There is something almost antagonistic about the way Zak Mroueh positions his agency to potential clients, as if to say, “I don’t know if you can handle us, and if so, if you’re brave enough to walk into your boardroom and declare, ‘Yes, we should hire Zulu Alpha Kilo!’” For starters, the name hardly rolls off the tongue. And then there is its new website, replacing a mere single page with a few e-mail contacts and a short explanation of the agency’s tongue-twisting moniker (it’s from the NATO phonetic alphabet).
The site makes no mention of Mroueh, despite his illustrious nine-year career at Taxi, deemed by many people in Canada’s ad community to be the most successful homegrown agency ever. Under Mroueh’s creative leadership, the Toronto agency won a bounty of Cannes Lions, cracked the top fifteen in the Gunn Report’s ranking of the most awarded agencies in the world and opened an office in New York. In 2007, Taxi’s decorated chief creative officer and partner quit. Although not unhappy, Mroueh recalls he had turned 41 years of age and realized that fulfilling his dream of hanging his own shingle was “now or never.”
No, none of that backstory.
Instead, visitors to the site are introduced to fictitious founders, CEO Frank Zulu, creative director Marcus Alpha and client services VP Katherine Kilo. In their scandalous bios, Zulu’s early success is attributed to his patented vodka-and-cocaine brainstorming sessions; Alpha’s ascent, to the possible offing of a rival creative director; and Kilo’s knack for sales, to her past life as a dominatrix. On the Contact page, they confess they’re actors, only to break into incredulous chuckles when someone off-camera tells them the content will anchor a real website for a real agency named Zulu Alpha Kilo. “Who’s actually going to pay money to hire these people?” one of them asks.
Some of Canada’s biggest marketers, as it turns out. Bell Canada, the country’s oldest and largest telecommunications company, hired the agency for a creative rebranding before Mroueh had even officially launched Zulu. Others followed—Audi Canada, Jack Astor’s, Coca-Cola. More recent wins include Canada Dry Motts and ParticipACTION, a nonprofit organization that works with governments, corporations and sports stakeholders to promote physical activity.
Rachel Shantz, ParticipACTION’s director of marketing, says Zulu’s strength is its unexpected solutions. To encourage more outdoor playtime and less screen time for kids, ParticipACTION’s broadcast ads feature a shrinking letterbox of kids playing outside until it’s just a sliver of the black screen. If what Zulu created was unorthodox, so was the final message it left with viewers—“Don’t visit our website”—although, of course, that’s exactly what it wants parents to do.
ParticipACTION loved the cheekiness of the tag Zulu came up with. “Where we didn’t agree was whether this could stand alone or had to run in tandem with ‘Make room for play,’ which is the message that we really wanted parents to take away,” says Shantz.
“Maybe it doesn’t sound too becoming to suggest that we had to go head-to-head with our agency in the edit room, but I prefer to see it as evidence of a group of people who were all very invested in an idea and weren’t willing to compromise until we got everything exactly right,” she says. “In the end, after Zak passionately made the case for not losing the ‘Don’t visit our website’ line, I said, ‘Zak, I trust your creative judgment on this. That’s why we hired you.’”
Of Mroueh, she says, “Zak is a true iconoclast. He’s not following anyone else’s game plan. He is honestly—and refreshingly—always viewing things from an ambitious ‘What if we could do this?’ perspective.”
Indeed, Mroueh has challenged industry norms at every turn; the agency’s website is only the latest evidence of that. “Every agency website says the same thing, just skinned a different way. I didn’t want to give people the same information,” he says. “Maybe it’s crazy, but we want clients to discover us, rather than the other way around.”
The discovery typically starts on the east side of downtown Toronto, in Zulu’s offices, which span four floors of a low-rise brick-and-beam building. To remind himself of the agency’s goal to always be groundbreaking, Mroueh had the white walls lined with posters of his influences growing up in the 1970s, from scribe Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and director Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to artwork from painter Jackson Pollock and a photograph of the Sex Pistols.
Some areas in Zulu look like every other agency, with rows of white tables, laptops and chairs, but the breakout rooms are anything but standard. One room is an ode to the period drama Mad Men that would make even slick adman Don Draper proud: a lounge with wood panels, shag carpet and vintage accessories, such as a typewriter and a bottle of scotch. In his quest to defy expectations, Mroueh admits he sometimes goes too far. Another breakout room is an all-white, Zen-like space with a table and chairs. Initially, the table was only a foot off the ground, and everyone sat on pillows. Turns out, conducting meetings like that isn’t so comfortable.
In another room, Zulu conducts “kitchen sessions” with clients midway through creative development. “The most fun part for me is tearing ideas off the wall after we’ve put them up,” Mroueh says. “The whole point of the exercise is to let them share in the journey as to why we have arrived at our recommended solution.” In addition to getting a client’s creative buy-in early on, kitchen sessions show that Zulu has thought about the client’s business from all angles. “After a kitchen session, no client has ever forced us to produce an idea we didn’t believe in,” Mroueh says.
Payment services provider Interac Association was invited into Zulu’s kitchen to collaborate on its 2014 rebranding campaign. Andrea Danovitch, Interac’s director of marketing and brand strategy, says, “We ourselves are very collaborative, and we needed an agency who believed in it, and that was in Zulu’s DNA. Before you meet Zak, you might think, ‘This guy must have a big ego’ because he is very selective about clients. But he is down-to-earth and cares about people and collaboration and our business. That is a rarity for someone at his level.”
Mroueh understands that Zulu is not for every client. “We know some of what we’ve done is pretty out there,” he says. “Some people have worried that clients might be so put off or offended by some of the things we do that we lose them. Maybe this is simplistic on my part, but I figure if we lose clients because of something like that, they’re not the kind of clients we want. We tell our clients to take risks, so we have to take risks, too.”
Aside from encouraging clients to buy work that might make them uncomfortable, Mroueh operates Zulu with a set of beliefs that he suspects has limited the agency’s growth. Revenue has increased annually by about 20 percent, and the agency has grown to 75 full-time employees, but Mroueh says that Zulu easily could have more than the ten main clients currently on its roster were it not for the agency’s refusal to participate in pitches that require creative spec work as part of the evaluation. This means that Zulu turns down about 80 percent of all requests for proposals.
Mroueh made the decision five years ago, after Zulu lost an account because of a technicality that should have been shared with the agency at the start of the process. But what made the disclosure really frustrating was that Zulu spent money on spec—which, by many estimates, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars—even though it had no bearing on the outcome.
Some Zuligans wondered if taking a hard stance on the issue would further polarize the agency from the industry, including Zulu’s president, Mike Sutton, who was promoted to the role two years ago so Mroueh could focus on creative. “I can remember those first few uncomfortable phone calls, turning down two pitches with big fees that we felt like we had a great shot at winning,” Sutton says. “But great agencies make tough decisions. I think we can look back now and confidently say that was the right decision. It gave us the confidence to be unapologetically different and continue to stick to our beliefs.”
The agency finds spec so ludicrous that for a trade magazine’s agency of the year competition, Zulu entered hidden video of an actor asking for spec work from “agencies” ranging from a real car dealership to a real travel agency. During CA’s visit, Mroueh was going over the script, punching up the humor and ensuring that the actor’s lines will sound familiar to ad types. “I’ve been speaking to a lot of competitive agencies, and all of them have agreed to provide me a free vacation,” read the lines for the travel agency bit. “If I enjoy my vacation, I will become your client of record, meaning I pay for my vacation next year.”
Zulu is also willing to resign an account—even if it happens to be for one of the biggest marketers in the country and headquartered right across the street. In October 2010, Coca-Cola consolidated creative duties of its eighteen brands in English Canada and chose Zulu over five larger and more established agencies. The work for Coca-Cola was typical Zulu. For example, in 2013, to raise awareness for the plight of polar bears due to global warming, the agency created a temperature-controlled outdoor display that featured sculptures of a mother polar bear and her cub on real ice. Consumers prevented the ice from melting by pledging to reduce their carbon footprint via video, text or tweet.
But in September 2014, Zulu resigned the Coca-Cola account. Interestingly, just as its win of Coca-Cola signaled to the ad community that Zulu had become a creative force, the decision to resign the account said something else: the agency will let go of clients that negatively impact how it wants to operate. Mroueh declines to give any specifics on the split, saying only, “Resigning Coke was as pivotal for us as winning it.”
Perhaps that’s because the seven-year-old agency has now fully embraced its creative mantra and value system, has recently recruited new talent, and has garnered clients unafraid of its moxie. “We have a very clear vision of what we want to be when we grow up,” says Mroueh. “And everything has unfolded in our first seven years on schedule—in some ways, beyond our wildest dreams.” ca