Retail Media Agencies Agency Models

UK indie media network SMG hopes retail media boom can fuel US growth


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

December 5, 2023 | 5 min read

In the UK, media group SMG is making a strong fist of competition with bigger operators. Can it make a go of it in the US?

A supermarket aisle

SMG claims Plan-Apps is the most widely used commerce ‘operating system’ used in UK retail media / Unsplash

Pick up pretty much any trends or predictions report looking ahead to 2024 and you’ll find that retail media is a high priority among marketing clients. Investment in the space recently picked up among non-endemic clients (in plain English, the brands that aren’t already on supermarket shelves but that want to talk to shoppers all the same), while retailers have begun to realize that not getting involved means leaving cash on the counter.

Though many independent media agencies don’t yet offer retail media services, network shops aren’t the only players in this space.

British media agency group SMG, for example, is also investing in this area. Its Threefold subsidiary helped establish Boots’ retail media network in 2022, making the high street brand one of the first big retailers to build a presence in that space in the UK.

Now, it’s hoping to expand this practice, particularly in North America. Chief technology officer Mark Sweatman, who recently joined SMG, has been tasked with making sure its team has the tools to achieve that.

He says: “We are in a sector that is going to become hugely important. We’re heading towards a cookieless future… which means that third-party data is going to be on the decline and first-party data is going to be king. And the retailers have it.”

Central to this offer is Plan-Apps, a proprietary tool that helps manage media investments for both brands and retailers (SMG owns a company of the same name). Sweatman describes it as an “end-to-end marketing tool that retail networks can use to plan and execute all the different media types, both digital and offline.”

SMG claims Plan-Apps is the most widely used commerce ‘operating system’ in UK retail media; the company manages £1.25bn of media spend from 4,000 clients through the platform. Sweatman says that retail media investment has set SMG on a “huge growth curve” – one it hopes will continue to bend upwards.

The US is key to that plan, but there are barriers to a British invasion. “We know that we will need a bigger team to continue the growth into the US,” says Sweatman.

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Though SMG already has a team of 10 in New York courting clients, the firm is recruiting to double that; it has more than 40 roles open worldwide.

“We’re taking retail networks through the capabilities of not just Plan-Apps, but the wider services around the tool,” he says. It’s not just about staffing up. More integrations with other platforms, and likely more infrastructure in the US itself, are required. Threefold secured its first (as yet unnamed) client in North America earlier this year.

“From a technical point of view, we’re looking at how the platform scales internationally, how it can run and operate in multiple regions,” adds Sweatman. Cloud-based it may be, but US data law requires servers to be located on the left-hand side of the Atlantic.

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