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CitrusAd, the four-year-old advertising technology start-up founded by former Adelaide Crows AFL player Brad Moran, has been acquired by French multinational giant Publicis Groupe for A$205m.

According to a report published by the Australian Financial Review (AFR), the sale represented a big win for Moran and the company’s backers – including supermarket heir John-Paul Drake (Drake’s Supermarket) and Moelis Australia’s venture capital arm.

The company has worked with several leading retailers across the world, including Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Woolworths, and Coles, offering a service that replicated the in-store promotions synonymous with bricks-and-mortar grocery store, just online.

Speaking with AFR, Moran said his success with CitrusAd came from spotting and solving a problem that supermarkets around the world were grappling with.

“We knew that grocers hated online shopping because they couldn’t make any money from their websites,” Moran explained. “All the money they made from advertising was in-store, but they couldn’t translate that online.

“Grocery is so hard, they don’t care about a pretty website or user experience, all they care about is minimising the bleeding of money that goes into packing, fulfilment and logistics,” he added.

Moran acknowledged the role Covid-19 has played in the emergence of e-commerce in Australia’s grocery retail scene, but said it wasn’t the key to the success of CitrusAd.

Launched in 2017, CitrusAd is the invention of Moran and his business partner Nick Paech. It is effectively an advertising search engine specifically for grocers and their brands. At its heart, the technology reflects the back-end auctions that brands currently bid in to have their products show up in the banner ads users see as they surf the web.

CitrusAd worked with Woolworths or Coles and began offering real estate on those webpages to the brands eager to get in front of shoppers.

Like Google or Facebook ads, CitrusAd built an engine that knew which ads to serve to likely customers, adjusting throughout the day and according to how much the brand was spending.

“Suddenly, these expensive online stores that groceries loathed to maintain were profitable,” explained Moran.

The pair raised $1.7 million from angel investors, including John-Paul Drake, heir to and director of Drakes Supermarkets, which operates more than 60 stores in South Australia and Queensland.

“People are going to say, ‘did you sell too early?’. But I spend all day looking at risk,” Moran told AFR. “And whether you like it or not, Microsoft and Google are big players who could take our business at any time.”