Retail media ad networks have ballooned over the past couple of years, as brands seek more ways to reach online shoppers with highly-targeted campaigns informed by first-party data insights. One such platform committed to the long game is RM+—a network launched by The Home Depot in 2019—which just scored a dedicated chief focused solely on its growth and monetization.
Retail media’s potential for The Home Depot is huge, Melanie Babcock, Vice President of Retail Media+ and Monetization, told Chief Marketer this week. A lot of cross-department support helped get the network to where it is today, she said, “but now we need to think about the next big jump for us over these next three to four years. And then, how do we make sure that we stay in the game long-term?”
Following is an excerpt of our conversation with Babcock about her new role and what’s entailed; the challenges of maintaining The Home Depot store experience while building an ad platform; her approach to researching competitors; and how the brand is courting consumers who are semi-endemic to the home improvement space.
Chief Marketer: What are your responsibilities in this new position?
Melanie Babcock, Vice President of Retail Media+ and Monetization, The Home Depot: As the retail media practice has grown, it requires a dedicated leader. The potential for retail media for The Home Depot is big. Getting us to where we are today required a lot of cross-department support. For instance, we lean on our media team and our creative team. But now we need to think about the next big jump for us over the next three to four years. And then, how do we make sure that we stay in the game long-term?
In any new startup phase or new thing that comes into the market, everyone jumps in—and then a lot of people jump out, because they realize it’s more complicated than they thought, or maybe it’s not a good fit. We think that it is a fit [for us]. So we want to make sure that we continue to think strategically and long-term about the success of retail media as another Home Depot growth channel.
CM: So part of it is doing research on how the marketing landscape is evolving?
MB: In my previous role, I was Vice President of Integrated Media, and that was inclusive of this retail media network. And also paid media buying and strategy, agency management, our personalization practice using first-party data to drive incremental sales, measurement, and category marketing and strategy. And then I had teams that worked with me around data science, analytics and creative. That was to run The Home Depot marketing program. In my current role today, it’s less about research and more around how we continue to provide the value to our suppliers, whether they be a current supplier today or a new supplier of the future.
My end goal is The Home Depot customer and their satisfaction with The Home Depot experience, which is inclusive of retail media because we use a lot of our first-party data to fuel and empower our retail media practice. I think about maintaining an eye on some of the first people that came in—your mass retailers and Amazon, obviously, as a leader in this space—because they could be setting the standard in the marketplace. Do we accept those as our standards and do we want to follow that, or create a version of that that works for Home Depot? That’s always the case, especially in this scenario, where our suppliers are their suppliers. We want to make sure that we have those standard experiences and offerings.
But then I have to also think about our customer, who they are and what can we offer for them. How do we service that customer, and how does retail media support that customer journey? It’s twofold: keeping your eye on the industry and what’s going on there, but also the customer, to make sure that we’re developing relevant products that our suppliers can buy into that affect the customer journey and make it a more positive one.
CM: And your focus now is more on the monetization piece?
MB: We’re on the cusp of thinking about what monetization means for a retailer outside of just product on shelf. That one we’ve got down pat. When it comes to thinking about the assets that Home Depot has invested in, that may just be cost of doing business. For instance, putting up a bay in a store—that’s an expensive investment. How do you convert those assets that Home Depot has invested in over the years into monetizable moments for our company?
I think that’s the most exciting part of this. Yes, we’re in a business of retail media as most define it today, with on-site ads and off-site ads, but we have a lot of other assets at our company that we can bring forward into the marketplace that would be of high interest not only to our suppliers, but to these non-endemic (we call them semi-endemic) people who maybe already have a relationship with us.
The short game is a great advertising experience, right? How do we make sure we’re contributing to the customer journey and the customer experience? But what’s that long-term game around other monetizable moments in assets in our company that we have never really thought of before?
CM: Can you provide any examples of those assets?
MB: We’re doing a test right now and bringing screens into stores. In the world of retail, that is quite a large proposition. Our stores are highly efficient and run with precision, and to introduce a new concept takes a lot of cross-functional partnership. We’re putting small- and large-format screens into our stores that do not disrupt the shopping experience. If you think about going into a Home Depot, you don’t want a screen in your way. You want to be able to access your product. And they can’t disrupt the associate who’s in that aisle all day. They don’t want to hear something on autoplay.
We’re working through a system that provides screens that tell a message that the suppliers want to tell [customers] about a product, and then introduce a new product that happens to be in the aisle. Or even talk about a benefit to Home Depot, like our loyalty program or our private label credit card or a workshop on the weekend with your kids. How do we bring those messages into the aisle to get people more connected back to The Home Depot? So we’re testing, and we’re in 50 stores now. We’re going to go out to a larger footprint, because we’ve already met the basic criteria within our stores. That’s going to be a big play for us as we think about what screens and stores mean—not only to our suppliers, but maybe even non-endemic suppliers.
CM: What would be the benefit for non-endemics?
MB: For instance, if you’re in the same parking lot with a McDonald’s or a Dunkin Donuts, would they also want to advertise? Especially to that “pro” customer, who comes into our store every day, two doors down, maybe to buy their cup of coffee in the morning. We’re thinking pretty broadly about that. There’s a lot of interest in parking lots as well. We get a lot of questions around putting in different charging stations and things like that. That’s something else we need to consider. In the past, we may have considered that to be a customer benefit, and it is, but now all of a sudden it’s a customer benefit and a monetizable moment. And that makes the asset even more attractive. We’ve had these ideas before, it’s just they never had a monetizable aspect to it.
CM: How much are you courting these potential non-endemic customers?
MB: We’re in early days. We do have a couple of really good partners who are looking to go after “movers.” We have invested a significant amount of time and money to be able to identify a mover with accuracy, as well as our contractor customer. (We call them a “pro.”) Those are two audiences that are difficult to get in front of in a traditional media landscape, and we have really fantastic first-party data on those, so we have the ability to reach them easily. We’re speaking to a lot of financial services, automotive and those type of companies, and saying, how would we best be able to bring you into our environment and make it feel natural?
One of the things that my CEO has asked us to do is to maintain “The Home Depot.” In other words, don’t turn us into just an advertising platform. We still have a commitment to the customer. We still need to make it easy for them to shop. So, don’t disrupt that. But how do you then be additive to that experience? We need to be thoughtful about those non-endemic partners, but we also believe that we’re in the very beginning of understanding the value of those relationships. The few that we’ve engaged with have seen really good results. But we’ve been focused a lot more on our existing suppliers, our ad tech stack, our offering. Is it priced appropriately? What are the insights and measurement tools that we’ve spent the majority of our time focused on these last few years?
Now we need to start thinking a little bit bigger, especially with the looming third-party cookie removal and the value of first-party audiences. How will that change in the marketplace, and does the value of our data help those non-endemics with their marketing goals? As a person who has run media buying for many years at The Home Depot, I believe it will.
CM: For those marketers considering getting into the retail media space in general, what are its advantages?
MB: Again, [from the perspective of] a former media buyer, the person who’s out there trying to drive the most efficiency and high value to my media dollar, the media landscape has changed so much with technology and data science and everything else. The accuracy of media buying has become highly efficient. But a CPG (in our world, we call them suppliers) can spend their dollar in many ways across many digital and traditional channels, always with the hope of connecting to that end customer who is either in the beginning, middle or at the end of their purchase journey. Before retail media networks, they could get as close as humanly possible, but never right to the source. Retail brings that “last mile delivery” to reach the customer.
A CPG can say, not only is it a digital media ad that I can measure based on a great audience, but they’re at the point of decisioning. And that is the last piece that’s been missing in that marketer’s toolbox. Not only can you connect me to the customer at that point of decision, but I can influence that decision, with new product introduction, new feature introduction, or maybe upgrade that customer to a higher-end product.
We have a lot of information about our customers. I’m not talking about specific people, obviously, but what’s in the basket and who is a pro and why they buy like this. We have a lot of that knowledge, and that better informs those CPGs and suppliers with their own media buying and planning—and, frankly, their own product development. It could affect them in ways that go beyond just the advertisement that they’re buying.
CM: And how does Retail Media + differentiate itself in the space?
MB: When The Home Depot started this journey, there were less than 10 retail media networks in the market, and they were heavily focused on grocery and mass. That’s because they have such great frequency of customer visits. We don’t have the same frequency, so that concerned us. We don’t have that weekly or biweekly trip cycle. Our contractor does, but our consumer doesn’t. So we had to step back and think, what is our right to win in this space? Number one: We are a specialty retailer. I don’t think we’ll ever be as big as some of these mass retailers, or even grocery. We don’t have the same mix of suppliers. But we do have something that’s really important—and that is a really high intent signal. People come to Home Depot to solve a problem in their home, and that requires a little bit of research—the smallest amount to the biggest amount.
And there’s a lot of thinking through that. I have this problem now, and I’ve got a project, big or small. Am I going to do it myself? Do I have the right tools? Do I have the right product? All of a sudden, now you’re in this consideration stage of research and you come to our website. We have a very high percentage of customers who start online and end up in the store, because of that intent. That’s very different than mass in grocery. Our website is about connecting those customer journeys between online and the store. A customer gives us a lot of signals. And with those signals, we learn a lot. That’s really important to our suppliers. If I know more about The Home Depot customer, I could be a better supplier to the Home Depot. Better products, features, timing… There’s just so much more to learn and gain, and therefore we both win.