The Undeniable Drive of Diana Lee and Constellation Agency

When Diana Lee, CEO and co-founder of Constellation Agency, one of the fastest-growing companies in the US, was five years old, she immigrated to this country with her parents from South Korea. One day during that critical period in her newly American childhood, Lee returned to her parents’ home in Philadelphia, days after Christmas, to find the apartment barren. The one gift her parents had been able to give her for the holiday had, like everything else, been taken. Bewildered, Lee thought she had entered the wrong apartment.

“I would come home, and our entire apartment would be empty,” Lee recalled. “I remember the first time it happened to me. We were all living in a one-bedroom apartment — the four of us. We would sleep on the floors because we didn’t even have beds. Finally, we’d get an opportunity to furnish it. And I would walk to school by myself with my sister — I was five years old, my sister was six years old — because my parents would leave at five or four in the morning. One day, we walk back, I open the door with my sister, and the entire place is completely empty. And the windows are open. And the curtains are just coming through the breeze.”

But that was not Lee’s first run-in with disaster. A tenuous grip on property, on the trappings of a life, was part of her inheritance, as her mother had fled North Korea to South Korea as a child, displaced by the Communist takeover. A sense of economic insecurity — and the drive to transcend it — had been passed down to Lee, first due to events on the other side of the Pacific, then by routine encounters with danger here in the US.

“My parents had many convenience stores,” Lee said. “I would witness them get robbed at gunpoint — many times. It wasn’t just one time.”

From her early days, Lee appears to have felt the tension between exposure to economic and physical insecurity and a desire to achieve independence from the unpredictable forces that can cause one’s world to cave in. 

Lee felt that tension as a kid, helping her parents read over contracts at an age when no child should have to shoulder such responsibility. She felt it as a college student, no doubt surrounded by peers finding themselves while she blazed a path for herself in the auto industry. And she feels it now, even if retrospectively, wishing that she had amassed more success sooner so that her late father could have benefited from it.

But to the extent that anyone can, Lee has beaten insecurity, economic and affective. She is at the helm of an advertising technology company that, while remaining self-funded, has outgrown its offices numerous times, catapulted to more than 100 employees, and is on track to report $45 million in revenue this year. Her company’s software, Alexia, named after an employee who pointed out the tedium of manually programming digital ad campaigns, is the apple of adtech’s eye, automating the hyperlocal, language-specific ads that brands need to create at scale across platforms. 

And when I visited Lee last week at her company’s new office, I waded through the several layers of security one must pass through to visit One World Trade Center. Speaking to Lee about her upbringing minutes after taking in the views from the observatory, I was struck by the undeniable contrast between her roots and the heights she has reached. Undeniable, too, was the drive that has propelled her to this point.

One World Trade Center’s observatory / courtesy of Constellation

“Not Just a Tech Play”

Alexia is a technology that creates digital ads at scale, helping companies reach customers via social, search, display, and more with immersive ads designed to stop scrolling thumbs in place. Its magic lies in automation — mechanizing a process that would otherwise take thousands of hours of tedious button pushing — but also in tailoring ads to given platforms and ad formats as well as a user’s local culture and language.

“Whether you’re designing for a website or designing for an e-blast or designing for Facebook’s multiple ad types, you need to approach each of them differently,” said Adam Gerber, senior marketing manager at Constellation. “If you try to do the same thing and just resize it, it doesn’t look right. … To get specialized in each of those different fields — it created the opportunity to match scaling with design,” which is what Alexia aims to accomplish.

But contrary to what Alexia might lead one to expect, Lee, who founded Constellation with Matt Woodruff, the company’s chief product officer, did not come to hyperlocal adtech by way of Google or Goldman Sachs. Rather, her interest in local marketing dates back to her college years, when she took a job selling cars at a Worcester, Massachusetts, dealership. 

Constellation CEO and co-founder Diana Lee alongside CPO and co-founder Matt Woodruff / courtesy of Constellation

That decision — to enter an industry where she, an 18-year-old, South Korean-American woman, would be competing with men more than double her age — was driven by her childhood experience watching her parents toil and stare down firearms so that she and her sister could succeed.

“My mom’s had a very, very difficult life,” Lee said. “My parents worked 15, 18 hours a day to just put food on the table and make sure we had what we needed in order to get educated here in the US. I went to college, but every day at college, I would feel guilty about the fact that my parents were trying to help me and pay for my education or pay for my dorm room. That’s what led me to find a job in the car business when I was 18.”

Working at the dealership, Lee experienced racism and sexism, yes, but also developed a deep appreciation for the intergenerational family struggles, not unlike her own, that underpin local auto franchises. And now, it is those family-owned, small businesses that Constellation wields the power to propel as direct-to-consumer, digital natives like Tesla leverage greater digital savvy, capital investment, and massive stores of data to outsell conventional franchises online.

“I want to give them the advantage to stay alive,” Lee said of the dealerships. “It’s not just a business. It’s not just a tech play. It’s a whole family unit that went through blood, sweat, and tears.”

Constellation’s first major client was a global auto brand, and today it is among the leading adtech providers for car companies. The company recently got certified to work with GM, which means the original equipment manufacturer trusts Constellation not only to executive advertising effectively but also to do so in a way that is true to its brand. Constellation counts a who’s who of leading car brands among its clients and also works with Macy’s, Omnicom Group, and Univision.

What It Means To Do Local Marketing

Now, the data privacy movement is giving Constellation another opportunity to demonstrate that it can go to bat for its clients, many of them local franchises. 

Responding to iOS 14.5 and App Tracking Transparency, Apple’s move to force apps to get more explicit consent to track consumers on mobile, Constellation recently rolled out “immersive” ads that aim to replace the cross-app behavioral targeting of the pre-privacy era with retargeting within the walled gardens. Because the data stays in apps such as Facebook, the consumer is not tracked across apps and subjected to an ad they may perceive as creepy on a third-party platform. As for advertisers, they get the chance to keep leveraging granular targeting and measurement while respecting government regulations and gatekeeper rules.

“The small guys will never get bigger in this type of climate,” Lee said of the privacy changes’ impact on smaller companies. That is because smaller players lack the consumer data and digital know-how that big companies can deploy to maintain targeting practices even as consumer data gets harder to access and targeting and measurement become more expensive.

But that is precisely the sort of challenge hyperlocal adtech solutions can help brands navigate. As privacy regulations pile up, adtech specialists will have an increasingly important role to play as sherpas to advertisers who cannot afford an in-house team of data privacy professionals and digital advertising whizzes.

Of course, despite its ambition to serve local businesses, Constellation is not in the altruism business. It’s a for-profit company racing to hire and accrue clients as it scales up from $45 million in revenue in this, its fifth year, to a target $80 or $90 million in 2022. Constellation’s newly rented office, an entire floor at One World Trade Center, is some 50,000 square feet, with about 250 desks, and Lee intends to fill them and take on another floor, possibly as soon as next year. But if there is a mission in adtech, Lee speaks as convincingly about it as anyone: leveraging technical expertise to help local businesses navigate ever-more-complicated advertising rules as digital natives threaten to eat the market whole. 

Bringing the family-operated Chevy franchise into the 21st-century: That’s what it means to do local marketing today. And Lee has the drive to do it. It’s in her DNA.

Tags:
Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018 and compiled the daily newsletter since 2016. Joe is a journalist who has written widely about technology, business, and politics. You can contact him at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.