Active International, founded by two former New York media employees in 1985, had a unique business model, in that it was based on creating leverage for its customers. The company would serve as a facilitator, allowing much larger consumer goods businesses with healthy media budgets ($500,000 plus a year) to trade/barter excess inventory, assets and goods and services in return for media. Five years later, the business launched in Canada. In 2009, the company hit a plateau. Andrew Bulmer, senior vice-president and managing director of Active International Canada was recruited in 2011 and set about the task of restructuring and orchestrating a culture shift that has since pushed the company to the next level of growth. Topline sales are up more than 30%, it has reduced the churn of on-target customers and added six new customers in the past 12 months. Here Mr. Bulmer spoke with Mary Teresa Bitti about why the shift came about, how it was implemented and what it has meant to the company.


Q What did you inherit when you took over and how did you determine you needed to change the culture?

A The Canadian business was born from a customer asking if we could service them in Canada. Today, we have 42 staff, half located in the Toronto office and the other half in New York. They are all dedicated to buying Canadian media for customers in Canada and they all report to me.

I’ve worked in several industries in the U.S. and Canada and for the first few months I listened to employees to understand the business, how we make money, how we deliver value to customers and how we can do a better job.

I asked a few simple questions: what should we keep doing? What can we improve? And if you were me, what should I focus on in my first 90 days?

I got a lot of great feedback from our employees, customers and advertising and media partners.  I took that learning, put a lot of their ideas and insights into action and launched a strategy that would ensure everyone is singing from the same song page. That helped me win over some folks and show that I wanted to un-tap our culture versus me imposing preconceived notions.

I acted as a trusted partner and our goal at Active is to be a trusted partner to our customers. I wanted to walk the talk.


Q What was the corporate culture like in 2011 and what changes did you implement?

A When I started, we were working in silos — sales, customer service and media teams. I really wanted to focus on the customer experience and ensure there weren’t hand-offs from one team to another. I wanted the customer to feel that anyone who presented or pitched our business stayed in the customer relationship all along so today everyone is in sales and everyone is in marketing.

We also restructured our media teams from regional or media specific buyers to teams dedicated to each of our customers. They know their business needs and take pride in delivering results for them. Each team is assigned a dedicated customer manager, as well. I wanted to make sure we wrapped ourselves around the customers because if we are going to grow this business we can’t have any churn of on-target customers.


Q What did the process of change look like? What tactics did you employ?

A We created media teams that were assigned specific accounts. They are involved ideally with each customer’s planning cycle. They have consistent relationships with the key people at the organization and their media agencies.

We also set up more internal communication, including monthly team video calls with both offices where we go through results, any news with our customers, ideas, trends from the marketplace.

One of our pillars is to create a strong Canadian brand. I didn’t have a great familiarity with Active before I got here so we wanted to take control of the narrative of our business so that when potential new customers look us up online they have a clear understanding of who we are.

On our website we have bios of our team members and their charities of choice and we created a LinkedIn profile for everyone as well. All of our team communicate what we are doing on our website and through LinkedIn. In this way, everyone has a shared responsibility in building our brand.

That helps our sales team create visibility to our network and link in to the C-suite in Canada to connect to our target customers. It also reinforces that we are all in sales, we are all in marketing and we are all part of the customer experience. That was a shift from I’m just in sales and it fosters a closer team relationship.

We are also moving toward a team oriented EBITDA performance incentive plan so we are thinking of the company and customer first and sharing in the rewards of doing so. We also launched a peer recognition program called We Give PROPS (Peers Recognizing Other Peers Success) where we give online shout outs to people who have gone above the call of duty to make the customer experience great.

We also implemented flexible work opportunities to allow people to work from home and work flexible hours because if we are going to be trusted partners to our customers we need to trust each other, too. We are seeing positive results from this: happy, motivated employees. We’ve had zero turn-over in the Toronto office and we’ve been able to attract great talent and I think there is a direct correlation between engaged employees and customer retention.


Q How has the approach to sales changed?

A When I started, we were doing a lot of cold calls. I put a stop to that and we instituted a referral sales approach. I wanted to make sure we were walking with a purpose and really understood our target customer, their goals, challenges and needs and key decision makers.

Then through our own happy customer base, the ad agencies we work with and LinkedIn get a direct personal introduction so we can demonstrate we understand their objectives and show them an example of a customer like them where we have delivered measurable results. We’ve lined up several customers to act as references for us.


Q Where do you go from here?

A We have an aggressive goal of doubling our business within the next three years. One of the key ways we will work to achieve our goal is by continuing to focus on our people and culture.