Headshot of Kerel Cooper
Mar 30 2023
Episode 31Kerel Cooper

Reaching Black Audiences in Adtech

While many players in the advertising industry have reprioritized diversity, equity, and inclusion in the past few years, underrepresentation of historically marginalized communities in programmatic media inventory is an ongoing problem. 

President of Advertising at Group Black, Kerel Cooper, is working to change that by building a publisher collective that aggregates programmatic inventory focused on reaching Black audiences. In this episode, Kerel discusses what advertisers and marketers can do to support the advancement of the Black media ecosystem.

Episode Transcript:

Noor Naseer: 2020 was a year of colossal change for brands and advertisers, as many were finding their footing around sustainability, equity, social justice, and other topics they historically had taken less of a stance on. This social awakening impacted the digital media world by changing how brands plan their media investments, the variety of suppliers or publishers they work with, and the types of initiatives they support.

Our guest for this episode is Kerel Cooper, president of advertising at Group Black, a Black-owned media collective focused on creating a more sustainable and equitable media landscape. Kerel talks to me about what's been going on in the past few years since 2020, how brands and media buyers should be thinking about DEI when it comes to programmatic media buying, and how marketers and digital media professionals can do better as they plan to execute campaigns more inclusively. This episode with Kerel on programmatic buying with diversity and inclusion in mind starts right now.

NN: First things first Kerel: Thanks for joining me to chat today.

Kerel Cooper: Absolutely, super excited about this conversation. I'm thrilled that we got a chance to meet in person for the first time a few months back at Ad Color. You were on my podcast two years ago, but we had actually never met in person until very recently. So that was awesome.

NN: It is very strange since I guess I met you amidst the pandemic and maybe I already knew you before. I think there is this shift in what it means to know somebody because I felt like I already knew you like I had already met you. I think that's just what living in this kind of post-pandemic world is like.

KC: Absolutely. I agree. There are so many people that I met, virtually, that I got a chance to know over the last two and a half years that meeting them for the first time in person was exciting. But it was also like we were just picking up conversations like old friends, because we've known each other for so long.

NN: I’m excited to do more of that and have some more of those conversations via the podcast as well. So I'm going to kick things off and ask you a little bit about where you work. You come from the legacy digital media and adtech space. And since then, you've moved over relatively recently to Group Black. So I'm going to frame my question specifically, because I know Group Black does a lot of different things. But can you spell out the offerings that are digital in nature, and the vital purposes they serve for brands and advertisers?

KC: Yeah, sure. So first, for those of you listening who don't know me, my name is Kerel Cooper, I'm President of Advertising at Group Black. If you're unfamiliar with Group Black, we are essentially a collective and accelerator focused on the advancement of the Black media ecosystem. And I know we'll sort of get more into what that means in this conversation. 

In terms of our specific offerings, we're in the market today with three main opportunities. First, as a media opportunity. Today we work with, like I said, a collective of about 200 Black-owned media publishers, and are representing their inventory and market. So we've essentially consolidated their inventory and offer it as a scalable media solution and market. The specific products within that include standard display, video, audio, CTV, and digital out of home. So that all sort of encompasses our media offering.

We also have a content and creators offering as well. So really working with creators and content creators who are authentically telling great stories in the marketplace, we work with them on sort of amplification of their content and connecting them with the right agencies and brands who have a strategy around content or social offering as well. The third offering is focused on events. So in 2022, we worked very closely with Essence, partnering with them on sponsorships and activations at Essence Fest and Afropunk. But as we look at 2023, Group Black will be standing up for our own events in the market. And a couple of notable events are, we'll be doing something soon around web3 and NFT's and the sort of the education around that market, as well as programming around hip hop's 50th anniversary, which happens to be this year. And again, working with brands on sponsorships and activations at those events.

NN: You might have touched on some things I am probably going to ask you about, but we'll reframe them a little bit. I also want to just clarify what is the nature of the conversation that I'm looking to have today with Kerel and there is just this inclination and just this uprising of advertisers and marketers and brands out there that are looking to put together strategies to reach Black and Brown audiences and other types of marginalized audiences. And oftentimes, they're looking to do that in programmatic adtech oriented spaces. Everyone doesn't have a full-blown strategic team or AOR in place to make those strategies come into existence, but they've been tasked with making those buys come together and come together successfully. So we'll talk more about that. But I'm going to connect back again to Kerel’s history in the adtech and digital media space. How is your background distinguishing you for the purposes of Group Black?

KC: Yeah, it's a great question. I don't know if anyone's ever asked me that question before, you made me sort of think about my career, my career journey. I've been in the adtech and martech space for over 23 years now. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to work at some great companies, some really great organizations, and have had the opportunity to do a lot of different things within my career, right, you know, I would say the first 14 years of my career were mainly spent in ad operations. And coming up through sort of the ad operations funnel and running teams there and building out adtech stacks, so on and so forth. I then moved over to LiveIntent in 2014. So moving from the publisher side of the space to the adtech platform side of the space. And from there, I made a career switch to move into account management and ran the account management organization for a couple of years before again, pivoting into leading product marketing, and then ultimately all of marketing. 

So my career in a snapshot has been across ad operations, account management, product marketing, and marketing. I think from the role that I'm in now, which consists of heading up an organization that consists of the sales team, account management and operations and insights and analytics, all of my previous experience, put me in a really good position to sort of lead an organization that covers so many different areas of revenue and operations. 

Second to that I'm super passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion, as we've talked about, you know, I run my own podcast with my cohost, Erik Requidan, that we started in 2018, which focuses on diverse individuals within media, business and technology. And I've always been involved in my company and my organization's diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and social outreach initiatives. So if you combine my experience plus my passion around diversity, equity and inclusion and marry that with our mission and vision at Group Black, it's a really good fit for me. And I think for the company as well.

NN: To expand on that, I know you've given a little bit of background on Group Black and some of the activations or opportunities that they've stepped into some of the new things that we're anticipating for 2023. But I think a lot of people out there, who maybe they've worked in the adtech space, or programmatic media space, or just advertising in general, they're not as close as either you or I when it comes down to thinking about why it's so important to craft these more specialized organizations that are focusing on unique populations. So can you share some background to highlight why scaling Black media ownership is critical for programmatic and the digital media industry?

KC: Yeah, I mean, I think historically, Black-owned media and other diverse-owned media companies have not had the investment in them that other companies have had, or maybe that they should have had. So from that perspective, they haven't been able to have the financial resources to have the right technologies in place, or to maybe have the right media expertise on staff. And because their staffing is small, maybe they don't have the right connections at the agencies and brands to unlock more revenue. When you think of it from that perspective, that is one of the values that Group Black is providing to our collective. How do we make buying Black-owned media easier to do at scale? How do we create opportunities for our collective but also, how do we bring to them these additional areas of expertise, whether that be on the media side, the technology side, so on and so forth. 

I think when you look at the Black-media ecosystem landscape, I still feel that there's a lot of untapped sources of inventory from a programmatic perspective, because there are hundreds of local Black news organizations across the country today. But because of the lack of investment, as we just talked about, and their localized nature, a lot of them are very small. So a lot of them get overlooked by bigger brands and agencies when they're spending dollars and if we from a Group Black perspective can pull together those inventory sources, those unique small inventory sources that are untapped to create a more scalable offering, I think that that is something that a lot of agencies and brands would be willing to tap into.

NN: Absolutely. I mean, that's where there's this incredible loss on both sides, right that, like you mentioned earlier, it's that the technology hasn't been tapped into, people don't have the awareness that the opportunities exist. And even when the opportunities exist, they really need, especially if we're talking about some of the bigger brands out there, they need to be glued together with a lot of the other inventory sources that are available. 

KC: So right.

NN: Technology is key to that. So if you can also share how Group Black is helping to make Black-owned digital media companies more accessible, maybe in ways that go beyond some of what you already described in terms of like gluing some of the inventory sources together? Are there other things that are happening from a digital media perspective that you all are supporting?

KC: Yeah, I think in terms of making it more accessible, so I think it goes back to the technology piece. You know, from being in the adtech and programmatic space, connecting the pipes is so important. We love to say that in our space: “Are the pipes connected? Are we ready to do buying?” And so we've had to look at that as part of our solution for making inventory accessible, making it available, creating opportunities for maybe some of the smaller publishers who wouldn't normally have that opportunity. So opening the pipes and connecting programmatically is one thing. 

The flip side of that is marketing. I think our marketing team, our brand team has done a fantastic job in the year and a half that Group Black has been around in sort of promoting who we are, what we're doing and making sure that the marketplace knows that we exist. And within that it's not just about the Group Black brand. It's about the 200-plus publishers that are part of our collective that we are helping promote. So part of it is technology, in terms of making sure pipes are connected. The other part of it is brand marketing.

NN: Why is the adtech industry so behind when it comes to having solid sources of inventory related to Black-owned real time biddable inventory?

KC: There's a couple of reasons for that. If you think about the black media ecosystem, landscape, and Black-owned media inventory, there isn't a lot out there, there aren't a lot of Black-owned media companies. Our mission at Group Black is to dramatically transform the face of media ownership and investment. As part of who we are and what we're trying to do we are trying to address that. So the first part is there isn't a lot of Black-owned media that exists. And there's a number of reasons for that. Investment is at the top of the list, so we need to address that. 

The other side of it, I think, is the inherent way that buying has been done for so long creates some biases when it comes to Black-owned media and diverse-owned media as well. I'll give you an example. From a buying perspective there are companies that when they buy programmatically, they do keyword blocking for brand safety reasons. We've seen some examples where companies will block terms like “Black Lives Matter.” If you say you want to spend money with Black-owned media and you block a term like “Black Lives Matter,” you're automatically going to negate spending going to a lot of local news organizations, so on and so forth. “Obama” is another term that seems to get blocked as well, too. I think that that's more from a political perspective. Companies sometimes will block politics. How many years has it been since Obama's been in the White House? Most of the news today about him and about his wife and about his kids is more sort of lifestyle and educational type news. So I think going back and looking at how we buy today and making sure that the way we buy from a programmatic perspective in terms of keyword blocking, brand safety, the entire RFP process, I think is an exercise worthwhile for companies who are really serious about spending money with diverse-owned media companies.

NN: Kerel, I want to take our conversation back to what happened across the course of the pandemic, especially surrounding mid-2020. When there wasn't just an upheaval from a political standpoint, and from a social justice perspective, it definitely bled right into agency life and advertising and adtech culture of there being these proclamations of dedicating dollars and media investment to Black-owned businesses and Black-owned causes and things that we should be seeing the impact of. I wanted to ask you more about that. I imagine Group Black has a lot of visibility into whether or not that investment is actually occurring. So I just wanted to ask you a little bit about how those pledges and that commitment are coming along for advertisers and brands.

KC: Yeah, I think if you look at it on a case-by-case basis, some companies are doing better than others with their commitments, right. To your point, we speak to a lot of brands and agencies that have pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars supporting Black-owned media companies, supporting diverse-owned media companies, right. Obviously, I'm not going to get into the point of naming names or anything like that. But some are doing better than others. From a sales perspective it's our job at Group Black to continue to educate the market. From a sales perspective, it's our job to continue to show the power of running with diverse-owned media, Black-owned media. And that's the job that we're doing. We're making some headway there. But to answer your question, some are doing better than others. 

NN: To the extent that you want to comment on this, I know, it's kind of a tricky question, what do you think is holding some of those organizations back? Are there legitimate reasons? Do they not understand the complexities, or is putting together the plans more challenging than they were anticipating? Can you share a little bit about what some of the general rationale might be?

KC: Yeah, I think you named some of the reasoning behind that. I think that there, maybe there were a little bit more complexities than some had anticipated. Some folks put out headlines a couple years ago, but they didn't really have any real intention of doing anything there. Right. And again, I think that's a small part. I want to make sure I'm not generalizing because I think a lot of, pretty much all, of the partners that we work with today are serious about their commitments. But it's more about making sure that they understand the complexities, we help them navigate some of that. And then also on our side, and I think we've done a good job of this over the last year or so is making sure that we've got the right product offering for the brands that want to spend dollars. At the end of the day, we're still running a business. So brands and agencies need to hit specific KPIs. So we need to make sure that we're delivering the right products and services, which I believe we are today.

NN: You mentioned that there are a lot of advertisers out there that are standing firm with their commitment. And those are the types of folks that you are looking to partner with, to elaborate on the types of clients that seek to partner with your organization.

KC: Over the course of the year and a half we've been in business, we've seen all different types of partners come our way, large publishers, mid publishers, and very small publishers. I think a couple of things stand out that are consistent across the board. One, publishers have inventory that they want to offer up and be a part of what we're doing. Two, they share very similar beliefs and values that we share at Group Black and want to be a part of this sort of movement that we've created. I think all of those exist with that sort of common thread across a lot of the collective members that we work with today.

NN: Where is the typical brand or agency behind when it comes to developing a thoughtful programmatic strategy to reach Black audiences?

KC: That's an interesting question in terms of behind, I think it goes back to what I was saying earlier about really looking at your buying tactics. Obviously, you're going to come up with the goals of your campaigns, you're going to come up with your KPIs for what you want to do. But do your buying tactics negate you from getting there and create more challenges and hurdles for you getting there? Right, like looking at your keyword list, looking at the domains that you're running on? I think that is an area where I still think from a programmatic perspective, there needs to be a reset and a little bit more sort of digging into and investigating.

NN: Yeah, I think I also asked the question because I think from the perspective of a buyer and I know you haven't been in a media planner, per se, role for a minute now, Kerel. When I think about the question, I think about somebody, in the event that you are just not knowledgeable about the type of inventory sources that you're looking to ideally source from, what are you turning to? You’re trying to turn to Comscore? Are you trying to turn to your neighbor in the workplace to ask you what types of suppliers or sources you should be turning to? Maybe everybody's turning to the one singular supplier, and I feel like that's definitely a hang up to saying, like, “We're not pulling from a diversified enough source.” Then also to your earlier point, there's only so much you can source from to begin with, and that's a part of what you guys are focusing on too. It's the short-term, but it's also the long-term strategy.

KC: Exactly, yeah, there's only so many places you can source from. And I think that if we don't operate the largest programmatic offering of Black-owned media, we are certainly towards the top of the list there. So from that perspective, I think we've done a good job of pulling together as much inventory out there as we can. We're always looking for more, we have a team that is dedicated to finding more sources of inventory that fit into what we're doing and trying to accomplish as Group Black.

NN: If there are brands or media buyers out there listening now, and they're thinking about their strategies and that they want to be doing better, what type of advice would you offer to them as far as embarking on a more thoughtful strategy to reach Black audiences across digital media platforms in 2023?

KC: Yeah, whenever anyone asked me about the question around advice for how people can do better, I think the first thing is figuring out where you're at in the process today, and why you actually haven't done better up until this point, looking internally and understanding what's held you back or stopped you from doing better up until this point, I think, is super important. That's the first thing.

Two, I think reaching out to suppliers, like Group Black, we're happy to chat with anyone out there that wants to talk about best practices for targeting Black-owned media, the best practices around targeting African American audiences as well. We can guide you and help you from that perspective, to accomplish your goals. Again, from our perspective, yes, programmatic and the digital media offering is important to what we do, but it's not the only thing we do. So if you want to spend dollars with Black-owned media, if you want to reach diverse audiences, we can help you really with an integrated approach, reaching your audience at scale.

NN: What are big goals you have your sights set on when it comes to reaching Black consumers and leveraging Black-owned programmatic sources?

KC: Yeah, I think first and foremost is continuing to drive scale. You know this just as well as I do. What marketers are always looking for is scale and performance. So continuing to drive that I think is super important for us to share. Continuing to educate the market, on who we are, what we do, best practices for buying Black-owned media, diverse owned media through us is important. And really looking at sort of larger, more integrated campaigns, as I mentioned a moment ago, I think is important for us as well, too. We feel like we have really an offer for any marketer that's out there that wants to work with diverse-owned media.

NN: I am feeling optimistic about the future, you know, just even seeing Group Black at Ad Color and so many of the initiatives that you're supporting and having this conversation now, it makes me feel good about what's to come because it is also a long journey. 

KC: It is.

NN: You’ve made the serious commitment of leaving a former organization to become the president of a new one and keep things moving forward. So excited about the things that are coming next at Group Black and what you have coming next personally Kerel.

KC: Thanks, I appreciate it. We are excited about the year ahead we're going to continue to keep pushing our message in the market and doing the right things because if we succeed at what we're trying to do, which we will, it will have an impact from a social perspective for generations to come. 

NN: Great. Looking forward to it. Thanks for the time, Kerel.

KC: Thank you. Appreciate it.

NN: Thanks to Kerel Cooper, President of Advertising at Group Black, for discussing the cross section between digital media buying and executing campaigns that better represent the diverse world we live in. There's going to be some uphill climbing required to see the type of change that organizations like Group Black are working towards. But the adtech industry is better off when we can all more effectively reach the audiences we seek to engage with. Kerel also has a great podcast where he features interviews with leaders of diverse backgrounds across the business, media and tech landscape called Minority Report. Find it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And while you're doing that, give more episodes of this podcast to listen and feel free to subscribe. I'm Noor Naseer, more AdTech Unfiltered coming up real soon.

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