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Zak Mroueh: The sanest mad man

Zulu Alpha Kilo founder won't audition for work, defying the "absurdities" he says plague the ad industry

Published: Jul 19, 2018 11:56:52 AM IST
Updated: Jul 19, 2018 12:01:24 PM IST

Zak Mroueh: The sanest mad manImage: Raina + Wilson for Forbes
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 creative 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 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 theatres throughout Canada. It began with a two-minute 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 pre-eminent 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 practising 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 non-existent Glen’s Pet Supply. As with the #SayNoToSpec campaign, the goal was to satirise “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 programme 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 realise that the money is not what’s driving me. My goal is to become the number-one creative company in the world.”

(This story appears in the 03 August, 2018 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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