Canadian Growth Hackers: Exact Media’s Elena Armstrong on how retailers break through the noise

Exact Media

In this series, brought to you by Toronto-based native advertising tech company StackAdapt, Vitaly Pecherskiy meets with the top minds in the marketing and advertising industry to uncover how Canadian companies use forward-thinking strategies and cutting-edge software to innovate and break through the noise.

In this installment of Canadian Growth Hackers, Vitaly interviews Elena Armstrong, co-founder and COO of Exact Media, a Toronto-based startup that helps brands acquire customers and distribute samples at a fraction of the cost of other channels. The pair talk about being open to change, trends in eCommerce, and the importance of multichannel marketing strategies.


Give us a brief history of Exact Media. Your business has evolved a lot since its inception.

We started Exact Media in mid-2013, with the mission of connecting brands with eCommerce retailers. We wanted to help brands with their customer acquisition and trial efforts via sampling and paper insert programs in North America.

“So many companies think about their own goals when creating their communication and content strategy. Your customers don’t care about your goals – they care about their own.”
– Elena Armstrong

In the first few years, we were very hands-on and operated much like a traditional agency: selling to brands on one side and finding the right partners to execute their programs on the other. We were in a unique position of merging a traditionally offline world (physical samples, paper inserts, gift cards) with eCommerce; our company represented a novel way for brands to reach qualified shoppers online.

In May 2017, a year after raising a Series A, we launched the Connections platform that automated our old business. Our platform connected advertisers to eCommerce retailers to partner on parcel insert programs.

Within one year of launching, advertisers had distributed over 70 million inserts via Connections – more than triple what we had done in three years under the original business model.

Making changes to an existing business is complex and requires unwavering vision. What do you recommend to executives who know they need to change their strategy but haven’t already?

The status quo often seems like the path of least resistance. I won’t pretend that making profound changes comes easy to my co-founders and me – whether it’s changing the business strategy, having tough conversations, or letting someone go. However, these decisions are ultimately unavoidable, so you can deal with a tough situation on your own terms and timeline or be forced to deal with it suddenly, when you have no other choice.

So my advice is to step back from the situation and objectively ask yourself if the decision is for the best, regardless of the short-term pain. If the answer is yes, then I recommend just toughing it out.

What trends are pushing your business forward, and what do you expect to gain more traction in the coming years?

Our business is directly correlated with the growth of eCommerce and consumer brands. The consistent growth of online shopping continues to introduce more possibilities for our business, whether it’s an increase in our existing market or opportunities in developing markets where eCommerce is becoming more prevalent.

On the side of consumer products, the emergence and rapid growth in direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands is a huge trend we’re noticing. Just a few years ago, most of our customers were predominantly big CPG names; today, we have customers from both top 10 CPG companies and high growth DTC brands, such as Naked Wines, Wealthsimple, Endy, and HelloFresh.

With more and more purchases happening online, what is a key strategy for physical retailers to nail in order to remain relevant?

We’re at a stage where most retailers have taken their stores online and have mobile apps for shopping. Providing a seamless online/mobile shopping experience is probably at the top of my list. Coming in close second is successful marketing.

Sephora, in my opinion, has successfully transitioned from a brick-and-mortar model to the mobile/online world by making the user experience as appealing as in-store – with seamless desktop/mobile shopping, their in-app Virtual Artist, and email newsletters that are targeted specifically to a shopper’s needs.

People have become pretty numb to typical sales pitches. What advice would you give to advertisers who are building their communication and content strategies?

This is going to sound cliché, but so many companies think about their own goals when creating their communication and content strategy. It’s about doing A and B to achieve a certain goal, but ultimately your customers don’t care about your goals – they care about their own.

My co-founder Daniel Rodic writes a lot of articles, white papers and speaks in podcasts and other venues. Our number one strategy is to create content that benefits the audience without sounding too “salesy”. If you can add value and become a trusted resource, you start to build a relationship with your customers and become their go-to person when they have a problem that you can help solve.

In our previous conversation, you mentioned that no channel is a silver bullet and every new addition should always be treated as part of the ever-evolving marketing mix. Why is it important for advertisers to test new channels?

Consumer behaviour and successful marketing strategies are always evolving and what worked yesterday isn’t necessarily going to work tomorrow, which is why we believe that testing new channels is required for a successful marketing mix.

A couple of years ago, Instagram was probably the best online customer acquisition channel for a lot of DTC businesses, but that’s no longer the case for a lot of my friends that run DTC businesses online. Many of them learned it the hard way – by seeing a big dip in their sales; only then did they diversify where they put their marketing dollars and started testing different channels.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe in doubling down on a channel that works well. But I think it’s equally important to simultaneously try new channels, so you’re not left high and dry if your existing strategies stop working; you also never know when you’ll discover a new approach that outperforms what you’re already using!

Can you share some successful multichannel strategies that you have seen retailers employ to connect with potential customers?

We’re seeing many of our customers succeed with a very diversified marketing mix, including TV, billboard, parcel insert programs and social. An example that pops in my mind right away is Endy. They’ve done such a great job marketing their mattress, whether you’re driving on the highway, taking the TTC, shopping online or browsing through social channels, you’re almost guaranteed to see an Endy ad at some point. When I think about mattresses, not only are they top of mind, they also provide great incentives within their ads to try out the product.

Bonus questions! What is one book every business person should read?

The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday.

What is one or two skills every leader must develop?

Learning from your own (or other people’s) mistakes and making tough decisions.

Vitaly Pecherskiy

Vitaly Pecherskiy

Vitaly Pecherskiy is a co-founder of StackAdapt, a Toronto-based advertising technology company that helps brands accelerate customer acquisition. Vitaly was previously named 30 Under 30 by Marketing Magazine.