Acxiom’s CEO on why everything’s an ad network now, and what that means

The undeniable explosion of growth among retail media networks has not been lost on Acxiom, the data giant owned by agency holding company IPG.

Nor has the business opportunity been lost on the company, which is practically salivating at the prospect of serving up more of its data to enable more retailers to get in the game, as well as for more brands to find receptive audiences.

As more and more brands gather first-party data, it’s created the market condition that Acxiom CEO Chad Engelgau described as the chance for everyone to be an ad network. “Uber is an advertising network. Premium streaming services are now driving to becoming ad-funded,” he said.

Engelgau, a longtime Acxiom veteran who took over as CEO in early 2020, caught up with Digiday to talk about what’s brought about the rise of retail media networks, how Acxiom will harness the information consumers in the metaverse generate, and the need for marketers to focus on connecting their internal data to be more effective.

The following conversation has been edited for space and clarity. 

Explain the role Acxiom has in growth among retail media networks. 

Because retail media networks are built off of shoppers in market to spend their money, there is a methodology around audience delivery that can be built through Acxiom and others, where with confidence we can say we want this audience segment, whether it’s specific individuals or groups or types of people, that can be delivered by that network.

That network has confidence in sharing the exposure data back in a clean room or a closed loop measurement solution with providers, whether they’re social media networks, mobile networks, or others who don’t want their measurement data commingled. Brands want to be able to give their conversion data to a trusted partner, to develop their audiences — they don’t want to have to hand over their exposure data to some other third party to get the measurement report back. So this synergistic ecosystem really creates this infrastructure for direct marketing best practices, where there’s a high level of confidence that the results are going to be clearly understood.

How soon will RMNs start to attract categories outside CPG as the data gets more exact?

Many CMOs I talk to want to optimize media spend. They say, “It would be really great if I can understand all of this brand exposure that I have. And how that brand exposure is actually tying into my performance media. And how many times am I really reaching people above the line and below the line? And what is that really doing?” Because there’s a lot of spend on both those areas, and they’re not really tied together. It will be easier because you’re going to be able to do both brand and performance marketing on the same platforms, and you’re going to be able to get really confident in who you’re reaching and how often they’re being exposed.

The challenge is this vision that there was such a thing as multi-touch attribution when we already have 25 plus walled gardens who will not allow their measurement to be commingled. What’s that saying? Multi-touch attribution is dead — long live multi-touch attribution. Because you can’t commingle these datasets. There’s going to be another level of data science and work to bring that picture into the level of clarity that people really want.

Does the advent of greater use of clean rooms just make an already complex market even more confused?

Two things are going on. One, everything’s an ad network and all of these ad networks are going to be walled gardens. Even Apple is now an advertising platform, and they’re going to be the biggest walled garden in terms of things only go in and they never come out.

It also talks to the power of the open web, because in the open web, and through industry standards, we do have a broader and better picture of what’s happening across the ecosystem and across platforms and across consumption patterns. Clean rooms are interesting in that there is new clean-room technology, but the concept is fundamentally around marketing collaboration. And [we] have been delivering marketing collaboration solutions for well over a decade — co-branded credit cards, for example. We’ve been managing their data through secure FTP and have been commingling their data.

It’s simply the continued evolution of how technology is enhancing and expediting data collaboration, whether it’s for audience creation, shared insights, campaign management, audience execution, measurement, etc.

On the cusp of marketing in the metaverse and Web 3, how will you get involved?

Gamers have always been in the metaverse. Creating experiential engagement is what it’s about. Gaming platforms, whether it’s PlayStation Network or Roblox, is going to try to monetize their audience — because everything’s an ad network. That’s going to happen in similar ways to how Facebook has worked in the past. They’re going to know who’s logged in primarily based on the email address of the user. They’re going to be able to hash that email or talk to you about the behaviors that they see in that ecosystem. Not only can Acxiom help them better understand what those people look like, and what they do outside of the platform, because we’re part of IPG and the broader advertising ecosystem, we can help create lookalike audiences, say what audiences can be reached, and help them do the measurement.

What’s the biggest change in identity that’s going to happen in 2023? 

Brands are going going to need to really look at how they build first-party identity graphs. It’s not easy — you need experts to do that. It spans every part of their business. It spans your websites, your mobile apps, your kiosks, your in-store experiences, your direct mail, your email, your digital marketing — even how you interact with the advertising ecosystem overall. All that information you have about people can be put onto a key like a UID or into a clean room where you don’t have to expose your PII but you can still share data and information. It is literally one of the foundational aspects of the future for brands to take ownership have greater transparency.

The biggest challenge people face is everyone says they can solve that problem. Every customer data platform in the world says they’re going to manage your customer data, they’re gonna give you a key for your client. Right. But it takes a lot more than a SaaS platform in order to make those things a reality.

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