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It’s Been a Good Year for… Zulu Alpha Kilo

Trends and Insight 289 Add to collection

Founder and CCO Zak Mroueh on being awarded International Small Agency of the Year and winning its first US business

It’s Been a Good Year for… Zulu Alpha Kilo

Zulu Alpha Kilo has been pumping out high quality work since it was first founded in 2008, and 2017 proved no different. 

The Toronto-based agency was recognised globally by AdAge for the second year running as it was named this year’s International Small Agency of the Year – “one of the best moments for us,” according to founder and CCO Zak Mroueh. “That opened up a lot of doors for us in the U.S. market,” he adds. 

Ever since he launched the company, Zak has had a strict stance on spec ads, in that he and Zulu Alpha Kilo do not do them or invest in them – an approach that naturally decreases the amount of its potential clients. But more clients than ever dropped creative spec from the procurement process in 2017, according to Zak, meaning they could pitch for more business. “We even had a few big clients this year decide to forego the pitch process altogether and award us their business on the strength of our work and track record alone. That was a defining moment for us. It was recognition that the years of sticking to our principles and not following the mainstream had finally paid off.”

Added initiatives like that have been launched over the years, offering an honest – and sometimes humorous – portrayal of issues affecting the advertising industry. Its website is a parody of agency of websites, an idea inspired after people would ask him if the acronym ZAK stood for three business partners. Instead it’s a play on his own first name and the NATO phonetic alphabet. In an interview with LBB earlier this year, Zak told us that the idea behind the website “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”. 

Then there’s ‘Employeeship’, which was launched this year after Zak struggled to keep up with calls and emails from students looking for internships. In response, Zak decided to scrap internships all together – but with good reason. “If we’re the agency that says no to spec, we have to live our values and offer these young people real jobs,” he says. “So we decided to pay students to come into Zulu for an interview as a one-day paid boot camp.”

They had over 150 applicants which they narrowed down to 10 candidates for Zulu’s ‘40k a Year Employeeship’ before hiring five of the 10. “In the end, it has helped us attract bright new talent and opened up a pipeline to the best up- and-coming creatives in the industry.”

Emails between 7pm and 8am were also banned, a particularly welcome move in an industry that’s inundated with out-of-hours work. Zak openly admits to initially being part of the problem. A “fantastic” account person that had been with the agency for years told him that out-of-hours emails were leading to an imbalance between work and private life. Others expressed similar issues and then Zak himself realised that, due to spending all day in meetings, he was also guilty of responding to emails in the evenings. “Many of us were in the same boat,” he says. 

That inspired him to make a change and within 24 hours he and his management team had rolled out a policy of no emails between 7pm or 8pm, the only exception being work that is due or client emergencies. “It’s the beauty of independence that we can implement change so quickly. This move has literally transformed our culture and helped make us way more productive. As an agency, we have dramatically reduced the amount of emails that get sent out and received. This allows our people to recharge and be more creative the next day versus simply checking unnecessary emails in the evening. It has been a big game changer for us culturally.”

And then there’s the work. Some of Zulu Alpha Kilo’s 2017 projects are embedded at the bottom of this article, but there’s one that Zak is particularly proud of when pressed on the subject. ‘Common Ground’ was a documentary piece that they made for Harley Davidson in collaboration with Discovery Channel. “Friends of mine who aren’t even in the business happened to catch it on the Discovery Channel, noticed Zulu had done it and called me saying they had watched it. They didn’t see it as advertising. 

“And that is where we see the industry going. We believe the best advertising in the future won’t look anything like what it is today. Common Ground was a content piece that regular consumers found entertaining and worth their time. The posters we created to launch the online documentaries became collectables for regular consumers.”

If that’s where the industry is headed then what’s in store for Zulu Alpha Kilo in 2018? Well, in the best possible way, we reckon – and hope – that it’ll be more of the same.

“From day one Zulu had some clear-cut creative goals and we continue to strive towards reaching those in the work we do for clients. 

“We also want to continue to grow our culture and make Zulu the best place in the industry to work. Not only in Toronto, but Canada and hopefully one of the best employers in this business around the world. In 2017, we made some great strides towards that goal. 

Of course, we’ll never stop looking at what is flawed in our industry and seeing if we can come up with a better way of doing things. So far, we’ve tackled spec work, procurement, agency websites, email and internships. Who knows what we might tackle next in 2018.”

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Zulu Alpha Kilo, Wed, 20 Dec 2017 17:27:30 GMT