Leading With Empathy, Women’s History Month Q&A With Mediavine Co-founder Amber Bracegirdle

At age 15, when Amber Bracegirdle started her career, she had no idea she would end up as co-founder and Chief Brand Officer of Mediavine, a full-service ad management provider helping content creators build sustainable businesses.

But from the outside, looking in, it seems she was always destined to end up right where she is today.

Ironically, her first job was interning at her uncle’s advertising business, learning the ropes, which made becoming a CBO what she calls “a natural fit.” During our discussion, she reminisced about messing around with nonexistent desktop publishing applications like PageMaker and Quark when she was a young girl.

In college, Bracegirdle experimented with various mass media majors. She eventually married, moved abroad, and changed her major to teaching, receiving a degree in Social Sciences. While this may seem far-fetched from where she is in her career today, Mediavine prides itself on teaching its publisher customers how to achieve their business goals, earn more from every session and page view, and keep their audiences engaged.

Along her career journey, influential female bosses believed in her and encouraged her in moments of self-doubt. Amber takes great pride in her empathetic leadership approach, which she greatly attributes to those strong female leaders who molded her into an executive who uplifts her employees.

Early Days

Yakira Young: After college, what was your career experience like?

Amber Bracegirdle: Shortly after college, I worked in customer service at Travelocity, which was a great lesson for how we wanted to do customer service at Mediavine. 

I got into fraud analysis and loved it. Many people would ask if fraud at Travelocity was just people getting free vacations when it was actually fighting child trafficking, drug trafficking, and human trafficking in general. It was such a fascinating, analytical job, and I adored it, and it allowed me to see the world. I got to work at our UK offices, German offices, and the San Antonio office. But the most impactful thing about working at Travelocity was my boss.

Becoming an Empathetic Leader

YY: How did this boss impact you? Was she also a woman?

AB: Her name is Sheila Korte, and she taught me how to be an empathetic leader and turn mistakes into learning opportunities. She taught me that the people who don’t make mistakes are those who don’t make any moves. Everything she taught me about management along the way boiled down to first, we must always be kind.

She is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and every day I continue to try and make her proud with how I manage my people and how we work with our customers. I grew tremendously under her leadership. Whenever I felt unsure of myself, she pushed me forward and said, “you can do this.” And that’s how I manage my people, and it’s how we talk to our customers.

Halfway through my time at Travelocity, we changed CEOs, and our CEO became a woman named Michelle Peluso. Today, she’s in the C-suite at CVS, and Michelle is a genius who, with friends, created a website called Site59 that would make deals with hotels in New York City for the inventory they hadn’t sold. She made contracts with hotels so she could sell their unsold daily inventory for less than the walk-in rate.

When Travelocity purchased Site59, Michelle was made CEO of Travelocity simultaneously. Despite dealing with thousands of employees, she was approachable and always kind. I could email her, and I’d have a response in 30 minutes full of ideas and action items for how to solve the problem at hand. That’s the kind of leader you want to be. You want to ensure you’re lifting up the people who work for you because all ships rise when you do that.

Managing Work-life Balance

YY: What is your experience managing work-life balance as a C-suite executive and mother of two? How do you prioritize your time and responsibilities, and what strategies have you found most effective for maintaining a healthy balance between work and family life?

AB: My work-life balance has gotten better over the years. We started Food Fanatic, the site I founded with Eric Hochberger, Stephen Marsi, and Matt Richenthal when I was seven months pregnant with my first son, Evan when I came to work for them full-time. Mediavine hiring me at seven months pregnant says a lot about the three of them and their willingness to buck trends. 

I was pregnant with Will when the ad management part started to take off. My work-life balance was rough for the first few months of my kids’ lives; outside of bathing and eating, I worked all day with childcare in hand. But now that we’ve got such great people and so many on the team, I’m better able to balance things. I can take a vacation and know I have nothing to worry about back at “the office” – otherwise known as Slack. My family just returned from a week-long vacation in Florida, and I didn’t stress once about the lack of internet access. I can also volunteer at my kids’ school, which I just did this morning. I have much more time for things like that. 

Over the summer, I took Fridays off completely. It’s important to claim your time. Work-life balance comes down to boundaries, and you’re the person that sets them. And it took me a long time to realize that. 

It’s hard when it’s exciting, and it’s your startup. My advice to anyone considering starting a company is to be intentional about setting boundaries for your personal life because you don’t think about it when you’re excited about what you’re doing.

It can lead you to burnout and lead to your family not feeling like they’re as important as the company. I had to step back on that because my kids thought work was more important than they were at one point, and I had to fix it. So that’s why I show up for things like field day or their field trips. They each have one a year, and I show up for those because they must know how important they are to me.

YY: The Pandemic has helped shift the work-life balance amongst many people and helped people realize that family is more important than work.

AB: I agree. At Mediavine, it got harder because we’ve always been remote. So for us, it was business as usual, and then everyone in the world was online, so our application volume went through the roof because we had sites that were only three months old suddenly reaching out to join because their traffic was at our threshold. We realized we were spending more time on applications that would never be approved than on the customers needing our help moving the needle on their own businesses. The quickest way to shift that focus back to the people that need us most was to raise our threshold. It was a hard decision, but ultimately one that served the people that already trust us with their livelihood the best.

I had to homeschool my kids on top of everything for longer than most people because I have a kiddo with a heart condition. So I homeschooled for two-and-a-half years and juggled everything at Mediavine. The marketing and communications team, led by Jenny Guy, started putting out roughly four times as much content, and we had, I think, four people on the team at that time. Growing that team has been a huge priority because moving everything online became a huge lift. We were used to meeting our customers at events and conferences worldwide, and suddenly that went away.

It brought home some hard truths for many of us at Mediavine about making those boundaries around work and family because suddenly, there was more work than we knew what to do with, and we couldn’t hire fast enough. It made us realize that we had to draw those boundaries, or it would never be a balance.

Mediavine’s Launch Into Ad Management

YY: Can you tell me more about how Mediavine was created by accident? I’m curious to know how a chance occurrence led to the development of your company and what steps you took to turn that accident into a successful business venture.

AB: I jokingly say accident because this all started with a single friend asking for our help with the new tech Eric had built for our four sites. Then more friends asked, and suddenly we had more friends than we knew what to do with! Once we decided that we were going to open the floodgates and work with people we didn’t know personally, we made some very intentional decisions. 

Stephen Marsi, Matt Richenthal, and Eric Hochberger founded Mediavine as an SEO shop for hire. Then he moved into making their content websites, which led them to need advertising to support those websites and the company. Creating the ad tech was purposeful because we needed it for our own four sites. So that was very purposeful, and my coming to work for them was very intentional. 

We were working on creating a food site because their ad company had told them they needed a lifestyle site. In working with me, I think I was really their first direct and continuous experience with content creators that also had their own web presence, social media, and personal websites. We hired food bloggers to create content for the site we were building together, Food Fanatic, and I introduced Eric to many food bloggers as part of that. 

I was simply consulting until I decided I wanted to leave my fraud analysis work (and work travel) behind to focus on my first baby. I asked the guys if they would consider hiring me full-time, and I’m very grateful they did. As I said before, I came on full-time when I was seven months pregnant. The guys never even questioned that as part of our conversation, something that I think is very special and unique, especially in the tech field. After I came on full-time, our ad company fell apart, and our ad income sort of cut in half overnight. And here we were, supporting four families and an army of contributors.

Great ideas are born out of desperation. Eric was researching programmatic advertising then and thought he could build something beneficial to recoup some of the ad dollars we didn’t see from our ad management company. He started making the first version of our script wrapper, but it was only for our four websites. 

He built the script wrapper focusing on SEO since that’s how we have always focused on growing traffic. Our most prominent site was founded on SEO. If you Google celebrity gossip, one of our sites is the one that owns that top search result and has for years. And it’s one of the main ways that the site got traffic. 

He started out thinking his wrapper would provide a backfill for our main ad company’s inventory, but we quickly started earning more with his header bidding auctions than we were making with them. We decided to sever ties with them and continue to do our own thing. And luckily, The Hollywood Gossip was big enough for us to have seats at the exchanges. In an offhand conversation, I told my best friend, also a food blogger, what we were doing, and she said, well, you know, my ad company sucks too. “Could you guys help me?” That question led to us recently surpassing over 10,000 active sites using Mediavine’s ad management. 

Bloggers always talk to each other, and they always talk in Facebook groups. So, five other people that wrote for Food Fanatic said, “I’d really like you to help me too.” And so, we launched six websites in June 2015. Initially, the idea was that this would be a bonus for people who write for Food Fanatic because we couldn’t pay them a ton for their content but making a little mini ad network made us stronger together. 

We looked at all our experience with different ad companies and said, what’s the 180 of that? And that drove many of our purposeful decisions after we accidentally started an ad company. 

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging at Mediavine

YY: What specific diversity and inclusion initiatives is your company implementing, and how does your role as Chief Brand Officer contribute to these efforts?

AB: From our first efforts at influencer marketing and programmatic advertising, one of the primary directives that we decided on was to make sure that we put diverse voices in front of brands whenever we were doing an influencer campaign. We also work hard to make sure that everyone in a campaign is making an equitable amount of money for their rate of engagement, including increasing their rate when it makes sense for industry trends within the budget. 

In the last few years, SSPS and DSPs came to us looking for the ability to take earmarked budgets and apply them to Black-owned, women-owned, or LGBTQIA+- owned publishers. We moved very quickly to ensure our publishers could self-identify in their dashboards if they wanted to. It provided us with key values we can pass in the ad string and grab those budgets for the publishers that can benefit from them. A huge percentage of those budgets are run through Mediavine pipes, and that’s incredibly important to us. 

You will see us talk about Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging (DEI&B) a lot more soon under the banner of our corporate responsibility arm, which we call Shine. Shine was launched in 2021, but started as an idea from a travel publisher in 2020, during the height of the pandemic. From a publisher and an ad partner perspective, we have some new initiatives you will hear about shortly. On the People Operations side of our company, we have always focused on making inclusive and diverse hires. Still, it’s been an especially large focus for our Chief People and Culture Officer, Yolanda Evans, to ensure that we are hiring in a way that provides equity to diverse communities. We post our jobs in places where someone might not normally expect us to.

We also have an employee resource group called PRISM, which our People Operations team also runs. PRISM is currently working on bringing in speakers for Women’s History Month. We had several speakers and an employee-led panel about the Black experience in the tech industry and at Mediavine in general, with even a little bit of constructive criticism, which was awesome because there’s always stuff we can do better. So are we behind some diversity efforts? The answer is a resounding yes.