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Editor’s note: As agencies capture a growing share of the program management duties in the affiliate industry, every network and platform must clarify how it believes agencies should be served – which services they can access, whether to offer full or partial tech platform access, what options they provide for regularly interacting with clients, and much more. Cary Pierce, Director of Agency Services for Rakuten Advertising, sat for an interview with our editor to discuss the network’s approach to agency client engagements.


Martech Record: Thanks for taking the time today, Cary. Can you tell our readers a little bit about your career journey and how you came to lead Rakuten Advertising’s efforts for agencies?


Cary Pierce: Like many people in affiliate, I have a pretty eclectic career path. I started my career in real estate and county government – not something you often hear! I first learned about affiliate organically and from friends in the space. I got my first hands-on channel experience as a client service lead in a marketing services agency. I later gained even more affiliate experience as a Senior Account Manager at I joined Rakuten Advertising nine years ago in account management, and in 2020 moved into our agency services team, which I now



MTR: I know agencies appreciate working with someone with an agency background.


CP: It definitely helps. Like in-house teams, agencies focus on driving the best possible results for brands. But agencies also face many unique challenges and need a variety of options for how they work with networks. With so many available agencies, there is constant pressure to deliver the best and raise the bar higher. There is currently downward pressure on fees. And different agencies have varying levels of affiliate expertise. Our goal with agencies is the same as with client-direct engagements – to serve them in ways that will help them outthink and outperform. 


MTR: How have you aligned your team structure to that range of needs?


CP: We offer the same service levels for client-direct engagements and agencies. It’s easiest to think of them as low, medium, and high. Starting at the top, our highest level of service is Complete affiliate program management: strategy, management, analytics, and optimization. At the middle level, our team works in concert with agency program managers, just like we do with brands that choose mid-level services. We also have a more minimalist service level. The agencies do most of the planning and execution, though they are not on their own. Rakuten Advertising account managers and analysts periodically evaluate program data to help agency leads spot key trends, react more quickly to issues, and innovate to stay ahead of competitors.


MTR: So, the base level is not sign-up, and then buh-bye Rakuten contacts…


CP: Absolutely not. One of the reasons why I moved into the agency team at Rakuten Advertising is that we are committed to helping all clients get the most from the platform, not “just” enterprise brands at the top-tier service level.


From a very practical standpoint, we know that our agency partners won’t keep business – and we won’t keep business – without delivering the best tech, service, and strategic guidance. So we try to add genuine value at each service tier. Base service level clients have a dedicated Rakuten Advertising account manager to help address challenges and answer questions.


One of the unfortunate aspects of our industry is that so-called “self-managed” programs often aren’t being managed at all. Usually, they were set up sometime in the past and gradually lost effectiveness as time, competitors, and categories changed. We are committed to helping clients at all tiers take a proactive approach to program management. It’s why many agencies tell us that they keep clients longer when they use Rakuten Advertising tech and services than they do with other providers. 


We’re also committed to ensuring that our agency leaders are fully up-to-date on the platform and have expert-level skills. For example, we offer extensive industry and platform training sessions to all agency clients bimonthly.  


MTR: How does the Rakuten Advertising platform available to agencies differ from what’s available for client-direct programs? 


CP: It doesn’t. With Rakuten, agencies get the same access as clients and our internal program managers. Agencies deserve access to all the tech and services a network offers. We do not stick agencies with a throttled or stripped-down version. That’s a terrible idea for all involved. It goes against the idea that we need to deliver the best results to everyone.


We all understand why other companies have two tiers of tech – the desire to get a foot in the door with a rock-bottom price and then encourage clients to trade up. But we’ve decided it is in our long-term best interest to empower everyone to get the best results, regardless of whose hands are on the wheel.


MTR: How is the agency services team organized?


CP: We have account managers in different parts of the world, with our largest teams in the US, UK, and Australia. We spread out the team globally so that agencies have access to support teams during most or all of their regular working hours. Waiting hours or even a full day for support is unacceptable for agencies – it imperils client relationships. Our team currently serves 100+ agencies with programs for 600+ advertisers.


No one wants to feel like their program leaders are learning on the job. Our mantra is “outthink and outperform.” and our agency and client counterparts understand the great value that comes from better results.


MTR: Rakuten Advertising uses a vertical team structure to serve its brand-direct clients. Is that the same for agencies?


CP: Yes. This returns to the idea that agencies should have all the tools and advantages we can offer them.  Our global CS Support team has vertical experts that we can leverage to deliver the best strategy and innovation in every industry.   We support all programs in this manner, including retail, travel, finance, D2C, and several other sectors.


We’ve been strong for many years in finance, luxury, department stores, and other specialized verticals because we recognize that the fundamental needs of these industries are different. For agencies to serve clients best, they need vertical-specific capabilities and expertise.


MTR: There’s a perception in the market that most agency programs are managed using one of the tech platforms versus working with the networks. 


CP: I’d call it a misperception. Of course, many programs are managed on tech-only platforms, but more than 600 agency-led programs are managed on the Rakuten Advertising platform. 


The just-released Affiliate Industry Guide showed that Rakuten Advertising and CJ – two networks – were voted Best Solutions for Agencies. Agencies want the best tech options and to get answers quickly when they have questions or problems. Waiting a day for acknowledgment of a request – let alone getting an answer – is something that agency people hate.


I’ll tell you when that matters most. When an agency has a new assignment and is launching its first programs. Tech, service, and strategy can make a big difference in whether that engagement starts strong. And in whether it lasts.


The binary view of platforms as tech and networks as service providers is outdated. I’d stack our tech up feature-for-feature with any other affiliate service providers. We also offer a team of more than 50 analysts and data scientists that develop resources for all our clients, including agencies at every service level. Agencies particularly value that because attracting these professionals is difficult and costly. They can access these resources as part of their Rakuten Advertising engagements. 


MTR: Would you say that full-service agencies are more likely to choose the higher service level available from a network than OPMs?


CP: Sounds logical, right? Well, it’s interesting. We actually have even more programs with OPMs than with digital and performance agencies. OPMs like that we offer full platform access, and our tech and analytics teams surface insights that help agencies demonstrate their value daily. 


There’s a philosophical difference between selling a software instance, like the tech providers, and selling the best possible results, which is what we try to do. That’s a fundamental distinction. Outstanding software is part of what we deliver. But so are expert account management and category-level best practices and strategies.


Further, many of the most valuable industry advances are now coming from networks like Rakuten Advertising that have invested in breakthrough technology and tools to optimize traditional affiliates and emerging partnership types like content and social. 


For example, our Audience Engine is a first-of-its-kind solution enabling first-party publisher data to be used to enhance targeting and conversions. Another Rakuten Advertising-exclusive is our AI-powered partner recommendations. We provide the same outstanding matchmaking tech to help pubs as we do to help brand and agency clients. We’re also leaders in tracking non-click conversions. We also have industry-leading predictive forecasting with outstanding accuracy. The list goes on. 


MTR: You mentioned traditional affiliate and emerging partner types. Can you talk more about that?


CP: Sure. The SaaS tech solutions have sold hard on the promise of partnership-broadly-defined versus “just affiliate.” We agree that our industry is much broader than traditional affiliate. We’ve invested heavily in content partnerships and influencers, for example. Actually, we were one of the first to do so. 


But we also know that traditional affiliates continue to drive the majority of transactions in this industry. Continuing to innovate and expand traditional affiliate partnerships is critical – you can’t just concentrate on the shiny objects. That’s why we’re first movers on technology like Audience Engine. Agencies appreciate that maximizing performance requires focus on the most scalable partnerships – of whatever type.


MTR: What advice do you have for agencies as they explore their options for affiliate measurement? What should they look for?


CP: I think that question should be reversed. The key to a successful client-agency relationship is having a network or platform that aligns with the agency’s strengths and needs. Think about your level of expertise and resources. Explore whether you have expert team members with experience in the client’s vertical. Consider the innovative things you want to do and ask tough questions about whether your platform alternatives can accommodate them. It’s a buyer’s market. Find the provider that can do what you want and is committed to being a great partner for the long haul. 


MTR: Last question. How can our readers get in touch if they want more information about Rakuten Advertising Agency Services? 


CP The best way to do it is to go to this Contact Us link. Our marketing team will be sure to get any messages from agencies to me for fast follow-up.  


MTR: Thanks so much, Cary!


With over 12 years focused on affiliate marketing and a total of 15+ years in digital marketing, Cary has extensive expertise across all channels, including integrated and performance marketing. His strategic approach to the affiliate industry showcases his innovative service approach to advertisers and agencies around the globe. Cary holds an MBA from Crummer Graduate School, Rollins College, and has a strong 9-year tenure at Rakuten Advertising as the Director of Agency Services.