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.


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