Are Retailers the New Agencies?

Internal teams like Target's Roundel are brands' new weapons

Roundel is armed with data, in-house creative and media buying. Target
Headshot of Diana Pearl

At last month’s upfronts, Target gathered press and media buyers in a room bathed in neon lighting on New York’s West Side, where one of the company’s executives presented the retailer’s newest innovation: Roundel.

Rebranded from Target Media Network, Roundel is Target’s in-house media network. The shop offers content creation, media placement and other advertising-related services for brands lining the shelves of Target stores, like Disney and Unilever, as well as those that don’t, like Mastercard. It’s a model we’ve seen other behemoths debut in recent years. Walmart Media Group and Expedia Group Media Solutions follow a similar formula, and major brands like Verizon and Procter & Gamble have brought some or all of their advertising in-house. But now, these marketers aren’t just doing their own advertising—they’re offering services to other brands, too.

"To be able to aggregate our data to make audience and behavioral decisions is a key aspect of why the industry is super intrigued by retailers."
Kristi Argyilan, president, Roundel

The relationships these brands already have with such a variety of vendors makes it easier to extend their scope into advertising, explained Roundel president Kristi Argyilan. “Target not only being on the buy side of media but also the sell side was a real natural extension of the type of business that a retailer has the right to be in,” she said.

Similarly, Walmart creates an “end-to-end” advertising experience for brands, said Stefanie Jay, vp and general manager of Walmart Media Group (which, unlike Roundel, only works with brands sold at Walmart stores or on, though it does place ads on channels Walmart doesn’t own). Services like Walmart Media Group are borne from the desire to create a seamless Walmart experience for consumers, she added.

“It’s very important in the overall customer experience that we stay in touch with the customer process lens, whether they’re discovering, researching or shopping,” Jay said. “And one way to continue to do that is to stay in front of them with relevant brand messaging.”

These in-house agencies primarily started out as internal services, but they’ve evolved over time to work with outside brands as well. That’s the reason behind the Target Media Network-Roundel rebrand, said Argyilan: to signal to marketers that Roundel works with premium outside partners, rather than just selling ads on Target’s website.

“Knowing where people are and how people buy and act and what their behaviors are—that’s really what [in-house agencies] bring to the table,” said Sally Witzky, senior director and analyst at research and advisory company Gartner. “They know that audience and where the appropriate place in the customer journey to serve up ads is, and where it isn’t.”

Companies like Target and Walmart are in a unique position to make that journey particularly relevant for consumers, given the wealth of consumer data at their disposal. It’s arguably one of the biggest competitive advantages programs like Roundel, the Walmart Media Group and Expedia Group Media Solutions have in their arsenal.

“They get to take an intimate knowledge of the business that they work in, the brand that they work for, the environment … and build that into the execution,” said Forrester principal analyst Jay Pattisall.

Perhaps more importantly, these in-house agencies have the advantage of data exclusivity—something a traditional agency likely can’t compete with. “[These] agencies are able to create actionable campaigns based on real-time audience behavior, likely before the rest of the market is even aware that these behaviors are a trend,” said Courtney Berry, managing director at creative agency Barbarian.

“To be able to aggregate our data to make audience and behavioral decisions is a key aspect of why the industry is super intrigued by retailers,” Argyilan said. “We have data that is based on [real] humans. The insights that you can get from that are much richer and more true and honest.”

Having the data is one thing, however; knowing how to transform it into actionable, effective advertising is quite another. “It’ll require that Target, Walmart and others that follow this practice build out their data analytics capability in order to leverage that to continue to help their third-party partners with customer understanding,” Pattisall said.

But for traditional agencies, is the growing presence of in-house agencies and networks cause for concern? Brands bringing their advertising business in-house has transformed from trend to industry norm, explained Witzky—but in-house agencies competing for outside clients, as Roundel is doing with non-Target brands, is a newer phenomenon.

Berry isn’t worried. “New players push us to create stronger, more insight-driven work and hold ourselves to the highest standard,” she said. “These in-house agencies have strong business knowledge, but external agencies still have the edge when it comes to creativity.”

This story first appeared in the June 10, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.