Why AT,amp;T is leaving the lucrative ad-tech business

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It’s not a new concept, but I heard the expression “K-shaped recovery” for the first time Wednesday. The divergent prongs of the half of the letter tell the story: surging, resilient, non-physical sectors of the economy are growing while pandemic-walloped industries that cater to the physical needs of consumers are flailing. Tech firms and service providers are in the former group. Airlines, restaurants, and producers reliant on face-to-face collaboration are in the latter.

I thought about the unfortunate end of the “K” while reading in The Wall Street Journal that AT,amp;T, once merely a phone company, wants to sells its advertising technology business, the unfortunately named Xandr. Two years ago, AT,amp;T spent well over a billion dollars to buy a private company called AppNexus, which became Xandr. (If you must know, the name has to do with Alexander Graham Bell, the founder of AT,amp;T.) “Ad tech” likely seemed like a good idea to the acquisitive AT,amp;T, which also swallowed Time Warner, the former owner of a former owner (sic) of .

It turns out the business of selling advertising technology is dominated by a few giants, namely Google, Facebook, and Amazon. AT,amp;T needs to hop off the merry-go-round, in part because of its mountain of debt—which Geoff Colvin presciently warned about last year in —and also because the pandemic has slammed entertainment as cord-cutting already was smothering the traditional TV business. (An Apple-instigated food fight among the behemoths is quickly making ad tech a frightening place all around, but that’s a story for another day.)

Weak strategy and bad timing are a tough combination. It puts a company on the downward slope of the “K”—not the place to be right now.

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Last month I picked up The Rise of the G.I. Army, 1940-1941: The Forgotten Story of How America Forged a Powerful Army Before Pearl Harbor by Paul Dickson. I thought it would be interesting to be reminded of a time when the federal government accomplished something great, complicated, and highly coordinated—and during intense political polarization. (Interventionist-versus-isolationist tension was so intense that there was a fistfight on the floor of Congress over a law to institute a military draft.)

Some quick nuggets:

  • The Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps was run by the military, an invaluable precursor to a citizen Army.
  • John F. Kennedy studied at Stanford University for a time, after graduation from Harvard but before joining the Navy.
  • Underweight movie star Jimmy Stewart, who wanted to serve, got help in the gym from a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer trainer named Don Loomis, whose job was to help actors put on or lose weight for roles. I’d love to know how his methods compared to today’s fitness techniques.

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Do you know—or invest in, or run—a startup that is tackling key social or environmental issues as part of its business model? If so, wants to hear from you. We’re soliciting nominations for the Impact 20, a new list that recognizes,nbsp;venture-backed and private equity-backed companies that are doing well by doing good.

We’ll be looking for relatively established startups that have already shown that they can solve important problems—and are already generating some revenue doing so. To nominate a company, use this form. editors will announce the final list in late September.

Adam Lashinsky

@adamlashinsky

[email protected]

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.