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Inside the Omnicom-Flywheel merger with John Wren, Jonathan Nelson & Duncan Painter

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By Audrey Kemp | LA reporter

January 19, 2024 | 7 min read

In this exclusive joint interview, John Wren, CEO of Omnicom Group, Duncan Painter, CEO of Flywheel Digital and Jonathan Nelson, CEO of Omnicom Digital, divulge how the merger could set the stage for a revolutionary era in retail media.

John Wren and Duncan Painter

Omnicom CEO John Wren with Duncan Painter, former CEO of Ascential / Credit: Audrey Kemp

Few marketing stories signify retail media’s meteoric rise quite like Omnicom Group’s acquisition of Flywheel.

In October, Omnicom Group purchased Ascential’s digital commerce platform Flywheel for $835m, making it the most expensive deal in the company’s history. The investment aims to broaden the US-headquartered holding company’s influence in the digital commerce space, which is anticipated to increase by 50%, reaching $7 trillion by 2025, according to John Wren, Omnicom’s chairman and chief executive. It also blends Omnicom’s precision marketing and insights platform, Omni, with Flywheel’s retail optimization platform.

At CES 2024, Wren, alongside Omnicom Digital chief executive Jonathan Nelson and former Ascential chief executive turned Flywheel Digital boss Duncan Painter, sat down for a rare interview together to discuss how the convergence of the Omni and Flywheel platforms, combined with the power of AI, will reshape the future of retail advertising.

The nexus of sales and marketing

According to Painter, Flywheel’s suite of precision targeting, real-time insights, brand amplification and incrementality tools connect products with consumers with “superhuman” accuracy and efficiency. This made the company particularly attractive to advertising juggernaut Omnicom.

“Duncan had the vision to see where retail marketing was going,” said Wren. “We thought it was interesting. We [observed] that he [created] the only seamless platform you could utilize to collect data and focus on company sales. I’m secretly envious of what he’s accomplished.”

Omnicom’s ultimate dream, as articulated by Nelson, is to close the gap between sales and marketing and provide a comprehensive understanding of consumer behavior through first-party data. Joining forces (and datasets) gets them that much closer to making their dream a reality.

“Omni is ‘the end.’ It’s really about going from awareness to consideration and understanding all audience behavior. Awareness, consideration and purchase: everybody says it. It kind of rolls off the tongue, but nobody really has been doing that,” he explained. “[Flywheel has] the moment of truth: the point of purchase. Connecting the data sets together allows us to understand not just who [consumers] are and what they bought, but what they saw and all the things that happened before that ... Nobody could really explain this, so we’re going to be the ones that explain it. We see the whole customer life cycle, the whole chain.”

Wren went on to say that this could remove several ROI-related questions for brands, and eradicate adtech from the equation entirely. “What Duncan has built in the past five years is a platform that goes through adtech and allows [clients] to see whether or not what they’re doing is efficient and identify what’s going to drive category growth ... It’s very exciting. We now have a vision of that. The amount of data between the two platforms is that of a government, really.”

The road ahead: raising the bar with AI

In the era of cookie deprecation, AI will touch every aspect of marketing and sales, according to Nelson. “AI will be with the underpinning for all of this, and with the start of Omni and Flywheel, you’ll start to see where this goes,” he said. “2024 is going to be pretty exciting. Last year was getting the foundational pillar partnerships in place. 2024 is go-time.”

Meanwhile, Painter said he expects generative AI to work on product visualizations, dramatically reducing the time required for product assessments. “This new infrastructure can help [brands] innovate new products multiple times faster than they’ve ever been able to do it in the past. They can create, test, prove, know for reality in a very short cycle and then scale in confidence with brand, in a business model that has only ever been a dream before.”

Wren reiterated his excitement for what’s to come from the Omni-Flywheel platform and remains confident that their combined forces will pose as an enduring disruptor in the burgeoning retail media space. “Essentially, if one of my competitors did something smart, it wouldn’t take more than six or nine months to plagiarize that idea, [but] this is impossible to plagiarize. It would take somebody at least a decade.”

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