“Talented People Can Be Nice As Well”: A Catch-up with Zak Mroueh
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The CCO and founder of Zulu Alpha Kilo speaks to Addison Capper about investment during Covid and a memorable, chance meeting with the great David Abbott
"Great creative has no boundaries. The best work can come from anywhere. Meet some of Canada’s best creative thinkers. The work is world class and consistent."
Canadian production company FRANK Content is a proud supporter of Little Black Book as its partner for the Canadian market. As part of the relationship, LBB is sitting down for a chat with the brightest and best minds from across Canada's advertising industry. LBB’s Addison Capper got the opportunity to pick the brains of Zak Mroeuh, the founder and chief creative officer of Zulu Alpha Kilo, a Canadian agency with a fiercely distinctive point of view and the creative clout to back it. Check the interview below, which is full of chat about investment during Covid, how a big first client changed his vision for the agency, and a lasting lesson from a chance meeting with David Abbott.
LBB> How has the pandemic affected Zulu Alpha Kilo and where it stands as an agency today?
Zak> The pandemic has challenged us all like never before. At the beginning of Covid, like the entire industry, we were dealing with unexpected reductions in client budgets. We had to manage the effect that it would have on our staff. Fortunately, the budgets came back. Our main focus then shifted to preserving our culture, while being separated physically. We had to be creative (and safe) in how we did shoots. And we had to help our clients get communications out to consumers faster than we’ve ever done before.
The first few months of the pandemic were definitely the hardest. As March 2020 payroll approached, I decided to stop taking a salary. The next day, my executive team voluntarily took a reduction in their own pay. But we knew our staff would be working harder than ever, so we never asked them to take any pay cuts. We’ve since returned to business as usual, but under a new normal.
And I think for Zulu, the silver lining is that it forced us to double-down on re-evaluating how we operate as a business. In Fall 2019, before we had heard of Covid-19, I engaged one of my former clients and a prominent industry consultant to review Zulu’s mission and purpose, and to help us plan for the decade ahead. We dubbed the project ‘Reengineering Zulu for 2030.’.
Then, the pandemic began to take hold. I remember she asked me if I wanted to put the project on hold. I said, “Hell, no.” If anything, it made me realise that this was the most important project in the agency. I founded Zulu on the principle of challenging the status quo. If there was ever a time to stress-test our way of doing things for the future, it was here and now.
The pandemic didn’t slow change in our ways of working – it simply accelerated it. We now know that people don’t have to share the same physical workspace to do great work. Talent can truly work from anywhere. So Zulu has been collaborating with incredible creative people in other countries. It has led us to rethink how much office space we need in the future and what it will look like when we return. Most exciting of all, we’re planning our expansion into other markets and being more bullish than we ever have been.
LBB> You're shooting a lot of your own stuff through Zulubot too. How did that come about?
Zak> Although we officially launched Zulubot in 2014, the original idea for the agency was to be a pseudo production and creative agency. Our first client in 2008 was Bell Canada, the largest telecom in the country. I was thrilled to pick up a big client right out of the gate, but it meant my dreams of directing had to be put on hold as we absorbed a large account into my fledgling start-up. So Zulubot came to life a little later than I expected. We now have a full recording studio, eight edit suites, and a roster of directors and editors. It also allows me to still dabble in directing myself.
We produce thousands of pieces each year, from commercials to documentaries to digital content. Our studio is all about efficiency and challenging the traditional norms of production. We’ve set it up to be lean, mean and move at lightning speed to help marketers meet the expectations of the fast-paced reality we all live in. We knew having our own production studio would be a huge benefit to our clients and a big differentiator for us, especially in a post-Covid world.
LBB> Still, it must have been pretty early to launch something like that in Canada, I think?
Zak> We were one of the first agencies to do it successfully. In fact, Zulubot’s first project was to bring to life a TV show as we focused more on network television production initially. As we evolved the offering, it turned out what we really needed to build was a digital-first production offering. That is the studio’s sweet spot. Along the way, we also learned that great digital content can lead to TV exposure. For example, we created an online series, called Common Ground, for Harley-Davidson a few years ago. It did incredibly well. The Discovery Channel liked it so much that they picked up the series and we turned it into an hour-long documentary for their TV channel. Instead of us having to knock on the door of a TV broadcaster, they knocked on ours. We saw early on the advantages of adopting a digital-first mindset to creative problem-solving for clients.
LBB> Has Zulubot altered your relationship with production companies at all?
Zak> Production companies in Canada have terrific capabilities and talent, and Zulu considers them valued partners, now more than ever. Like a lot of agencies, we used to turn to them for literally all of our production needs. But not all of these jobs were worth their while. As client expectations increased and budgets decreased, we didn’t want to be in a position where we needed to say, “We only have X number of dollars. Can you do us a favour?” It really wasn’t feasible or fair to our production partners. And, after refusing to do spec creative in new business pitches, it wasn’t aligning with Zulu’s values to ask our production partners to compromise theirs. We even instituted a policy of not asking for director treatments in order to simplify the bidding process, which production companies loved.
As for our in-house production capability, it’s a necessity for an agency’s survival in today’s media landscape. Of course, Zulu still works with many production companies on mainstream projects. They have a lot of amazing talent we love to tap into. We just finished some spots with Mark Zibert at Scout’s Honour for Bell Canada. He is a brilliant film director and I had always wanted to work with him.
LBB> Is being more of a regular director something you would like to flex more in the future?
Zak> In the late ’90s while at BBDO Toronto, I was approached to become a director. But I didn’t pursue it. I enjoyed dreaming up the ideas too much. In 2001, I made one of my first forays into directing for a Don’t Drink and Drive PSA I’d written for Molson while at Taxi. The spot had a production budget of less than $50,000. That is pretty restrictive, but then, the projects I direct at Zulu also have tight budgets. I am thinking of all our agency promo videos: Say No To Spec, World’s Worst RFP, Billy’s Lemonade, Scared Straight out of Advertising. I relish the challenge of bringing these creative ideas to life. Because I am not focused on the bells and whistles of a big production, I am able to zero in on the performances. I love working with actors and getting the best out of them. And, as a writer, I love to feed them lines on the fly and encourage improvisation. I’ll continue to flex that part of my creativity when there is little budget or no one else available to pull it off.
LBB> Thinking more broadly about Canada, what do you think is happening in the industry right now?
Zak> I’d say we’re at our best as a country when we don’t try to mimic the level of production out of the US, UK or other big ad markets. We just don’t have the multi-million-dollar budgets for that. It means our work has to be smarter, strategically and creatively.
Instead of doing an epic Super Bowl-like spectacle, we thrive as an ad nation when we let the idea be the hero. The Viagra Bleep campaign we created at Taxi years ago is a classic example. It was smart, simple and became one of the top five most-awarded campaigns in the world despite a very restrictive budget.
Our #UnravelHate work for Peace Collective at Zulu became the retailer’s highest-engaged content across every social platform ever. But the budget would have deflated the sails of agencies in other markets.
With a few exceptions, I’d say most Canadian agencies have hunkered down and gone into defensive mode during Covid. It is the opposite of what we’ve done. Zulu is making key investments. That includes new markets, digital capabilities and hiring great talent from around the world. We haven’t been immune to client cutbacks. But we’re thinking about the future and placing our bets on how to emerge from this stronger.
LBB> Why aren't more US clients looking to Canada?
Zak> Our industry is probably invisible to most US clients. To succeed south of the border, we need to be more bullish and not be afraid to promote some of the great work that comes out of this country. We need to get on their radar. I believe Canadian creativity can compete with the very best in the world if we do it on our own terms and play to our strengths. As a country, we’ve certainly shown that over the years in award shows.
But the problem is clients don’t pay attention all that much to award shows. They are great for creative morale and recruiting talent, and that is why we all enter them, but we need to be in the mainstream business press. That is what gets the attention of clients in the US. When Forbes featured us a couple of times, that did much more for Zulu in terms of new business than getting written up in a trade publication for an awards win.
LBB> You want to conquer the world. Tell us more about that!
Zak> I’ve always believed in setting the highest bar for myself and my agency. As a creative, you are only limited by how big you dream. Our yardstick has to be the world. When I was a young writer at Chiat/Day, my goal was to become the best copywriter in the world. When I became creative director at Taxi, I wanted us to be the best agency globally. By striving for something bigger than our local market, it helped propel success outside our borders.
When you have the highest aspirations for yourself as a creative, you learn, you push yourself and you get closer to the ultimate goal. So yes, our mission at Zulu is to become the best creative company in the world. And that goes hand-in-hand with also striving to be a great workplace. We’re proud to have been vetted by Deloitte as one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies. It’s a rigorous process to be selected and Zulu was the only agency on the list three years running. We’re definitely not at the top of the summit yet, but we’re proud of the strides we’ve made, and we owe that to having had the highest aspirations from day one.
LBB> Do you have a creative hero?
Zak> Tough question, I have so many. Some creative heroes I’ve had since I was a kid. Ever since I picked up a guitar as a 13-year-old, John Lennon has been one of my heroes. I loved his creativity, rebellious spirit and, as a writer, his way with words. I also used to love to draw and dreamt of becoming an animator like Walt Disney.
In advertising, my creative hero was – and is – David Abbott. He was a legendary writer and I became fascinated with his brilliant copy when I started in this business.
I met Abbott in 1994 when I was traveling around Europe. I’d secured an interview with one of his top creatives at Abbott Mead Vickers, the agency Abbott had helped build into one of the most successful ever in Britain.
After going through my portfolio, this senior guy walked me back to reception when I saw Abbot’s distinctive white hair in the distance. I asked him if he could introduce me to David and he reluctantly agreed, but sternly instructed to make it quick. David greeted me with a jovial, “Welcome to London!”
I then blurted out, “Hey David, could you check out my book?” His answer was immediate: “No problem!” The senior guy was seething with an expression that screamed, “How dare you!”
It turned out to be one of the most memorable 30 minutes of my career. Here was this ad legend and my creative hero being so generous with his time, commenting and giving feedback on each ad in my portfolio. At the end of our time together, he would even put me in touch with a contact of his who would help me get my first job in the UK. Beyond landing a gig, I gleaned something else in that half-hour with Abbott that I’ll never forget - talented people can be nice as well.