(L) Zak Mroueh / chief creative officer and chairman, (R) Tim Gordon / partner and CCO
It was announced last week that after more than a year-long and patient search for the right person, Zulu Alpha Kilo was opening a New York office with Tim Gordon at the helm. Tim is a 14-year veteran of Droga5, starting his career as one of the New York office's first 40 employees and most recently serving as co-CCO for over two years. Unsurprisingly, his decision to leave the agency isn’t one that he took lightly.
But Zulu Alpha Kilo is a tempting proposition. Founded by Zak Mroueh 14 years ago, the agency remains vehemently independent. As a creative himself, Zak was adamant that he launch a New York office with a creative leader and build around them. “This wasn’t going to be a revenue and growth play,” says Zak. “This was about acquiring the best talent to achieve our creative vision and make a big statement that we’re serious about the US.”
Intrigued to know more about Zak’s creative vision and the proposition that Tim couldn’t turn down, LBB’s Addison Capper got the chance to chat to them both.
LBB> Zak, you had to be patient to find Tim! What was that year-long process like?
Zak> It was eye-opening talking to so many talented people in the US. I really enjoyed getting to know them all but, in the end, it was important to find someone that had a brave spirit. Because you know, building something is never easy. I wanted someone that would be a great fit as a potential partner, not just an employee. And that's what we found with Tim. He has impeccable creative credentials, ambitious goals and is one of the top creative minds in the world.
LBB> Tim, you've been at Droga5 since its earliest days. What was it about the prospect at Zulu Alpha Kilo that was too good to pass up?
Tim> It’s definitely bittersweet to walk away from Droga5 after 14 great years, but as you alluded to in your question, having the ability to grow an independent, creatively led agency from the ground up was just too good of an offer to pass up. To help shape what Zulu Alpha Kilo becomes in the US knowing the amazing creative standards it already set is something that excites me. I want to help make a wonderful home for all types of creative people who are excited by the work and thrilled to work with each other. I really think we have an opportunity to do something different.
LBB> Zak, what were your initial thoughts when the prospect of hiring Tim came up and why was he the right person?
Zak> I had first met Tim judging the Immortal Awards last summer. When we put together our long list of candidates, one recruiter advised me that he would never leave Droga5, arguably one of the best creative posts in the world. And they were right. We reached out and he told us he wasn't looking to move but he agreed to meet with me. After many Zoom meetings, my wife and I flew to New York to meet him and his wife. That evening there was a nice connection, and I sensed this might actually happen which was exciting. We’d finally found our ideal creative leader. From there, everything just fell into place. More than just being a great creative, I knew he was the right person to help us build in the US. We had a lot of great discussions on building the agency of the future. I liked him instantly and felt a great rapport. On an instinctual level, I knew we would work well together and challenge each other in the right ways.
LBB> Droga5 is obviously massive now, but, Tim, do you think that your experience of working there when it was much smaller will help at all in setting up Zulu Alpha Kilo NY?
Tim> Absolutely. I hope that all my experiences will prove useful, big and small. Ultimately, we want to create one of the most creative shops in the world and we will only do that by drawing on a wealth of experience. Personally, I think I’ll bring an understanding of how to grow and foster creativity as well as protect it.
LBB> You have touched upon this, but how much did the independent spirit of Zulu Alpha Kilo play a role in your decision?
Tim> It wasn’t the only factor, but it certainly was a big part. The freedom to do what you think is right and do it quickly is empowering. I’d be lying if I said that isn't something I wanted to get back to. But what I loved after meeting with Zak was Zulu Alpha Kilo’s brave spirit and founding ethos. When he walked me through the agency values one thing stuck out. There’s a clear vision of the business we’re in. It’s not the advertising, design or digital business. Zulu is in the bravery business. That partly comes from having independence. But not all indies are brave.
LBB> Zulu Alpha Kilo is obviously founded and run by Zak - how have you found working with and getting to know him?
Tim> It has been lovely. I’ve obviously been aware of the great work Zulu Alpha Kilo has been doing but really getting to meet Zak, Mike, Amanda, David and the whole team has been wonderful. I felt the passion from our very first chats and Zak’s dedication to growing a creative company the right way was very energising. The whole process has felt like joining a family that I didn’t even know I had.
LBB> Zak, can you give a little background as to what prompted you to consider opening a US office?
Zak> Since day one, I dreamt of one day expanding Zulu’s footprint when the time was right. Fast forward to 2020. At the height of the pandemic I predicted we would see a lot of new agencies start up. When chaos ensues, people become very entrepreneurial and inventive. That’s when the idea hit me that now was the time. We didn’t need a physical office and it didn’t matter where people lived anymore. And from there we started planning our expansion.
For more than a year, we looked for potential leaders and met with a lot of great people. We were approached by a lot of presidents, managing directors and new business people who pitched us on how they could bring us business. But I didn't want to just launch for the sake of launching. As a creative person, it was important to me to start with the creative leader first and build the team around that person. This wasn’t going to be a revenue and growth play. This was about acquiring the best talent to achieve our creative vision and make a big statement that we’re serious about the US.
LBB> Was your decision at all influenced by a particular client?
Zak> Not really. Zulu’s goal has always been to become the world's number one creative company. Part of that original dream was to one day have global clients reach out to us versus only local Canadian clients. And where better than New York? You've got this incredible talent pool, access to many of the world's top marketers and an opportunity to play on the industry’s biggest stage. That was why we did it. Coincidentally, about a month or so before Tim signed, we won our first piece of business. But that wasn't what prompted it. It was just an added bonus.
LBB> Elaborate a little on why Tim is the right person to launch Zulu Alpha Kilo US.
Zak> First off, he has the creative credentials. He’s been leading one of my all-time favourite agencies. He had the portfolio, he had the leadership skills, the personality, the vision and the courage to walk away from something which not a lot of people would be brave enough to do. I did something similar when I walked away from my last role, leaving TAXI as a partner and CCO at its creative height in Canada to take a big leap into the unknown. And he was willing to do the same with us.
LBB> Despite Vancouver opening, this is your first office abroad. What are the main challenges and things to consider for you as the leader of the company?
Zal> I think one of the main challenges is to make sure our culture remains intact. We are now located in three cities, but we think of ourselves as one agency. The founding principle of the agency before we had other offices was that whether you're in account service and planning or production, everybody belongs to only one team in our agency. The creative department. As we’ve now expanded, the same philosophy holds true. It doesn't matter whether you're in New York, Vancouver, or Toronto, we're all part of one larger creative group. All supporting each other and on a mission to produce the best work on the planet.
In the old days before the pandemic, we would think, OK, you have to move to Toronto, you have to move to New York. But now we can hire amazing talent from anywhere in the world. We can have talent in London, and they can all be part of Zulu anywhere. It is this philosophy of ‘one’. That's the thing I want to keep. I don't want an agency with many different cultures. I really want to create this synergy. I’ve been a part of many networks and different agencies where offices didn't support each other and get along.
Tim's going to bring a new energy. But one of the founding principles is that everyone brings their good stuff to the agency and leaves the bad out of the agency. I think Tim's going to bring a lot of great pedigree from Droga5 to all of Zulu, not just New York.
LBB> What lessons have you learned with the Vancouver office opening that will help you with New York?
Zak> When we announced Vancouver, there were some sceptics who said, ‘oh, they've just announced an office and the work is actually going to be run out of Toronto’. But then shortly after, we announced the leadership team and brought in two creative leads, Dean Lee and Michael Mayes who are highly respected creatives in Vancouver.
We could have sent out a PR release months ago saying, ‘Hey, we've set up Zulu Alpha Kilo New York!’ after winning our first piece of business there. But for us it was important to say we're really here and here is who's leading the charge. After announcing the creative leaders in Vancouver, the feeling in that market was, wow, these guys are taking this market seriously. We’ve had a lot of success there in a very short few months. Truth is, nowadays anyone can say they’ve set up an office in this or that city. But to truly set it up, you need to have structure, creative leadership and know where you’re going. In Tim, we found our superstar creative and we're going to build the team around him.
LBB> Now that Tim is starting and you can open up shop, what's the plan and what are your ambitions for New York?
Zak> The plan is very simple. It's based on our belief that the world needs more creativity. So, we want to use creativity for the greater good as a company. We also believe that when clients embrace creativity, it can transform their world and their business. Our ambition is to do the most ground-breaking work in the world. In the largest market in the world.
Our plan isn't about revenue or a certain number of employees by the end of our first year. It really is about the ambition of achieving the goal of becoming the world's number one creative company and doing the most inventive work for our clients. My belief and experience has been that if you do that, everything will fall into place. Producing incredible work attracts more people and more clients, versus just chasing the revenue. Like in Canada, we're going to be extremely selective about what we take on.
Tim> I want it to be the most interesting place to work in the US that also happens to create the most interesting work in the world. I want Zulu Alpha Kilo NY to be a place where people look after each other, that is as dedicated to the creative process as it is to the people who embark on it. We aim to do the very best creative but do it the right way and to invite as many people from as many different backgrounds into the process.
LBB> Tim is also Canadian! How can you lean into any Canadian sensibilities to succeed in the states?
Zak> Yes, he is. Surprisingly, not once in our conversations has he used the words ‘sorry!’ or ‘eh’. And no, we didn’t talk about hockey or the cold weather. However, he definitely is ‘nice’ which is a cliché Canadian trait and also part of our agency’s DNA. Nobody wants to work with jerks in this day and age. He's been in New York his whole career, so to me he’s a New Yorker through and through but has a global sensibility which I loved. He definitely has the stereotypical Canadian generosity of spirit. And for that reason, I think a lot of talent will be attracted to him and our office in New York.
Tim> I think it was just a nice cherry on top that I am Canadian. The most important thing is that we are committed to creating one of the best creative shops in the US. The fact that we are originally a Canadian company is great, but it won’t have a ton of bearing on its own. We need to bring in the right people and clients and deliver the very best product. Success will come down to the work we do and the people we do it with. If we care most about that then I think we will go in the right direction.
LBB> What does the office look like now? How many staff does it have?
Zak> As I mentioned, we are going to build the team around Tim. Right now we're trying to hire a managing director/president, a head of planning and a creative team. To start. Those are the first hires that are going to happen. And we have a temporary office in Soho. We've got our first client and our first assignment and there's a few pitches looming as well. We’re going to build from there.
LBB> Sum up what you think / hope the rest of 2022 holds in store for Zulu Alpha Kilo NY?
Tim> A lot of hard work. A lot of fun. A lot of new experiences. A lot of new connections. And hopefully a lot of great creativity.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Zak> The idea of launching abroad has been in the back of my mind since founding Zulu. We could easily be over 300 people in Canada if we'd said yes to every opportunity and pitch, but we've been extremely selective.
For whatever reason, the pandemic has been very good to us on the creative front. And it just felt like the timing was right. Everything fell into place. Sometimes things happen for a reason. We found our ideal creative star and he is incredible. And I believe the rest will be history.
Tim> At the end of the day, we will be defined by the work we do. I’m dedicated to making it the most ambitious work that industry has seen. Very honoured and excited to get going on this journey.