Career Stories

Empathy, Candor, and Other Surprising Skills to Get Ahead in Digital Advertising, According to an Insider

Dane Blackburn, a senior analyst at SpotX
Dane Blackburn, a senior analyst at SpotX.
| Courtesy of SpotX

Grindr may have launched a million dates, but it’s also responsible for launching the career of Dane Blackburn. When he joined the app company as a junior project manager in 2012, the many departments “were all crammed into a starkly furnished office,” he says. And as the org’s needs evolved, he easily transitioned to the ad ops team.

“There was a lot of diving in and figuring things out as I went, but I loved it,” says Blackburn, now a senior analyst at the global video advertising platform SpotX. That instinct—to seize on an interesting opportunity, then figure things out as they unfold—has served Blackburn well, as he moved to Colorado and pursued a love of video.

Here, Blackburn shares why empathy is so important in digital media, how tenacity trumps easy wins, and what it takes for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts to be more than just optics.

Tell us what led you to your job at SpotX.

After Grindr, I worked for Telemetry, and it was during that time I began to truly appreciate the future of video advertising. Traditional broadcast television advertisers were chopping their budgets up to reach cord cutters on their phones, computers, and connected TVs. When I searched for industry players who were leading the charge in facilitating the transition from broadcast to digital, I was led to SpotX. From an outsider’s perspective, the company was doing some really big, really cool things.

At the same time, I was eager to have a lifestyle that catered to my love of the outdoors and dial back on the detractors of life in Los Angeles. I first applied to SpotX in October of 2016, and I moved to Colorado in May of 2017. There was never a question in my mind: If I moved to Colorado, I couldn’t give up on landing a role at SpotX. After multiple applications and interviews, I was offered a position in September 2018 as an analyst on the Demand Ops team.

What are you responsible for in your role?

Now as a senior analyst at SpotX, I’m responsible for the lifecycle of a campaign: building the campaign’s structure in our ad server, optimizing performance, and producing reporting. These campaigns span dozens of different verticals, and I’ve delivered success for both local advertisers with modest budgets and multi-million-dollar brands through award-winning agencies. But this is a fast-moving industry, and I also keep up with our product advancements, which change from year to year and quarter to quarter.

What is one of your proudest accomplishments while working at SpotX?

I’m not in a traditionally client-facing role, but our SVP of Operations and Regional VP of Demand Facilitation entrusted me to present a quarterly business review to Proof’s Chief Media Officer and her team for the Subway campaign we executed for Proof in 2019. Communicating directly with a group of industry leaders stands out as one of my proudest accomplishments. I appreciate that I was given the opportunity to stretch my experience beyond the conventional expectations of my role.

What do you like best about the company culture at SpotX?

Our company values are not just for optics. We are a group of conscious, courageous individuals, and these virtues consistently show up when serving our customers and when taking care of each other. SpotX is not perfect—no company can claim to be—but we are growing in a direction that I am proud to be a part of. That’s not just a reference to revenue or headcount, but growth in ingenuity, creativity, awareness, emotional intelligence, representation, candor, empathy, and care.

What are some of the initiatives you’re working on as part of SpotX’s new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Steering Committee?

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are hot topics in today’s professional climate. The risk is that they’ll be in-the-moment trends, acknowledged only for the benefit of good optics. I’ve taken it upon myself to champion open, honest, and often challenging conversations among various DE&I stakeholders and senior leadership at SpotX.

Confronting the DE&I pain points in our organization has not been easy, but we’ve taken the plunge and we’re not turning back. There are so many wins, successes, accomplishments, and milestones that can be celebrated, but we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we did not look in the mirror and acknowledge where we can improve. I’m especially invested in our evolving recruitment efforts and look forward to meeting all the diverse and passionate future SpotXers we’ll hire.

What are some of the biggest cultural changes you’d like to see in the advertising and technology industries?

Two of my greatest professional mentors are women, but it’s just a fact that women are underrepresented in technology leadership. Black and Latino ethnic groups are underrepresented in both advertising and technology, let alone ad tech.

It’s important for me to see minority communities and institutions that engage with and serve these communities foster relationships with industry leaders in order to create more robust matriculation pipelines for female and minority candidates. I recently read an article in which a CEO blamed his company’s poor diversity numbers on a limited pool of Black talent, and this simply isn’t true. Opportunities need to be presented to people where they are, and reaching out to them shows that we believe in them.

As part of the client services team, what skills and traits do you draw on to interact with SpotX customers?

I’m naturally a very empathetic person, and I draw on empathy to place myself in the shoes of our clients. Whether a campaign budget is a few thousand dollars or ten million dollars, the goal of spending that money is to show a return on investment. It’s my responsibility to ensure that a client’s campaign goals are met to the best of my ability. I would say that being candid is vital for managing expectations, internally and externally. I’ve found that, more often that not, people appreciate a candid conversation more so than universal appeasement.

What advice do you have for those who want to pursue a similar career path as yours?

The truth is, I didn’t graduate from college knowing that I wanted to work in digital advertising. A need was identified within a company I was working for, a leader offered me the opportunity to dive in, and I took it. It’s important to be cognizant of where your skills and abilities align with the needs of your organization at any given time. Be open to those opportunities, rather than focusing on opportunities predicated on arbitrary titles or job descriptions.

If digital advertising interests you, it’s important to home in on which facets interest you the most. It’s wild to think about what goes into the creation of a 15-second ad and the execution of the campaign: the creativity, the data, the technical infrastructure, the money, the coordination of multiple teams, the relationship building. Every ad we see is the culmination of a lot of time, effort and planning. It may take some time to determine where you best fit into the process, and that’s okay. Be tenacious in the pursuit of your goals, whatever they might be.

Updated 10/28/2020