District m: Canada’s Best Managed Companies 2019

There’s no shortcut to exponential growth

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Canada’s Best Managed Companies
District m (Matt Odynski)

You’re combing the internet for your favourite brand of shoes. Then you remember you’re supposed to be working, so you click away to more professional websites. But as you complete your internet chores, ads for those shoes appear wherever you go, a constant reminder of your unfinished personal business. 

The company behind those strangely persistent ads is often Montreal-based District m, whose “programmatic” ad platforms connect web publishers with aggressive digital advertisers. Using cloud-based technology enhanced by artificial intelligence, District m conducts mini-auctions for web ads in milliseconds, enabling brands to double down on their best prospects. Since the company’s founding more than five years ago, pinpoint targeting for clients such as Nike, Air Canada and Bell has helped it achieve more than $100 million in annual sales.

You’d expect a company with such rapid growth to develop disciplined management processes. And co-founder and CEO Jean-François Côté has certainly done so. But he is also taking leadership to the next level with a plan to double the company’s employee count (now 100) and its revenues over the next two years.

Like many of Canada’s Best Managed Companies, District m has devoted a great deal of focus to talent and corporate culture. Using a gruelling interview process that includes tests for skills and cultural fit, Côté strives to hire only the most outstanding candidates for his team. “One ‘A’ player equals three average players,” he says. Besides, as he points out, “ ‘A’ players invite their friends to come work with them.” 

To prepare for future growth, District m has just upgraded its HR group—which previously conducted mainly clerical duties—into a new department called “People” that reports directly to Côté. With two senior hires, the new team focuses more on essential intangibles such as culture, developing talent and attracting the right people. 

So the mechanisms are in place to double District m’s staff. But what of that aggressive sales goal? To take some of the business-development load off Côté’s shoulders, the company recently appointed high-powered entrepreneur Remi Fournier to the new position of chief revenue officer. Fournier was a co-founder of Fibrenoire, a fibre optic network firm sold to Vidéotron in 2016 for $125 million. And the company also engaged an executive coach to develop the skills of its leadership team.

Most importantly, the company is focusing on customer experience. Global brands have big demands, and District m is structured to meet them—quickly. “When they have questions, they expect the answers fast,” says Côté. District m now makes sure every customer inquiry is answered within 24 hours.

Competition is fraught in the programmatic ad market, which is growing more than 20% a year. Côté says the winners will be firms that can develop new technologies and products, get to global markets fast and innovate in marketing. But he says Canadian firms can stay in the game by focusing on specific niches: “As the market grows, firms will get more specialized rather than generalist.” 

To meet high customer expectations, Côté and his top execs each try to meet at least one client a week. Flying to Toronto, New York or Chicago may take a day, but it’s worth it, says Côté. “If you want to be a market leader, you have to invest time.”


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