houston innovators podcast episode 173
Houston founder shares how he's using tech to make digital media more effective and equitable
After working in both sides of the advertising world, Mark Walker thought he could reimagine a platform that would be more efficient and equitable.
Walker co-founded his company, Direct Digital Holdings, an adtech platform, after serving in several roles — from an early hire at Houston digital media startup Questia to business development director at NRG Energy and COO of EBONY Media. He shares on the Houston Innovators Platform how he took this experience in tech, advertising, and media to create his company's platform.
"NRG Energy gave me a top-down view of the value chain, and Ebony gave me a bottoms-up view of the value chain of how media is purchased," Walker says on the show. "At Direct Digital Holdings, we help companies buy and sell media — and we leverage technology to do it. It's really the culmination of both of those experiences."
With over 30,000 publishers on its platform, Direct Digital makes it easier for its core customers — middle market companies looking to buy into the digital media ecosystem — to tap into these opportunities without the tech know-how they might otherwise need. Walker explains that at EBONY, he saw how small to midsize publications — especially the multicultural ones — were being left out on the ad selling side of the equation. The Direct Digital platform bridges the gap on each end.
Founded in 2018 in partnership with Keith Smith, who went through similar professional experiences, Direct Digital went public exactly one year ago after growing the company through strategic M&A activity. Walker says the decision to IPO made the most sense for his company — though it wasn't an easy process. Direct Digital is only the ninth company founded by a Black entrepreneur to go public on a US stock exchange.
"If you think the process is hard — it actually is," Walker says on the journey to IPO. "We were a privately held company, and we knew we had a good growth trajectory and we looked a couple different options. We decided to go public in a very traditional way."
Walker explains there were some risks involved, but the co-founders ultimately decided to shy away from adding in investors who might not have the same ideas for the company's future.
Direct Digital has been a Houston company from the star — despite the city not being home to a booming adtech ecosystem. Instead, Houston — with its collection of Fortune 500 companies and rich diversity — has allowed the business to stand out.
"If you look at and reflect on how our company has been built — from our board of directors to our leadership and management team — we're a majority minority organization all the way across the board," Walker says. "Diversity is very important to us. It's the lifeblood of our business — especially because we're serving publishers in those communities in big way. And moreso, we think you get the best product, thoughts, and ideas from a diverse workforce, and Houston fits right into that mold for us."
Walker shares more about his company's future, advice on IPO, and what all he's watching in adtech — from AI to streaming — on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.