THE SANEST MAD MAN

Zak Mroueh won’t au­di­tion for work, de­fy­ing the “ab­sur­di­ties” he says plague the ad in­dus­try.

Forbes - - CONTENTS - By Bo Burling­ham

Zak Mroueh won’t au­di­tion for work, de­fy­ing the “ab­sur­di­ties” he says plague the ad in­dus­try.

Af­ter leav­ing a suc­cess­ful agency, Zak mroueh bought a copy of En­trepreneur­ship for

Dum­mies to help him start his own. The dots and dashes on the wall be­hind him in Zulu al­pha Kilo’s head­quar­ters are based on his agency’s ini­tials in morse code.

You know you’ve en­tered a dif­fer­ent world as soon as you step through the front door of a Toronto-based ad­ver­tis­ing agency that goes by the name Zulu Al­pha Kilo. On one wall, there’s an exit sign that ac­tu­ally says “Elvis,” and on an­other there’s a crossed-out stick fig­ure that re­sem­bles an alien but is meant to sug­gest no big heads al­lowed. There’s also a video of peo­ple paint­ing a mu­ral that plays con­stantly on a white screen next to the re­cep­tion desk.

The agency’s founder, Zak Mroueh, started the mu­ral project in 2008 by putting up a blank can­vas and invit­ing ev­ery­one who passed by to pick up a brush and paint. He also in­stalled a stop-mo­tion video cam­era to record each con­tri­bu­tion. The project con­tin­ued for seven years. The re­sult­ing mu­ral was de­scribed by AdAge’s Cre­ativ­ity On­line as “a master­piece.” But in 2015, Mroueh de­cided to paint it over with white paint and use it as a screen to dis­play the seven years of video. “It was just one of my crazy ideas,” he says.

Per­haps his cra­zi­est idea is the bat­tle he has been wag­ing against “spec work”—the hours of un­paid cre- ative work that prospec­tive clients have tra­di­tion­ally de­manded of agen­cies that want to win their busi­ness. Mroueh had long ques­tioned the prac­tice, which struck him as un­fair, waste­ful and bor­der­line un­eth­i­cal, and Zulu fi­nally stopped do­ing it af­ter los­ing a bid in 2011 be­cause it didn’t have an office in Mon­treal— even though it had in­vested $120,000 (USD) to cre­ate a spec cam­paign that the client ad­mit­ted was su­pe­rior to the oth­ers sub­mit­ted.

Be­yond for­bid­ding the agency to do any more spec work, Mroueh launched a cam­paign against the prac­tice—“#SayNoToSpec”—in­clud­ing pro­duc­ing videos show­ing how ridicu­lous it would be in any other busi­ness. Early on, Zulu’s re­fusal to do spec prob­a­bly cost it tens of mil­lions of dol­lars. Over time, how­ever, the stance earned re­spect, and prospec­tive clients be­gan to sign on with­out a for­mal pitch.

To­day the agency has 100 em­ploy­ees and $16.7 mil­lion in an­nual rev­enue from clients such as Tim Hor­tons, Bell Canada, Whirlpool and Uber. It has won a slew of in­dus­try awards, in­clud­ing AdAge’s In­ter­na­tional Small Agency of the Year in 2017, and this

year it was ranked the world’s 29th-most-ef­fec­tive ad agency by the World Ad­ver­tis­ing Re­search Cen­ter.

The ac­claim fol­lows sev­eral ex­cep­tion­ally en­gag­ing brand-iden­tity cam­paigns Zulu has pro­duced, each built around a nar­ra­tive that Mroueh and his col­leagues come up with by ex­am­in­ing a client’s core val­ues in search of “some­thing deeper than prod­ucts or ser­vices.” A case in point is the cam­paign Zulu cre­ated for Cine­plex En­ter­tain­ment, which op­er­ates movie the­aters through­out Canada. It be­gan with a twominute an­i­mated video called Lily and the Snow­man (avail­able on YouTube), about a lit­tle girl, Lily, and her snow­man. Lily grows up to be a ca­reer-minded mother. While work­ing late one evening she has a flash­back to the joy­ful times she’d had with her snow­man, inspiring her to give her own daugh­ter the same ex­pe­ri­ence. The penul­ti­mate frame dis­plays the words “Make time for what you love,” fol­lowed by the Cine­plex logo over the cam­paign’s tagline, “See the Big Pic­ture.” In the ten days af­ter its re­lease, the video re­ceived 21.8 mil­lion views (now more than 85 mil­lion). The awards be­gan rolling in.

Now 52, Mroueh was al­ready well-known for his cre­ativ­ity when he founded Zulu Al­pha Kilo. For the pre­vi­ous nine years he had been cre­ative di­rec­tor, part­ner and share­holder in the Toronto agency Taxi. Dur­ing that time, Taxi was named Cana­dian agency of the year four times by Strat­egy, the coun­try’s pre­em­i­nent mar­ket­ing mag­a­zine. But Mroueh had been rest­less and left in 2007, for­feit­ing his own­er­ship stake, to start his own agency.

He planned to call it Sto­ryz Inc., which re­flected his gift—and rep­u­ta­tion—for sto­ry­telling. He had al­ready spent about $10,000 on Sto­ryz Inc. sta­tionery and be­gun us­ing the name with po­ten­tial clients when he and his wife, Amanda, at­tended a hockey game with his best friend and the friend’s son, who was prac­tic­ing the NATO pho­netic al­pha­bet. “Un­cle Zak is Zulu Al­pha Kilo,” the boy an­nounced.

Amanda knew that her hus­band wasn’t com­pletely sat­is­fied with the name Sto­ryz Inc. She leaned over and whis­pered in his ear, “Zulu Al­pha Kilo.” The more he thought about it, the bet­ter he liked it. “In my pre­vi­ous life, peo­ple had a nick­name for my kind of ad­ver­tis­ing,” Mroueh says. “They’d say it was ‘Zakob­vi­ous,’ be­cause I liked work that was crys­tal clear and easy to un­der­stand. And the NATO pho­netic al­pha­bet is all about clar­ity of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” Thus the agency be­came Zulu Al­pha Kilo.

The name caused some confusion, which gave Mroueh an­other crazy idea. “Peo­ple would al­ways ask me, ‘Are those peo­ple’s real names?’ So I thought, Why don’t we redo our web­site with fic­ti­tious part­ners?” Un­til then the agency had got­ten by with a web­site that was lit­tle more than a land­ing page with a logo. He pro­posed his idea to the mem­bers of his man­age­ment team, who at first thought he was jok­ing and then grew alarmed. Mroueh said he was open to bet­ter ideas, but when none were forth­com­ing, he pro­ceeded. The en­tire site—fea­tur­ing part­ners Frank Zulu, Mar­cus Al­pha and Kather­ine Kilo—is a par­ody, com­plete with a client pro­file of the nonex­is­tent Glen’s Pet Sup­ply. As with the #SayNoToSpec cam­paign, the goal was to sat­i­rize “the ab­sur­di­ties of the ad in­dus­try,” Mroueh says. Most agen­cies use their web­sites to brag about their awards, show­case their work, and tout their clients and lead­ers. “My whole thing,” says Mroueh, “is look­ing at what most peo­ple do and try­ing to do the op­po­site.”

For ex­am­ple: Hired by Har­ley-David­son Canada to cre­ate a cam­paign cel­e­brat­ing its 100th an­niver­sary, Zulu launched a for­eign ex­change pro­gram for bik­ers called Com­mon Ground. It then pro­duced a se­ries of on­line videos fea­tur­ing Har­ley bik­ers from other coun­tries be­ing shown around Canada by Cana­dian bik­ers. The mes­sage: Rid­ing mo­tor­cy­cles brings peo­ple to­gether. The videos caught the at­ten­tion of the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel, which got Zulu to turn them into a one-hour prime-time doc­u­men­tary.

Zulu doesn’t challenge in­dus­try norms just to be dif­fer­ent. “Peo­ple ap­proach me say­ing, ‘Hey, we’ll of­fer you 20 mil­lion bucks for your com­pany,’” he says. “It never works. They don’t re­al­ize that the money is not what’s driv­ing me. My goal is to be­come the num­ber-one cre­ative com­pany in the world.”

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