Total digital ad revenue in the US climbed 10.8% to nearly $210b last year, despite a slowing economy and a myriad of other challenges. While the growth rate is a far cry from the 35% figure in 2021, it still shows that marketers continue to spend online to drive purchase consideration. But there was an interesting stat included in that $210b spent last year – 20% was on retail media advertising.
One of the most difficult aspects of doing partnerships or business development regardless of industry or sector is clearly understanding why two parties should get “married.” In my experience building numerous JV’s/partnerships, one theme continues to resonate, and that is how do you construct a winning partnership where each side feels as if they have gotten equitable value. Oftentimes, initial discussions tend to be more tactical or acutely focused on a very specific asset that one side seeks access to, when the focus should be framing the outcome from inception. This entails being able to articulate clearly the ‘gives’ and ‘gets’ of a deal and not jumping right into the weeds. Jeff Bezos has said, at Amazon, before any work is done on a new partnership, the press release is written. This accomplishes a couple key things.
As I was reading last week about how McKinsey was hired to help Disney streamline costs this year, it drew similarities to my time at Jarden when we merged with Newell in 2016. MK is a great firm, don’t get me wrong, but I continue to see this playbook applied that doesn’t always work. Centralization is not invariably the answer, especially in businesses with strong IP and nuanced relationships.
With news today that Bob Iger is returning to Disney as CEO after a roughly 3 year hiatus, it’s pretty clear that one of the main motives for this move has been the highly un-profitable Disney +, the company’s streaming arm, or as some call it, the new ‘cable’ bill. Like many companies that have legacy wholesale relationships, Disney is trying to make the economics of selling content directly to consumers sustainable. There are a lot of similarities between all the DTC brands today (Warby Parker, Casper, Away, AllBirds, Blue Apron, etc) and Disney+.
It seems everywhere you turn, DTC (direct to consumer online brands) are struggling. Between rising input costs and more expensive marketing, the economics of selling online continues to look bleak. Let’s break down the struggle.
Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen coined the term “Software is eating the world” nearly 10 years ago. His argument that software would be at the heart of every business moving forward could not have been more astute. For example, Amazon’s not a retailer; their primary capability is their software technology enabling sellers around the world to get their products to consumers. The same could be said for their AWS cloud business; again a software play. Uber, Google, Facebook, Netflix, and to some extent Apple’s app store business, are all examples of companies that are fundamentally software first. Interestingly, this same software has empowered a foundational shift in business model. It has enabled disintermediation. The complex network of intermediaries that have existed historically have been circumvented which has led to the world of everything being direct-to-consumer (D2C) or direct to source. Many think of D2C as mainly having an impact on consumer goods, but the theme permeates into numerous industries. Here are some examples:
As tech companies descended on Capitol Hill this week, the ongoing debate around antitrust continues. Startups have long lamented about the anticompetitive business practices adopted by the big 4: Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. If you build a business that relies on the Apple or Google app stores then you automatically know you’re going to pay a ~30% toll to access consumers. The debate has further been heightened as some startups like Classpass have been hit with this toll as they roll out virtual classes due to COVID. The founders argue that they are forgoing their normal take rate from providers (gym’s, etc) they work with during COVID so why is Apple charging them 30%. Apple is in an interesting situation, because if they make exceptions for one business, they need to make for others. They also would face potential legal battles from previous customers that did have to pay.
A recent report claims $TWTR is considering a subscription model to augment a significant decline in advertising revenue. This would be among the first of the big social media companies to consider this approach and I believe could lead to a reckoning in the industry. $FB is currently facing a backlash among advertisers who claim the social media company isn’t doing enough to control controversial rhetoric on its platform and will inevitably see a decline in advertising revenue. A few years ago, the idea of paying to access online “news” content wasn’t a thing. Publishers were primarily in the business of selling ads in offline media and as they built their online presence they carried this business model over. As consumers got irritated with intrusive ads, it became clear they had to change their offering. Newspapers such as the NYTimes piloted new paywall programs to test consumers’ appetite for subscription based products. The result was mostly favorable, and as a result, many publishers today have pivoted their business models to favor subscription over advertising revenue especially as it becomes increasingly difficult to get ad dollars from brands in a world in which the big tech companies ($GOOG, $FB, etc) dwarf smaller publishers in traffic.
For US brands that are considering testing out Asia before jumping head first into the market, they should consider the rise of e-commerce live streaming options that are proliferating in the far east, especially in China.
As Amazon took off here in the US, another similar startup business took its sights on the Far East. Alibaba may look similar to AMZN but under the hood they are very different. While AMZN handily beats BABA on top-line, BABA wins by a large measure on opex margins. This is inherent in their business model which is more similar to Ebay than to AMZN. Whereas AMZN primarily owns warehouses and inventory, BABA is lighter and collects a merchant fee as a middleman between buyers and sellers.