Zulu Alpha Kilo’s founder and CCO on not attending conferences, winning work without pitching and the problems with award politics
Zulu Alpha Kilo is an agency with a big, bold tone of voice. If you head to its website you’re greeted with a parody that completely mocks the advertising industry in which it operates. Its stance on spec ads is that it doesn’t do spec ads. And instead of offering internships, it opted to offer opportunities of “Employeeship”.
The Toronto-based shop was founded by Zak Mroueh (Zulu Alpha Kilo is the letters of his name in the NATO phonetic alphabet) in 2008. Prior to that he worked at Taxi, where he’d been since 1999 and helped lead its creative ascent on the world stage from small boutique shop to global player. But there was one last career milestone to meet, and that was launching his own business, fully under his own ethos. And what a ride it’s been since. LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Zak to find out more.
LBB> How did you get into the industry in the first place? Was it planned or more a happy accident?
ZM> Growing up, I remember watching many ad-based shows like One Day at a Time, Bewitched and the movie Mr. Mom that all had main characters in advertising. It intrigued me and seemed like a dynamic, fast-paced industry. But in high school I was in a band and already had dreams of being a musician or maybe even an artist. My parents were a little worried about my potential career options. The deal I made with them is, I'd get an education first and after graduation could pursue my music. It wasn’t until my dad said, ‘What about advertising?’ that I even considered it. My first job was in the mailroom of Saatchi & Saatchi in 1987. Thirty years later I'm still here. Today, I still love that I get to apply little bits of all my favourite pursuits into the process: storytelling, directing, editing, writing, art and, of course, music. Being a jack-of-all-trades, master of none seems to suit our business just fine.
LBB> After stints at Chiat Day and BBDO you joined Taxi, back in the days when it was a smaller boutique. You guided it through a lot of growth, both creatively and in size - what are the biggest lessons you learned from that period?
ZM> As an agency grows in size and reputation, many new doors open up. You’ll get invitations to give speeches, sit on panels, judge award shows and pitch bigger clients. I quickly learned that you can’t say 'yes' to all the opportunities that come your way. You have to be selective on every front. That way, you don’t spread yourself too thin, lose focus, or bring on business that can destroy your agency’s culture.
But perhaps the most important lesson of all is to hire the best creative talent you can find. Never cheap out or compromise on talent because the people you hire will be the reason that your agency is great – or, conversely, isn’t. My next career will be as a recruiter. I’ve always loved discovering untapped talent.
LBB> Then in 2008 you launched Zulu Alpha Kilo - what inspired you to launch your own business and, more importantly, what were the main aims and ethos that you launched it under?
ZM> Although I had previously been a partner in an agency, I wanted to experience the feeling of starting my own business. I didn’t want to wake up in ten years regretting that I hadn’t taken the entrepreneurial leap. I wanted to launch an agency that completely reflected the values that I personally believed in. Over my career, I had seen how agencies lose their soul and compromise the very thing that made them great in the first place – their creative output. Creativity would be at the core of our business. I wanted to build an agency that wouldn’t be afraid to challenge the status quo and knew Zulu wouldn’t be for everybody. And that’s okay. The irony is, nine years later, we’ve grown every year, on our own terms, with premium, like-minded clients. The absurdities of the industry and its antiquated models are what we’ve been battling against since day one. And is the sole reason I started the agency.
LBB> You have a strong stance on spec ads, in that you don’t do them or invest in them. Now, some clients are giving you their business without you taking part in a pitch – how has that happened?
ZM> Before founding Zulu, pretty much every agency I’ve ever worked for would take on every opportunity and rarely say no to a pitch or to revenue. This is learning that I brought to Zulu as a guiding principle. To us, success isn’t only about what accounts you win, it’s also about which ones you don’t pursue. In recent years, we’ve had to say no to so many RFPs because of our stance on spec work. We don’t believe it’s the best way for clients to pick an agency. Part of this operating philosophy stems from a firm commitment we’ve made to our existing clients to focus on their business versus using the resources they pay for to chase new clients. Nonetheless, a few clients that we initially had to turn down during the original RFP phase came back disappointed with the outcome of their spec pitch process. After a meeting where we simply shared our portfolio of work, they gave us their business without us having to participate in the formal pitch process. Growing the agency without pitching has been a game changer for us and never happened in any other place I’ve been. And those relationships have turned into some of our best clients because there’s mutual respect from the outset.
LBB> ZAK has a big, bold tone of voice - the website actively pokes fun at the industry, you’re outspoken against spec work, and then there’s the work itself. How did you foster that and how do you keep that spirit alive as the business becomes bigger and more well-known?
ZM> To build a great agency or to do great work, you need to be fearless. If you’re always worrying about saving your job or saving the account, you eventually will get fired by your agency and your client. If you’re always living in fear, you’ll never make the right decisions or be the strongest leader during tough times. We like to foster a fearless spirit within Zulu by encouraging people to be brave and audacious with their thinking. We encourage our team to always show the work they believe in and always make a strong reco, even if it’s not what the client was expecting.
And remaining true to our core values has been so important to keeping the spirit of Zulu thriving. It doesn’t matter how big we become, the key thing is to never compromise on our well-entrenched beliefs. We believe size is immaterial to success and is not the enemy. Losing your core values is.
LBB> I have to ask you about the site actually - it’s incredible! What inspired you to launch it? Were you ever worried it’d scare away clients? And were there many people that said, “Zak, you should not do this”?
ZM> After visiting numerous agency sites back in 2007, I found that if you stripped away the logos and design, every agency sounded the same, even the world’s top shops at the time.
So I launched Zulu in 2008 with a minimalist landing page, because I didn’t want our agency to look and sound the same as everyone else. That was a bit risky for an agency starting out, as it told visitors very little about us, only our name and how to contact us.
Zulu Alpha Kilo (a.k.a. ZAK) is short for my name in the NATO phonetic alphabet. But in those early days, I would often get asked if those were the names of the agency partners. This sparked the original idea for the site years ago – to have our website feature fictitious co-founders and parody all the clichéd content you find on the typical agency site.
After years of just having a landing page, I wanted to bring the idea to life so I briefed our entire creative team. Yes, there was some concern internally that it might turn off potential clients. But the idea was that it would work like a colander – draining away talent and clients that you probably wouldn’t want to work with anyway, and being left with like-minded people.
And that’s exactly what the site has done for us. It has ended up being our calling card. It’s polarising for sure. To this day, we have prospective clients and employees write to us about how much they enjoyed it. But even when it was just a landing page, I received a few angry procurement emails saying ‘why isn’t your site like all the other agencies.’
LBB> You hate conferences and had never been to one before last year - why? Not even Cannes?
ZM> I have only been to Cannes four times in 30 years. It is not that I dislike going to conferences or industry functions. I just would rather spend my down time with my wife, kids and dog.
LBB> With that in mind, how important are awards to Zulu Alpha Kilo and why?
ZM> Awards are still a solid creative barometer and it’s always nice to be recognised. But you can’t let them rule your creative life or dictate whether something is great or not. Awards used to be one of the only measures of a creative person’s career, but now they are just one of many vehicles to get noticed and get attention. Getting your work profiled in Fast Company is just as cool as any award. In today’s world, having your idea viewed and talked about in social media globally is probably more satisfying than winning a medal. For example, our Cineplex branded content film Lily & the Snowman has been viewed over 85 million times. The film won a few local and International awards but it didn’t win a Cannes Lion. But does that make it any less great?
The problem with our industry is that most agencies answer to other agencies through awards. Their actual client is their peers. We like to create work that we believe in first and foremost. If it happens to win an award along the way, great. If it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean it’s not world-class.
Sad truth these days is that politics can sometimes dictate the results. The holding companies have turned banding together at international shows into an artform and judges are pressured to vote for their network’s entries. Many shows are just not as pure as they used to be. Even when there are obvious dog walkers, the shows still want the revenue and don’t crack down on it. So, are awards important? Yes. Do we like winning them? Yes. Does not winning a Gold Lion mean your work wasn’t good enough? Absolutely not.
LBB> Tell me about ‘Employeeship’ - it’s a scheme I LOVE because I graduated over five years ago now and the amount of people that I studied with that are still on the internship trail is awful. How does your scheme work and what were the steps that led to it?
ZM> We all know internships can be frustrating. Many students get dragged along at an internship for six months and then don’t get offered a job. In the past, we ourselves were part of the industry norm. So, I was inspired to do something different. Last spring, I was being inundated with a lot of calls and emails for internships and decided to not offer any internships but offer real paying jobs instead. We didn’t necessarily need juniors at the time, but that’s the beauty of being independent. We could make that decision ourselves. That is why we launched Employeeship. Our program pays 10 people to come into the agency for a one-day boot camp/interview. They get paid $200 for the day. At the end, we awarded the top two students with a $5,000 bonus and an offer of employment starting at $40,000 a year. On the spot.
It was a busy day for the students where they were challenged to think fast and on their feet, but it was a huge success in attracting and finding new talent. Since then, we’ve ended up hiring a total of five students from the original pool of 10. Not bad considering we didn’t need any juniors at the time. They’ve all turned into amazing Zuligans. It wasn’t without controversy though – one of the points of contention we heard was that we were “spoiling” millennials and that students need to “work for free”. Despite the criticism from our agency peers, we plan on doing it again this spring.
LBB> Give us two pieces of work from ZAK that you’re particularly proud of and explain why - one older piece, one more recent.
ZM> We work for non-profit ParticipACTION whose mission is to help Canadians sit less with their electronic devices and move more. A few years ago, we used the visual language of a black screen taking over playgrounds, basketball courts, street hockey to convey the idea that ‘screen time is taking away play time.’ At the end of the spots, our super read ‘Don’t visit our website.’ Although it would have been easy to kill the idea, our brave client embraced it. The end result was a 344% increase in visits to the site.
It was a counter-intuitive message and got people talking and led to a huge increase in site visits over the course of the campaign. To stay true to our message, we even created a pop-up on the ParticipACTION site that reminded visitors to take a short break after so many minutes.
More recently, we did work for Harley-Davidson that was heralded internally by the organisation. Instead of spending our budget on a traditional multi-media campaign and picking up the global campaign, we proposed opening a café for the summer in Toronto’s downtown core to target first-time bike buyers in a city without a dealership. The café lived the Harley brand, from vintage photos on the walls to coffee brews with froth art featuring Harley iconic images. You could even try riding a bike in the café and experience the sound of the unique Harley engine. Our posters promoting the café were printed with a coffee ink from the same coffee we sold. It galvanized our entire team of Zuligans who worked through the night before the opening. We had staff hammering nails and putting up artwork right until the doors opened the next day. Culturally, it really brought the agency together and was a huge hit for our client.
LBB> What’s the best thing about advertising in 2017? And the most frustrating?
ZM> Creativity is not going away. We live in an age of ideas. From our cellphones to AI technology, everything ever created came out of an idea from a human mind. The best thing about our industry today is the fact that anything is possible. We have an incredible canvas because many limitations are gone in terms of what we can do with media and technology.
Yet, there are two frustrating things about the current industry. The first is the same as the best – that anything is possible. With the world as your canvas, it can be hard to know where to start. It can feel overwhelming.
The second is that more decision makers on both the agency and client side don’t truly embrace creativity and what’s possible today. They fear it. Creativity and ideas are what created the world we live in. It’s too easy to over-analyse and over-strategise, but without great ideas you’ve got nothing.
LBB> What do you like to get up to outside of work? What keeps your creative batteries charged?
ZM> My two priorities are my family and my work. I love watching my kids play sports and being there to support them. I love cooking. I like to break the rules by rarely following a recipe. Sometimes my wife will say, 'There is really nothing in the fridge to cook'. But I will take whatever is in there and concoct something from scratch. I just love the process of creating something from nothing.