Zulu Alpha Kilo: Canada’s Best Managed Companies 2018

Drawing the line on ‘spec work’ can set you apart

Canada’s Best Managed Companies
Employees at a long work table
Offices at Zulu Alpha Kilo. (Donna Griffith)

Zak Mroueh has one very simple but extremely ambitious goal for his Toronto-based advertising agency Zulu Alpha Kilo. “We want to be the world’s No. 1 creative company,” says the CEO and chief creative officer.

And how does he plan to do that? By being totally different to other creative agencies—in the work they produce, in how they treat clients and in how management treats staff.

Is that ethos working? Well, in the past couple of years, the agency has twice been recognized by Ad Age, the most influential trade magazine in North America, first as Small Agency of the Year in 2016 and as International Small Agency of the Year in 2017. (With 100 employees, the agency is not small by Canadian standards.)

In the past year, Zulu added new clients including Tim Hortons, Whirlpool Canada, CAMH, Uber, Nikon and American connected-home brand Wink. Revenue was up 18% in 2017, a year in which the big global holding companies were struggling to grow at all.

“I can confidently say I believe we can beat any Canadian agency,” he says. But there’s still work to be done to be the best in the world. To get there, the agency has to continue to produce truly groundbreaking work, he says, pointing to last year’s documentary for Harley-Davidson.

Called Common Ground, the film followed three Harley riders from around the world visiting Canada for the first time. It was meant to run online but was picked up by the Discovery Channel as a one-hour prime-time special. It’s the kind of work that advertisers are desperate for in an age when so many viewers are skipping commercials and employing ad blockers.

In 2015, Zulu did a campaign for non-profit group Participaction that showed a TV screen literally squeezing in on kids in a playground. The message: screen time was taking away play time. The ad ended with the tagline: “Don’t visit our website.”

“There was a lot of concern that we would turn people away, but we really believed in that line, and they had a 344% increase in visits to the site,” he says.

Even the agency’s own website—a parody of other agency websites—goes against type. “Everyone said, ‘That’s a horrible idea, how could you do that?’ ” But clients find it refreshing, he says. “My whole thing is looking at what most people do and trying to do the opposite.”

That attitude extends into most aspects of how Zulu operates, and is embedded in its vision and values. It’s what Mroueh calls the “Zulu Way.” Here are a few examples.

1. No email after 7 p.m. or on weekends: Last year, Mroueh was talking with an employee who felt she had no life because she was responding to emails at all hours. “So I went back to the office, met with the management team and said we need to do something about this.”

Within 24 hours they enacted a no-email-after-7 p.m. rule (client emails excluded, of course). “It’s been a game-changer for the company,” he says. It’s not simply a matter of delaying when emails are sent; people now realize that many of the emails they were sending weren’t necessary. “People were focusing more of their time on responding to emails than creating great work for our clients,” says Mroueh.

2. No spec work: The practice of marketers asking prospective agencies to provide creative for free (or next to nothing) as part of the pitch process has long been a sore spot in the industry, yet the “spec work” practice persists. Not with Zulu Alpha Kilo. They steadfastly refuse to do it.

“When we first implemented this, a lot of friends said that’s never going to work,” he says. “And it did affect us the first few years.” But now, he says, more clients are willing to accept the Zulu position and see it as an indication of how the agency is different.

3. No biting your tongue in meetings: “One of our values is never leave a meeting and then talk about what you should have said in the meeting,” he says.

Too often agency people leave a meeting and immediately start venting: “That was a really stupid idea. Can you believe they said that?” When you have a client in the room, that is when decisions get made and you have to be honest and transparent about what you think, says Mroueh. “I think a lot of inefficiencies in agencies arise when people don’t say what they think.”

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