on other sites.

How long did it take to build? Any unforeseen challenges or surprises?

We've been focused on retail media since 2016. In May 2019 we hired our first General Manager of Retail Media, Geoffroy Martin, and with that came a new vision and objective: to create a technology platform that powers the most efficient and measurable media ecosystem for retail advertisers. It took about a year, as we finally launched the platform in May 2020.

With such a short time frame to rethink and build the technology from scratch, we had to adapt our approach to project management at a much faster pace. We started by translating the vision into actionable product objectives.

How did the pandemic affect your launch timeline, product development, and ability to build and collaborate across teams?

The pandemic pushed back our launch timeline a bit, but Criteo was able to adapt to remote working quickly and efficiently. As you can imagine, with the pandemic, particularly in retail and in media, our clients went through resource assessment exercises and contingency plans in the spring.

While we did adjust our timeline slightly, the launch of our platform has become increasingly important as retailers are seeing record sales volume and want to reach their consumers on other e-commerce sites.

How many different people/teams were involved in the building process?

Under Geoffroy's leadership, there was extensive coordination between several teams, such as Product, R&D, Account Strategy, Supply and UX. When building a platform, it’s essential to maintain synergy across departments.

It was critical for our teams to understand the priorities of our clients, including retailers, brands, and agencies, while also balancing foundational needs for our Product and R&D teams.

This required putting in a structure to facilitate a feedback loop between external and internal-facing teams in order to account for the client priorities each team was hearing in the field.

Did you experience any initial challenges with ad formats, targeting, scale, and/or performance?

As with building any new product, we did go through a stabilization assessment as we brought in our ad formats and ran tests. We have progressed from a minimal viable product phase to general availability over the past year and are confident in the ability of our retail media platform to scale across our markets going forward.

How does the Retail Media platform leverage retailers’ first-party data to improve ad targeting?

Criteo's Retail Media platform is the first of its kind and allows brands and agencies to buy ad inventory across multiple retailers to reach engaged shoppers at a digital point of sale environment, without the reliance on third-party cookies.

Through our direct relationship with retailers, we leverage a combination of their first-party data (increasingly tied to deterministic identity) and contextual data to target, optimize, and measure campaigns.

How did the Retail Media build compare to other platforms you’ve worked on?

We’ve been fortunate to have incredible assets from our HookLogic and Storetail acquisitions. Since we were a division built off of two different acquisitions, we needed to build from the ground up.

"The project of consolidating the assets from Hooklogic and Storetail into a single platform was a first for Criteo, and we’re very proud to have homegrown technology that will be leading the way for the retail media ecosystem."
Justin Sparks

Personally, it certainly has been a unique experience to build a platform in-house that addresses the broader retail market!

How have U.S. and Canadian advertisers responded to the platform and features?

We’ve helped many brands and agencies in the U.S. understand the value of retail media and have seen many re-allocate their budgets accordingly as consumer spending has shifted online throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, we’ve seen brands use a lot of their upper-funnel dollars (i.e. TV, out-of-home) and placing them toward retail media instead to drive immediate results.

CMOs and marketing leaders often face pressure to tie back advertising with ROI. With retail media, brands have access to first-party data to understand measurement around sales that they can use to drive revenue. We can provide sales accountability to advertising expenditures.

Lastly, we’ve had overwhelmingly positive feedback on the direction we’ve taken with the platform and what we’re providing for our advertisers. It has been the only project in my career that I can think of that has had unanimous support across brands and agencies, both at the day-to-day and leadership levels. It’s validated our assumptions on what advertisers are looking for as retail media continues to accelerate and grow in importance for their organizations.

What do you anticipate for Retail Media’s expanded launch (to Europe, Asia, etc.) later this year?

We’re always innovating and eager to improve our technology to best serve our clients. We believe that our Retail Media platform will truly accelerate retail media to the next level of brand investment over the next year.

By retailers around the globe banding together and allowing the rising tide to lift all boats, they can create a thriving ecosystem that sets the standards for how brands and agencies buy.

We’re offering a transparent-by-design platform that enables retailers to scale their retail media businesses and makes it easier for brands to buy across retailers using standardized workflows and metrics.

Additionally, as agencies see commerce as the next frontier of services, they want to be able to manage campaigns via self-service tools and apply traditional media buying techniques to the retail media environment. This will propel retail media forward.

How do you see your product solutions work changing in the next 2–5 years?

Our team continues to focus on what our customers need and how we can provide unique value to the market. There’s an opportunity to connect the deterministic first-party data from our retailers to new ad formats, as well as measurement and insights. These are areas we will explore to support our brands in increasing product sales with revenue accountability.

What advice would you offer Product Managers looking to build innovative ad platforms?

Cross-department synergy is crucial for any successful platform. Be prepared and get market feedback quickly to understand your customers’ key challenges. Maintain organization and embrace an ‘all-hands-on-deck' approach to product management and development.

Be relentless in your pursuit to solve a challenge for your customer base. The most successful products are the ones that become foundational to a customer’s ability to manage their business.

If our product managers can be successful in identifying and solving challenges for our clients, the probability of building for impactful innovation will only increase.

Justin Sparks is Director of Strategic Partnerships, Retail Media at Criteo. Justin joined the Criteo team in the New York office in 2017. He works in Criteo’s Retail Media division in the U.S. leading Global Strategic Partnerships and GTM Strategy. Prior to Criteo, Justin worked for Spark Foundry under the Publicis Groupe and Horizon Media, helping build the Performance Media practice at Spark Foundry and was on HookLogic’s Customer Advisory board prior to their acquisition.

Many thanks to Justin for sharing his time and ad product insights.

Jane O'Hara
Jane O'Hara

Jane is the Senior Marketing Manager at Kevel. She enjoys discovering user-first ad platforms and articulating the value of Kevel's ad serving APIs.