15 of the most promising digital advertising and media startups of 2021, according to top VCs and insiders

From managing data in a privacy-safe way to reinventing how TV ads are measured, adtech startups are helping redefine digital advertising and media.

Insider asked investors and industry experts to name the most exciting startups in digital advertising and marketing.

The resulting 15 are solving key industry problems in 2021 and include Chalice Custom Algorithms, which help advertisers escape Facebook and Google’s walled gardens; and Tinyclues, which helps brands unearth new kinds of data.

Blutag: Helps retailers build voice-powered interfaces

Blutag cofounders Shilp Agarwal (left) and Rahul Agarwal



Startup: Blutag

Latest round: January 2021

Amount raised: $2.5 million

Total funding: $4 million

What it does: Blutag helps retailers build voice-powered interfaces for devices powered by automated assistants like Alexa or Google Assistant. 

Why it’s on the list: Voice commerce is a powerful way to make it easy for customers to keep reordering products. But building a voice interface that connects to a store isn’t easy, especially if it needs to work across platforms like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.

Blutag tries to simplify that process. Businesses can connect their online ecommerce platforms like Shopify or Magento so Blutag can grab their product catalog information, then choose the sort of experience they want to enable, such as creating the ability to buy things or to give product FAQs. 

Clients include Bloomingdales, L’Oréal, and Fresh Direct. Investors include the Amazon Alexa Fund and Chris Cunningham’s C2, which provided Blutag’s latest funding in January.

Chalice: Alternative to walled gardens

Startup: Chalice Custom Algorithms

Latest round: July 2021

Amount raised: Low seven figures

Total funding: Low seven figures

What it does: Digital advertisers use software called demand-side platforms (DSPs) to buy ads online. Many of these DSPs let advertisers incorporate custom-made algorithms to add more functions, like granular targeting. But for advertisers to bring a unique algorithm to a DSP, they first have to build it, which is what Chalice does.

Why it’s on the list: Chalice was formed in 2020 and was the first startup to receive investment from TD7, the venture capital arm launched in July by the publicly traded adtech company The Trade Desk. CEO Adam Heimlich declined to specify the size of this seed round.

The company helps advertisers escape the so-called walled gardens like Facebook and Google. While the walled gardens supply powerful algorithms for advertisers, those algorithms are constantly strengthened with data from the advertisers that use them. And those algorithms are also widely available. Chalice’s value proposition is that it helps advertisers drive better results and their data won’t be used to improve the tech giants’ algorithms. 

Dorian: an interactive storytelling platform

Li Jin
Li Jin, Ateliler Ventures



Startup: Dorian

Recommended by: Li Jin, Atelier Ventures

Latest round: August 2020

Amount raised: $3.3 million

Total funding: $5.4 million

What it does: Dorian lets creators build interactive stories and provides them with analytics to better monetize their content.

Why it’s on the list: Dorian is a new addition to the booming creator economy — and a potentially lucrative one. The company told TechCrunch that in tests of 50,000 players, writers were able to increase monetization by 70% after one or two iterations.

Li Jin of Atelier Ventures, who has no financial interest in the company, said that readers and followers will love the improved creative content, too.

“For fans, Dorian has thoughtfully constructed a new form of social content consumption,” she said.

EDO: measures TV ad effectiveness

Startup: EDO

Latest round: November 2018

Amount raised: $12 million

Total funding: $18 million

What it does: Cofounded in 2015 by actor Ed Norton, EDO’s technology measures if TV ads moved people closer toward a purchase by matching its database of where and when ads ran on TV with online activity like search. If there’s a surge in activity after an ad airs, it shows that the ad increased consumers’ intent to purchase.

Why it’s on the list: TV marketers can lack full visibility into the path consumers take from seeing an ad to purchasing a product. EDO gathers online data signals and aims to show marketers whether their ads are actually influencing peoples’ intent to buy products. Even as TV ad-measurement has focused more on delivering results like purchases, there aren’t a lot of companies analyzing what happens as customers move closer toward a purchase.

EDO’s subscription offering has grown 209% since 2018 and Q2 2021 is tracking toward 71% YoY growth, due to winning new accounts with technology and financial services companies, the company said.

Infosum: a data collaboration platform

Brian Lesser
InfoSum CEO Brian Lesser



Startup: InfoSum

Latest round: September 2020

Amount raised: $15.1 million

Total funding: $25 million

What it does: InfoSum helps clients do data onboarding — transfering enterprise data from where it’s stored to a place where clients can extract insights. Without the right technologies, this is a tedious, time-consuming, and potentially error-prone process. The company also helps different organizations collaborate on data. Its clients include publishers like CNN and The Telegraph, agencies like Omnicom, and data services companies like Experian.

Why it’s on the list: Data onboarding isn’t new, but recent platform privacy tweaks and global privacy regulation are making it more complicated and controversial. Infosum’s methodologies around data onboarding and data collaboration — where different organizations can compare their data sets — are designed to keep data within the data owners’ control.

Instead of letting different data sets mingle in the same environment, it builds a virtual “bunker” on the data owner’s premises. The data owner can then determine who has access to what.

MParticle: gathers up consumer data

unnamed 9
MParticle CEO Michael Katz



Startup: MParticle

Latest round: March 2020

Amount raised: $45 million

Total funding: $122 million

What it does: MParticle simplifies the normally tedious process of grabbing customer data from different sources, like mobile apps, in-store transactions, and connected devices like Rokus. Then it helps them connect that data to their advertising or marketing software. 

Why it’s on the list: Angel investor Kevin Weatherman, who has invested in mParticle, said the 9-year-old company was one of the first out the gate with software that integrates into mobile apps. It’s expanded to bring in other sources of customer data, and it has tools to make sure the information coming in from all of those sources is actually usable to its clients. 

MParticle’s client list includes JetBlue, Postmates, and Chick-fil-A. “They’ve had tremendous retention as it relates to major publishers and brands,” said Cunningham of C2 Ventures, who doesn’t have a financial stake in the company.

MParticle CEO Michael Katz said the company had 178% new sales growth YoY in Q2 and is on track to IPO within the next two to three years.

Permutive: a data management platform

Joe Root, CEO of Permutive
Permutive CEO Joe Root



Startup: Permutive

Latest round: July 2020

Amount raised: $18.5 million

Total funding: $30 million

What it does: Permutive is a data management platform that lets publishers divide their audience into segments that can be targeted by advertisers.

Why it’s on the list: DMPs aren’t new, but Permutive is among the new breed of DMPs. It works with clients like Leaf Group, Insider, and BuzzFeed. Unlike early-version DMPs, it wasn’t designed to build audiences using cookies, so it’s suited to a future where Google’s Chrome browser no longer supports tracking based on third-party cookies. The more browsers block cookie-based DMPs, the smaller the audiences that publishers can offer advertisers, which cuts into their ad revenue.

In 2021, Permutive said it landed new accounts including NewsCorp, Reuters, Viacom International, and US News & World Report.

Piano.io: helps publishers drive subscription revenue

Trevor Kaufman
Piano.io CEO Trevor Kaufman



Startup: Piano.io

Latest round: April 2021

Amount raised: $20 million

Total funding: $65.9 million

What it does: Piano helps publishers drive subscription revenue, target messaging to certain audiences, and analyze how readers are interacting with content. Its clients include Insider, CNBC, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and Gannett.

Why it’s on the list: The phase-out of third-party cookies means publishers need to retain control of their audience data more than ever. Piano helps publishers control their revenue streams so they’re less reliant on walled gardens like Google and Facebook.

Its platform is built for large publishers that have unique data and want to have a lot of rules around the distribution of their content, said Joshua Wepman of GCA Advisors, who has no investment in the company.

Plannuh: tools for marketing departments

Sarah Fay, Glasswing Ventures
Sarah Fay, Glasswing Ventures



Startup: Plannuh

Latest round: February 2020

Amount raised: $4 million

Total funding: $4 million

What it does: Plannuh shows how budgets are spent in different parts of marketing departments.

Why it’s on the list: Plannuh’s platform helps make sure that everyone on a sprawling marketing team is on the same page. “When a budget is given out to a CMO to various teams, it’s often a black box,” said Sarah Fay of Glasswing Ventures, an investor. Plannuh shows whether the ads a marketing team bought were actually delivered, so it’s part planning tool, part accounting tool. 

Postscript: text messaging for Shopify stores

Mike Duboe
Mike Duboe, Greylock Partners



Startup: Postscript

Latest round: March 2021

Amount raised: $35 million

Total funding: $51.9 million

What it does: Built for Shopify stores, Postscript helps merchants keep in touch with their customers through text-message marketing to drive revenue.

Why it’s on the list: The company has grown aggressively in the past year, with Shopify stores sending hundreds of millions of text messages through its product and generating around $500 million in attributed revenue.

“Postscript takes a platform approach to expanding the surface area of what can be done with the SMS channel. It just recently launched ‘Postscript Pay,’ allowing consumers to purchase directly from SMS,” said Greylock Partners’ Mike Duboe, a Postscript board member and investor, referring to Short Message Service, a technical term for text messages.

Repeat: tools to create repeat customers

Gabby Cazeau
Gabby Cazeau, Harlem Capital



Startup: Repeat

Latest round: July 2021

Amount raised: $6 million

Total funding: $9 million

What it does: For companies that sell consumer packaged goods, Repeat’s software helps turn onetime buyers into repeat customers by providing a seamless ordering experience.

Why it’s on the list: The growth of online shopping during the pandemic is slowing down, which means merchants need to find “new and efficient ways to retain customers,” said Gabby Cazeau of Harlem Capital, who is an investor. This has created demand for Repeat’s software.

“We love that Repeat analyzes buyer behavior and helps brands know how to reach the right customer, at the right time, with the right products to drive engagement and purchase,” Cazeau said.

Sanity: a platform for building data-driven content

Mitchell Green
Mitchell Green, Lead Edge Capital



Startup name: Sanity

Latest round: June 2021

Amount raised: $39 million

Total funding: $51.8 million

What it does: Sanity is a content management system that enables teams to collaborate in real-time, using live multi-user editing and a track-changes feature.

Why it’s on the list: Sanity is already used by National Geographic, Figma, and Nike.

“Sanity goes beyond the traditional CMS and allows you to build modern digital experiences,” said Mitchell Green of Lead Edge Capital, who has no financial interest.

Josh Stein of Threshold Ventures, who is an investor, added that it’s “designed for delivering structured content to products and devices.”

Tinyclues: helps with ad campaign performance

Startup: Tinyclues

Latest round: February 2018

Amount raised: $18 million

Total funding: $25.4 million

What it does: Tinyclues helps marketers by digging into their first-party data sets to find new insights.

Why it’s on the list: Tinyclues “punches above their weight,” according to Forrester principal analyst Joe Stanhope, who is not an investor. It helps brands to improve the results of their campaigns, like predicting which offers people are most likely to respond to. It also connects with marketing automation technologies more easily than similar solutions.

“They cleanly fit into a user’s existing tech stack with minimal implementation and provide fast time to value by improving campaign performance almost instantly,” Stanhope said.

TVision: measures if TV ads were viewed

Yan Liu, Founder & CEO, TVision
TVision CEO Yan Liu



Startup: TVision

Latest round: November 2020

Amount raised: $16 million

Total funding: $41 million

What it does: TVision measures whether people actually paid attention to ads on TV. It is not affiliated with T-Mobile’s now-defunct TV service.

Why it’s on the list: TVision’s panel of about 5,000 households have opted in to have their eyes tracked as they watch TV. With this information, TVision can tell how and to what extent people are engaged with the ads they’re seeing. TVision also has analytics tools designed to let advertisers extrapolate ad engagement beyond its panel.

TvScientific: measures connected TV ads

Startup: TvScientific

Latest round: April 2021

Amount raised: $1.5 million

Total funding: $1.5 million

What it does: TvScientific tells marketers if their ads actually drove sales by determining if an individual who saw an ad actually bought the associated product.

Why it’s on the list: TvScientific launched earlier in 2021 to help performance marketers, who pay for advertising based on the results, measure the effectiveness of their connected-TV ads.

“They make buying and measuring CTV as easy as search or social,” said Eric Franchi of VC firm MathCapital, an investor.

Performance advertisers are being heavily courted by the big networks like NBCUniversal and ViacomCBS to run ads on CTV. But part of getting performance ad spend is proving that those ads actually drove sales, and TvScientific hopes to take advantage of that opportunity.

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