No, as of yet there is no antecedent “zag.” But there could be, if the current folks at zig decide to zag, which is likely if every-one else starts “zigging.” But talk of zigging and zagging can make one dizzy. As can a rapid ascent: consider the climb of zig, the advertising and branding company, itself.
Lorraine Tao, Elspeth Lynn and Andy Macaulay launched zig in May 1999 with no clients, a battered leather sofa and a year’s lease. Within seven months, the three had met their Year One financial goal. Marking their seventh anniversary last spring, zig has tripled its workspace and grown to 60-plus persons, with 8 full-time creative teams, 2 summer intern teams, 3 full-time graphic designers, 9 planners, 7 team leaders, 2 managing directors, 3 found-ers and a brand new creative director from Montréal. Moreover, zig’s stable of famous brand clients would make any alphabet soup large agency green with envy. The common denominators after all these years? Lorraine, Elspeth and Andy—and that same natty old sofa.
“The sofa still has a role to play,” avows Andy with a mixture of mirth and seriousness. “We don’t believe in wasting money on fancy furniture. We are cheerfully cheap.”
“I was given an $800 budget to buy chairs for the reception area,” says Elspeth, a striking woman whose name is the Gaelic version of Elizabeth. “I had my eye on one really nice one. Andy informed me the $800 was for the whole lobby. I reconsidered my strategy, went to a thrift store and bought four for $60.”
This group has its priorities in order. In a business where agencies rarely leave change on the table—too often creat-ing overwrought and costly solutions to solve simple but persistent problems—zig has developed a reputation for find-ing the appropriate solution, not the most costly. Cheerfully cheap? Not really, but clients remain cheerful when their ad agencies deliver effectiveness for less.
Lesson Number One: Success in business is not about where you sit or what you sit on; it’s about what you stand for.
Time and time again, the history of successful advertising partnerships is littered with failed friendships as a result of chemistry gone badly or values compromised in the name of greed. Not true at zig. Its core remains fast and true: three friends drawn together by a weariness in the direction of their careers, a thirst for change, a willingness to take a risk and sushi.
Over dinner at a popular sushi restaurant named Nami, I met the three zig partners inside the same place where they met each other. “A mutual friend set up my first meeting with Elspeth,” explains Lorraine, writer, partner and co-creative director. “We discovered that we had some great people in common like [Toronto legend] Alan Kazmer, our teacher at Ontario College of Art & Design. At the time we were both ready for a change, especially with the fact that we rarely found other women with whom to partner. It was all testosterone all the time, and she shared a desire for change.”
Elspeth picks up from there: “After meeting again, we both understood that we would make a good creative team; we were certain that we’d bring out the best in one another as a creative team.”
“Outside of work we are different,” adds Lorraine. “But at work we are simpatico: we share the same ambitions, think the same things are funny, think the same things are brilliant, share the same work ethic and the same need for integrity in this crazy business.”
The sushi lunch would evolve into an eleven-year partnership. In March of 1995, the pair joined Leo Burnett.
Meanwhile, Andy Macaulay was growing frustrated with the turn of his own agency, Roche Macaulay. Having gotten to know Elspeth during her brief stint with his agency, he confided some of his feelings. By good fortune or chance, Elspeth arranged for Andy to meet Lorraine at Nami, their prophetic sushi spot. Sushi magic worked again: Andy and Lorraine got along famously, and zig was born a few months later on May 3, 1999.
Lesson Two: When making momentous business decisions over lunch, go with a sashimi-grade partner. All others are merely canned tuna.
Long before suggesting that they start an agency together, Andy was widely admired around Toronto as one of the best minds in the ad business. He enthuses about zig’s philosophy and culture with a style that makes people around him feel familiar and comfortable. His approach has led some very big fish (IKEA, Virgin Mobile, Molson, Unilever chief among them) to jump into the zig boat. And his colleagues are as enthusiastic about him as he is about his work. As Shelly Brown, a zig co-managing director who once worked at Roche Macaulay, puts it: “I’d follow Andy to work in a coal mine.”
“Ideas in their most powerful form,” beams Andy, easing zig’s motto into the flow of conversation, “means that you create solutions to address the problem, not a problem. We approach every client case with a willingness to listen and learn. Only afterwards, when you know what you’re up against, can you create informed, specific solutions that meet their specific needs.”
While zig’s philosophy may be “ideas in their most powerful form” (e.g., basic, simple, transferable, effective and memorable), zig is not simplistic in how it brands and packages itself. The company is nearly self-consciously aware of how it does so. Everything is part of the shtick: from the humble trappings to its big, new business cards blaring the employees’ first name only on the front side. They are reminders of the importance of humility, simplicity, honesty and effectiveness. But they are very calculated to establish zig’s unique value proposition and distinguish itself (“ziggers”) from the crowd (“zaggers”).
Lesson Three: To maintain your focus and preserve your culture and core values, try hard to never lose sight of your priorities. It doesn’t hurt to have a good marketing plan in place either.
“The creative partner I had before leaving Young & Rubicam to work with Elspeth was not the right fit; he and I didn’t find the same things funny or smart,” says Lorraine. “It got so bad that I would cringe just when I heard his laugh.”
You know you’re in trouble when the sound of your partner’s voice makes you cringe. So she found a voice that was much more harmonious: a partner with whom she could make beautiful music.
“It is hard to explain how a successful creative partnership works,” says Elspeth. “Part of it, I believe, is the fact that we are both women in a male-dominated industry. There are simply very few female creative teams in North America. The irony of this is the fact that women— the principal targets of advertising—account for most household purchase decisions. When I met Lorraine, I didn’t have to explain the irony of the situation. She under-stood it because she lived it.”
The bond between the two is palpable. They share a small office inside zig’s spacious downtown loft. They own nearby weekend cottages “up north” from Toronto where they can unwind. Lorraine goes with her husband, Doug, and Elspeth goes with her mop-headed dog, Ted.
Lorraine, whose parents were from Shanghai, is thoughtful, quiet and soft-spoken. Elspeth is spontaneous, warm and gregarious. But Lorraine’s quiet masks a woman of fierce strength, even stubbornness. And beneath Elspeth’s ever-present sunshine, one senses someone who has translated personal pain and tragedy into insight and empathy. The combination forms the heart and soul of their business. For while Andy has built the business by developing opportunities, Lorraine and Elspeth have delivered on the promise.
And yet, something was not right. Some-thing was eating away at both of them. Both craved change again. The women were growing frustrated by the simple fact that the demands of their jobs precluded creative collaboration.
“We have been too busy managing our creative teams and the process,” admits Lorraine, “and it became frustrating to us. We simply wished that we could have more time together to think of ideas.”
In June of 2006, that would all change.
Lorraine and Elspeth stepped back from their onerous daily creative direction responsibilities to reunite as a traditional creative team, a “Super Team,” if you will. To make this possible, zig searched long and hard for a new creative director until eventually finding, recruiting and hiring Martin Beauvais, a widely admired creative director recently with BBDO in Montréal. He will assume creative direction on all zig projects except those of Elspeth and Lorraine, with whom he will assume a more consultative and collaborative role.
Martin, a native French speaker, views his new role with both a lot of excitement and a little trepidation. “I know most of the young people here came to work under Lorraine and Elspeth,” says Martin. “My job is not to ‘replace’ them as much as provide the others new opportunities to learn and grow. That means helping zig expand its creative opportunities across the nation, especially among its large French-speaking population. I believe that means zig is about to bloom nationally, in English and French.”
“It’s been five-and-half years since we paired up creatively on a regular basis,” says Elspeth. “It brought us so much enjoyment. We complemented one another so much and brought out the best in each other. How could we not go back to doing something that brought us both so much joy?”
Lesson Four: When the demands of work begin to take away the pleasure you once took from it, change jobs. If you can do it without changing officemates or desks, consider yourself blessed.
For Elspeth and Lorraine, this could be the re-beginning of a beautiful relationship. Toronto, watch out. Here they come—again. ca