Ad Tech Suffers From a Lack of Diversity and Inclusion

It begins with funding and prevents people of color from moving up

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Key Insights:

There is a diversity and inclusion issue in ad tech.

The behind-the-scenes systems powering digital advertising are often criticized as opaque, and that murky way of doing business seems to be seeping into the way ad-tech companies source and structure their talent pools.

Multiple sources, who all identified as people of color, said the ad tech industry suffers from a lack of diversity, which has led to systemic issues such as cultural problems, a comparatively small network of peers and mentors—which can inhibit upward career mobility—and a lack of sufficient leadership from trade bodies, specifically the IAB.

“When you think of ad tech, you think of a little black box. There’s something that goes in and something that comes out, but you don’t know what happens in between. How is the sausage being made? That same theory could be applied to the way we look at [diversity and inclusion],” said Alicia Ray, founder of the Ad Tech Collective, a network to promote and facilitate connections for the Black community within ad tech.

It starts with funding

The issue of providing equal opportunities seems to start at the funding stage. According to Deloitte, 76% of the overall workforce of venture capital firms in the U.S. is white, and 80% of executives with high-powered titles are white.

“It starts off with a lack of diversity … and just grows from there,” said Corean Canty, COO of programmatic media agency Goodway Group.

Then the problem snowballs, as founders mostly look to their peer groups when building out their companies. According to a study from Tech Stars, only 12% of startups hire five or more computing professionals who identify as women or minorities, while 32% haven’t hired any tech employees from underrepresented groups.

Belinda Smith, global diversity ambassador for the World Federation of Advertisers, said a lot of companies in their early years don’t provide training, development, mentorship or even HR departments, which ultimately inhibit career mobility for minorities because they don’t have a robust network to lean on for support.

“I think there is a certain demographic of people who can thrive in areas like that because they’re well-resourced outside of work to be coached on those issues, to be taken care of in other ways, and then there is a population of other people who cannot make a living like that. If that’s how you’re structured and set up, you’re basically signaling who you want to work there and who you don’t want to work there,” Smith said.

And then it’s hard to move up

Canty said she sees unconscious bias within the ad-tech community on a regular basis, like when she meets with vendors pitching their products.

“They’ll assume that someone with me is the actual person they should talk to, and they almost have a look of shock when they find out I’m the COO of the company. It’s almost like they expect me to be the assistant … so they go to the person next to me who may look more like them,” Canty said.

Jason Smith, chief business officer of Location Sciences, said those kinds of microaggressions happen inside companies, too, where people of color can often feel judged for the way they dress, talk or express any kind of “cultural freedom,” which can inhibit their career growth.

“As you go up the ladder and as you become more senior, opportunities start to become fewer,” said Smith, who’s also on the board of directors of the Chicago Advertising Federation.

“We’re finding ourselves sitting in an associate-level position or a manager-level position for 10 years a time when we’re looking at our white counterparts and peers who are moving up the ladder at a much faster rate than we are because of the advantages they have from a network perspective,” Ray said.

Andre Swanston, CEO of data marketplace Tru Optik, said there’s no excuse not to have a diverse company.

“You have to make an effort to not have a diverse marketing and sales team,” he said. “To not have diversity in those teams is a joke.”

Swanston added that finding a diverse team of engineers is harder due to larger issues in the education system. According to the National Science Foundation, nearly 63% of people who graduate with a degree in science and engineering are white. Hispanic people represent the second highest total, at just over 10%.

However, according to the Pew Research Center, Black and Hispanic workers are underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce. Black people make up 11% of the U.S. workforce overall but represent just 9% of STEM workers. Hispanic people make up 16% of the U.S. workforce but only 7% of all STEM workers.

The IAB’s response

Every source spoke to Adweek on the record, and while they weren’t directly critical of the IAB, they all struggled to point out firm or clear leadership on the issue of diversity and inclusion from ad tech’s trade body of record.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau does run a five-hour conference called Cross-Cultural Marketing Day where attendees “learn to adopt an inclusive approach to your communication efforts from subject matter experts.”

The group also touts a handful of diversity and inclusion initiatives on its website, such as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Board and the Equity and Inclusion Council. However, the links to those groups lead to “Page Not Found” errors.

(Adweek notified the IAB of this and asked about the status these two groups before publication. The IAB has not responded as of press time, but it has removed the links that led nowhere.)

The IAB did share a separate statement on its internal response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes:

“The Interactive Advertising Bureau and the IAB Tech Lab share the fears of our diverse staff and membership that the democratic principles underlying the Constitutional basis of republican government in the United States are under assault.

Powerful individuals, groups, and some Government officials are disenfranchising African-Americans and other minority groups, suppressing voting rights, inciting local police to harm citizens exercising their First Amendment rights, and promoting violence against the press.

Rather than simply condemn these actions, we encourage our staff and members to work to further American democracy. Accordingly, we are giving the entire staff of the IAB and the Tech Lab up to two days of paid time off per month between now and Election Day – November 3, 2020 – to work on a political or social campaign of their choice, for candidates of any party or causes that reflect their personal values and beliefs.

We hope this pro bono effort by the IAB team will help improve civic discourse, generate more participation in worthy causes, and effect meaningful, lasting change in the United States of America.”

The IAB has not responded to Adweek’s request for comment on how it will lead the ad-tech industry at large in the wake of Floyd’s death and the nationwide protests that have followed. The 4A’s, for example, has publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement in recent days.

The financial incentive and responsibility to diversify

Consumer-facing brands and their agency partners have a much clearer incentive to hire more diverse talent. Creating authentic ads for diverse audiences means connecting with more people, which ultimately means more people may buy their products. Plus, brands are in the public eye, and are therefore more likely to face backlash from consumers who feel alienated or offended by their messaging.

Ad tech operates under the hood, going largely unseen by most Americans while acting as the technological backbone powering the delivery of digital ads.

“In order for us to build the system … to be able to connect these brands with these audiences, you need to have people who are also diverse in thought that can lend to that experience,” Canty said.

If used improperly, as Smith pointed out, ad-tech companies hold the power to impact elections.

“If you look at ad tech, they actually have an enhanced responsibility for equity and inclusion because of how our new world of marketing is driven by data accuracy,” Smith said. “If any of that gets skewed, you have an opportunity, as we saw, to not only disenfranchise individuals, but quite literally disenfranchise an entire nation.”

@andrewblustein Andrew Blustein is a programmatic reporter at Adweek.