2020 has seen a movement of major ad budgets to performance marketing and an increased focus by publishers on monetization strategies. Nobody in the industry is more in touch with these changes than Ceres Cueva, Rakuten Advertising’s VP of Publisher Partnerships, North America. Her role focuses on the advancement of the company’s strategic services while increasing partner and client collaboration. We talked to her earlier this week about SaaS, why personal service still matters, and what the future holds for the industry.

Blue Book: Rakuten is such a big company now with so many different divisions. How should an advertiser or publisher thinking about working with you understand the overall strategy? How does it all fit together?

Ceres Cueva: I remember sitting in the audience at the Rakuten DealMaker event in February as a client when Rakuten Marketing  announced that it was uniting its media properties, data businesses and award-winning performance marketing network to form Rakuten Advertising and thinking, this is a smart move. This unification has become our key differentiator. It is an opportunity for advertisers, publisher partners and agencies to access a global ecosystem of audiences, consumer insights, media and content networks that is unrivaled in our competitive space.

Whether it is launching your brand in a new region, reaching new customers, or insights and visibility into the online shopper, Rakuten Advertising offers solutions and strategies to fit your business goals.

BB: Many bigger networks seem to be moving towards a technology-focused model, with affiliate marketing functionality presented via a self-service SaaS platform. Is that the way you see the industry developing? What is Rakuten Advertising’s approach?

CC: There’s room for a wide variety of business models in our industry. For us at Rakuten Advertising, the core is our performance marketing solution. We are completely focused and centered on delivering a unique combination of human expertise and proprietary technology, data and inventory. We have solutions that are tailored to fit the needs of many different clients, from platform-only options to managing all of their online marketing and service needs. Experience tells us that when we we are able to truly partner with clients to create strategies that align with their marketing objectives and their overall business goals, that’s when clients find the most success.

A great example of this is our recent win at the Performance Marketing Awards for Best Managed Affiliate Program – Enterprise category. We won for our work with Cult Beauty. Starting in 2019, we worked with the client to identify key objectives for their affiliate channel: maintaining consistent Year-on-Year (YoY) growth and finding new revenue streams through new customer acquisition and new partnership verticals.

Through a collaborative approach with publishers implemented by Rakuten Advertising, Cult Beauty achieved +58% YOY growth. The team also formed partnerships with unique publishers to create a new revenue stream for the affiliate channel. The judges cited a “thorough and intelligent approach to power the brand to the next level” as a major reason for the win.

That’s a great example of how we like to work closely with a client to identify KPIs and implement a strategy to achieve them, and to use the broad capabilities of Rakuten to facilitate success.

BB: The Blue Book survey shows every year that advertisers particularly value customer service and support, with Rakuten Advertising ranking highly on these. How does this fit with the trend towards SaaS?

CC: In our experience working with advertisers, we understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  Some brands have a large team of marketers and affiliate managers (similar to the team I managed at Macy’s); some brands may have a manager who oversees all digital channels; while others may have a digital marketing team that is strong in Search or Social, but may not have the expertise in affiliate marketing on staff. Rakuten Advertising is the leader in best-in-class client service. We pride ourselves on the human expertise we can offer. It is the combination of our technology, strategies and publisher partnerships that will continue to distinguish Rakuten Advertising from our competitors and help our partners achieve long term success.

BB: Many advertisers and publishers struggle with some elements of affiliate marketing. How does a network help them with their pain points while still being able to scale?

CC: From beginners to the most seasoned marketers, Rakuten Advertising has a comprehensive suite of tools available for our clients and publishers. We have built an award-winning technology stack and service framework to support our publishers in realizing the true potential of their audience, helping diversify revenue streams, and increase revenue. Additionally, partners have access to our vast help-center complete with videos, best practices and step by step instructions on how to navigate our platform.

Advertisers have multiple service levels that span from self-serve to full support, and brands that opt for our strategic services also gain access to network trends, benchmarking, and the consumer insights needed to reach impressive scale within their respective programs. Our teams work alongside our analysts to make data-driven recommendations that help brands grow.

Additionally, we create opportunities for our partners to network. Whether in-person at our well-known Dealmaker events, or virtually through our content and publisher webinars, we recognize the need for teams to come together to build great relationships.

BB: How do you think the industry is going to evolve over the next few years?

CC: Customer-centricity will guide the evolution. The pandemic has accelerated this with the way customers are shopping now. The coveted consumers have been millennials but the current environment has driven buyers of all ages to shop online. With the shift to online shopping, implementing strategies to capture all types of audiences will become necessary for success.

BB: Do you believe that performance marketing will take a bigger share of large brand budgets in the future, or not? Why?

CC: Absolutely – it has been accelerated as a result of COVID-19. The pandemic has reshaped society and the way consumers are shopping. Publisher partners have cultivated an engaged population of valuable online shoppers that brands are seeking. Publishers are optimizing the data they have and employing personalization to capture demand. They are utilizing machine learning and automation that create valuable tools and insight into customer behavior. Performance marketing allows brands to reach these highly coveted audiences. More importantly, affiliate marketing can deliver greater value to an advertiser’s overall marketing mix as a channel that, according to the PMA, can generate a 12:1 return on ad spend, making it one of the most cost-effective digital advertising investments.

Performance marketing is absolutely on a growth curve, and we believe that a customer-centric, technology-enabled approach is the way forward. That’s what Rakuten Advertising is set up to deliver.

Ceres Cueva is Rakuten Advertising’s VP of Publisher Partnerships, North America. Her role focuses on the advancement of the company’s strategic services while increasing partner and client collaboration. She joined Rakuten with over a decade of retail and affiliate marketing expertise. Prior to Rakuten, she drove the affiliate and monetization strategy for Macy’s and served in a variety of roles at a competitive affiliate network.