Unified Commerce Is Here—Are Agencies Ready?

The third wave of digital advertising is a once-in-a-generation shift

The first era of digital advertising was defined by search, followed by social. Today, the industry is in the middle of the third wave in digital advertising—and it’s going to be the most transformative yet.

Ad pros have declared this the era of retail media. But retail media networks (RMNs) are just the first chapter of the post-cookie advertising playbook. As this new era unfolds, retail-agnostic solutions, commerce media and consumer-engagement platforms will become increasingly important parts of the marketing mix.

With omnichannel targeting and attribution capabilities that complement what RMNs can currently offer, these new tools and strategies will allow advertisers to transcend the single-retailer environment and leverage superior cross-channel purchase data and AI-powered insights to unlock new levels of personalization, engagement and efficiency. Therefore, agencies must become experts in these emerging channels and future-proof their operations by adopting a comprehensive strategy.

The retail media revolution

RMNs are experiencing unprecedented growth, with ad spend expected to hit $100 billion by 2026. And it’s not just retailers hopping on the trend—mobile platforms, hospitality brands, credit card companies and more are realizing the value of their first-party data and monetizing their digital properties.

RMNs, by design, thrive within their individual retail environments, offering a targeted approach for brands closely associated with these spaces. They excel in capturing real purchase behavior, allowing advertisers to understand where and when consumers shop. But RMNs are just one part of a comprehensive marketing mix.

Commerce media is emerging as a powerful solution. An integrated approach that combines the strengths of retail media, performance marketing and brand marketing, commerce media is predicted to generate over $1.3 trillion of enterprise value in the U.S. by 2026. This represents a significant shift in digital advertising comparable to the rise of programmatic. With its capacity to integrate seamlessly into (and, crucially, extend beyond) the retail landscape, commerce media provides a pathway for marketers to obtain more accurate and comprehensive insights into campaign performance.

Going beyond the confines of traditional retail-focused strategies, commerce media extends its reach to encompass non-retail businesses, providing marketers and media owners with unprecedented control over audience engagement. This holistic approach spans the entire consumer purchase journey, ensuring a seamless connection with audiences across the open internet. Essentially, commerce media is a comprehensive strategy that converges various marketing elements, offering a versatile and impactful means of reaching and influencing consumers throughout their buying process.

Commerce media is often conflated with retail media. The models are indeed similar—both are rooted in first-party data, and both allow advertisers to incorporate elements of performance as well as brand marketing. But with a commerce-media approach, advertisers can address the full funnel and reach consumers across the wider internet.

With a broader scope and ability to capture cross-channel purchase data, commerce media allows brands to craft campaigns that resonate across multiple consumer touchpoints along the purchase journey.

The new advertising playbook

To help brands achieve unified commerce, retail-agnostic media platforms (RAMPs) are an emerging category of full-funnel ad-tech solutions that allow brands to transcend the single-retailer environment and connect with consumers directly. Examples include mobile apps like Instacart, Shipt, DoorDash, UberEats and Fetch, one of the biggest players in the RAMP ecosystem and a leader in AI-powered ad tech and omnichannel consumer engagement.

An essential part of a unified commerce media strategy, RAMPs provide a constant flow of permissioned purchase data across multiple channels. From a consumer perspective, the main—and often only–reason to engage with a RAMP is to proactively engage with brands on the platform. In effect, the ads are the content that users are opting in to consume.

Millions engage with these apps daily, sharing verified cross-channel purchase data in exchange for value in the form of rewards, services or personalized experiences. Consequently, these platforms have become indispensable for brands, offering powerful opportunities to deliver personalized content and engage with specific consumers at the right place and time. By further incentivizing consumers to take action, retail-agnostic media platforms serve as a self-propelling flywheel, driving meaningful interactions and fostering lasting brand-consumer relationships.

The future is full-funnel

When advertising agencies can steer their clients toward the right partners and tech stack, brands can finally achieve true unified commerce—a fully integrated approach that aims to provide a seamless experience across all possible consumer channels and touchpoints.

Now is the time for ad pros to get serious about understanding the new digital landscape. Early adopters are already making moves—Instacart’s recent collaboration with Google Shopping, GroupM’s post-cookie readiness program and Omnicom’s acquisition of Flywheel Digital underscore the importance of strategic moves to combat signal loss.

Agencies seeking broad reach and national campaign capabilities should consider commerce media platforms that offer superior scale. These platforms, with extensive user bases, allow brands to amplify their messaging and connect with diverse audiences.

In this new era, the relationship between advertisers and consumers is strengthened —advertisers gain unprecedented insights and precision in their campaigns, while consumers enjoy a tailored, non-intrusive ad experience that aligns with their preferences.

As the industry embraces this new era for all its uncertainty, one thing is clear: The future of advertising is dynamic, consumer-centric and filled with limitless possibilities for brands to connect and resonate in meaningful ways. It’s an era where advertising isn’t just about delivering a message or generating clicks—it’s about creating a better advertising experience for everyone.

As chief revenue officer, Robin Wheeler spearheads Fetch’s sales organization. Over her 20+ year career, she has led revenue teams at major social and traditional media companies. Prior to joining Fetch, she held several leadership positions at Twitter, most recently as VP of U.S. client solutions, where she worked with some of the country’s biggest brands.