The real ad tech unicorns: Firms run by women

Go to any ad tech conference and you’ll find no line at the ladies’ room. The industry, like much of tech, is dominated in its executive ranks by men.

That’s what makes mobile DSP Adelphic unusual: Half of the company’s eight-person management team is female. Emily Del Greco, its head of sales, spent eight years at Google, where she helped build the company’s DSP business. Vp of product Yael Avidan is a Yahoo veteran, and Gina Kim, Adelphic’s vp of business development, led DMP sales at BlueKai and Oracle.

Getting there wasn’t the result of a specific tactic or quota, said Adelphic co-founder and chief strategy officer Jennifer Lum. “The goal was always to find and hire the best possible candidates. We’ve just done a better job of casting a broader net,” she said.

Attracting female talent gets easier the more women you hire. When Del Greco joined from Google in 2011 as Adelphic’s second senior executive, the perspective she brought to the hiring process made it easier to attract other female executives. “As a woman, you tend to perceive female candidates differently from how a male would,” Lum said. Female leaders are more likely to be seen by men as bossy or aggressive than as strong leaders, for example.

Ad tech’s challenge in attracting women is part of a bigger one facing tech companies generally. Digiday found in 2013 that out of the 35 executives at publicly traded ad tech companies, only three were female. The picture hasn’t changed much. Women represent just 2.9 percent of ad tech CEOs today, according to ad tech company Maxifier. That’s lower than the 4.8 percent of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies overall.

Other ad tech companies are making similar headway when it comes to balancing the male-female ratio at their upper ranks. At Qualia Media, for example, women represent four of the company’s six managers. CEO Kathy Leake said that the process of hiring more female execs wasn’t intentional but was a product of “not having a bias” when it comes to making hiring choices.

“No man is going to admit to having a bias, but it’s the kind of thing that’s internal and subconscious,” she said. “I  see every candidate as equally viable, but I don’t think everyone making hiring decisions does.”

But ad tech companies can no longer afford to not search for a wider base of talent, said Lum. As the ad tech space has evolved and gotten more competitive, it’s put a premium on talent, particularly on the sales side, that can do more than take potential clients out to dinner. Today’s ad tech companies are looking for “relationship builders,” who have deep knowledge of a company’s brand and product.

“Ad tech now is way more tech- and partnership-driven than it was before, so it’s attracting more people with different kinds of backgrounds in general,” Lum said. “Having a team that is uniform and looks and talks the same isn’t going to make you competitive against a team that’s diverse and able to connect and relate to partners on multiple levels.”

Lum couldn’t cite specific examples of how its gender-balanced management has helped Adelphic’s business. But she believes that having executives with diverse experiences gives the company more perspectives on which to base its decisions.

Despite Adelphic’s success on this front, Lum acknowledged that the company still has work to do. While 26 percent of the company’s staff is female, women represent just 13 percent of its engineering talent. She chalked this up to young women having fewer role models in technical careers and Adelphic being headquartered in Boston, where the overall talent pool is limited.

“We’re seeing a lot of positive conversation around changing the diversity balance, but the one thing that’s really needed is time,” she said. “This isn’t something that can be changed overnight.”

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