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Agency Profile: Zulu Alpha Kilo

Posted on April 26, 2011 and read 16,634 times

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brettcreditpic Agency Profile: Zulu Alpha KiloBrett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2
ihaveanidea

It’s the summer of 2007, and after years of requests from our readers, I finally had the opportunity to visit Taxi —Canada’s hottest and most globally recognized creative shop at the time — for one of our popular Agency Profiles. I had the pleasure of chatting with Zak Mroueh, Taxi’s visionary CCO who was largely credited with Taxi’s ascent on the world stage, about what had made the agency such a creative powerhouse since he joined in 1999.

Shortly after our Taxi Agency Profile is published, a surprising headline is splashed across the pages of the Canadian trade mags and websites:

Zak Mroueh resigns as CCO of Taxi, leaving the agency by year’s end.

A quick WTF-themed email to Zak gets the following reply from him:

“Hey, you got to do my last interview before I left.”

_________________________

In the months following Zak’s departure from Taxi, there was a lot of speculation over what his next steps would be. That speculation came to an end in 2008 when Zak launched Zulu Alpha Kilo in Toronto. Funny thing though, the new shop was announced with absolutely none of the pomp and pageantry you’d expect from a high profile creative director. In fact, nearly three years later, the agency is still quite an enigma. Their minimalist website shows no work, no clients, no list of key staff. Hell, it doesn’t even show the agency’s physical address. You only really hear about Zulu Alpha Kilo when they rebrand a client, win an award, or pick up new business. A few months back, the agency won one of the most coveted pitches of 2010 — Coca-Cola Canada — with barely a whisper. And you almost never hear from Zak Mroueh, the suddenly reclusive creative genius.

Until now.

_________________________

“I was at Taxi for many great years,” reflects Zak from the aptly-named Zen room in Zulu Alpha Kilo’s King Street East office. “I was a partner in the agency and had a great thing going, but I got to a point where I was ready for a change. I was in a position where I had achieved most of what I had wanted to at the agency, but I still had an entrepreneurial dream that I wanted to pursue.”

“I went away with my family for a few weeks in August of 2007, and the whole time I kept thinking ‘what am I going to do next?’ he continues. “And when I came back into the office, back into the grind, I just couldn’t shake that holiday feeling. All day Monday, all day Tuesday, and by Wednesday, I knew I had to make a change. When I got home that evening, I opened up The Globe & Mail, and there was this big picture of a bald- headed guy holding his head in his hands. The title of the story was “When it’s time to move on.” I read the article, and it was so insightful. It talked about all these things that I was feeling. There was a great quote in the article that I’ll never forget: ‘the fear of quitting is always far greater than the reality,’ and, with that line, I had an epiphany moment. At that moment, I made up my mind to resign. I knew it was finally time for me to go out on my own and it was just fear that had been stopping me.”

Following his convictions, Zak spent the next day refinancing his mortgage and trying to ensure that he’d be able to survive without an income for at least a year. He then submitted his resignation.

“It was a feeling of pure freedom,” reminisces Zak on his decision to leave. “At the same time, it was also kind of sad. The agency was like a second family, and it was an emotional decision. I stayed on for three months to help with the transition.”

Zak’s commitments to his old agency ended in November of 2007, allowing him to work on his next steps on a full-time basis. “I became one of those people you see hanging out in coffee shops in the middle of the day; the ones who make you wonder what they could possibly be doing at three in the afternoon,” laughs Zak. “I had a note pad that an ex-colleague gave me as a gift to ‘write my destiny’ and in it I wrote two lists: a list of all the things that I didn’t like about our industry, and a much, much shorter list of the things that I did like. Those lists guided me in molding Zulu Alpha Kilo into the agency it is today.”

When you hear about new agencies starting up from scratch, it’s usually the brainchild of two or more people, each bringing different strengths to the table. In this aspect, Zulu Alpha Kilo was an oddity; there was always only Zak. It was one of the few times that an agency was started by a creative guy without the typical ‘business’ person as support. “I had to figure out how to do things beyond just creative,” remembers Zak. “It was a lot of running around and learning things that I didn’t need to worry about in my previous life, like lease agreements and operations. Without the handcuff of a business partner, there were no debates about what color the furniture should be, no ‘analysis paralysis’. I was able to make important decisions quickly without being encumbered by bureaucracy.” As the sole owner of Zulu, he could finally live up to his nickname at Taxi, ‘Mroueh or the highway’.

While the ad industry at large was still trying to figure out what Zak’s next move would be, clients were already starting to prick up their ears. Before the agency was even fully up and running, Zak received a call from telecommunications giant Bell Canada. “Bell had heard that I was opening an agency and wanted to chat,” recalls Zak. “They gave us our first assignment to help develop a new creative platform for the entire company.” It was a pretty significant announcement, especially for a start-up agency. After resigning with no clients and just a dream to start a shop, Zak had his first client. “There were are all these rumours and speculation. Because it was such a significant win, people just assumed that I must have had Bell as a client before leaving. But the truth was, I didn’t. I left my old post not knowing what the future held. Getting Bell right out of the gate was pretty unbelievable and unexpected, especially since we hadn’t even officially launched yet.


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‘Launched’ might not even be the appropriate word when it came to Zulu Alpha Kilo’s entrance onto the ad world’s stage, at least according to Zak. “We officially launched to the world on July 4th, 2008, but I can’t even really say that we ever truly ‘launched’ the agency. We certainly never made any big announcement. Marketing Magazine wrote a piece when they heard that we were working with Bell, but that was it. My philosophy was that I’d rather we actually have something to show than simply come out and make all these proclamations about what’s wrong with the industry. So we did things like the THINK box, a project that says more about our team philosophy than any simple description on a website ever could. Eventually the press launched us through the work we were doing.”


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www.thinkinginsidethebox.ca

In 2011, Zulu Alpha Kilo still steers clear of the headlines and chatter that other agencies clamor for. “It fits into our philosophy here. We don’t chase attention, we just put our heads down and try to do great work for our clients. If we do that, everything else just follows,” says Zak. “I decided a long time ago that we weren’t going to be an agency that would wine and dine and woo. It’s not our style to chase fame. Success will come to you if you do interesting work.”

Zulu is hard to pin down at times. Is it an ad agency? A design shop? Digital agency? “Design, digital and advertising are all baked into the agency’s DNA” as Zak puts it. “Zulu believes in the greater collective. There are no discipline specific departments, and everybody contributes to everything we do. We’re living the model of true collaboration between disciplines. We’ve never had to tear down walls between departments because we never had them to begin with.”

It’s not an easy task to squeeze in another seat at Zulu Alpha Kilo’s long, long work desk. “It takes a very specific kind of person to make it here,” says Zak. “We are definitely a place where you can’t be afraid to share ideas and credit. People are shocked to see how closely we work together, and how much of a team effort everything is. We don’t believe in sending creative people away to work on solving a brief in isolation for two weeks. If a brief is released in the morning, we want to see ideas by the end of day, every day. In that aspect, it’s a lot like the fast paced environment of a daily newspaper, where I sit as the editor, overlooking the newsroom. It’s intense.”


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Most of the people who cross Zulu Alpha Kilo’s threshold looking for a job come either from staff recommendations or from the email link at the appropriately titled GetMeOutOfThisJob@ZuluAlphaKilo.com. “Zulu’s not for everybody. Sometimes we interview people and quickly realize they’re more suited to a traditional agency model,” laments Zak. “They need to have an office, they don’t want to work as part of a larger collective. They’d rather go off with a partner and be the ones to crack the brief and get the credit for it on their own. We’re very selective about finding a new breed of creative person who’s not afraid to share the glory with others and work across disciplines.”

New Zulu Alpha Kilo recruits had also be prepared to be out of the regular ad agency circles; the agency is deliberately situated far away from the Yonge & Bloor multinationals and the Queen/John/Wellington/Bathurst creative hot spots. “When I was looking for office space, there was a location that was near a lot of other shops,” recalls Zak. “It was a cool space, but I really didn’t want to be next to everyone else. That’s why I chose this office space here on King Street East, away from most agencies, even though the other location offered a better lease. It’s a perfect place to concentrate on the work and I like that I rarely run into other industry people.”

Looking back on this adventure, how have the first few years of business been for Zulu Alpha Kilo? “I pinch myself every day. It’s really a dream come true,” says Zak. “I look back at the goals I had set early on and so far we’re on track. We’re growing at a rate that, while faster than I had anticipated, is still very manageable. If we had said yes to every piece of business that has come our way, we could easily be double our current size. But for us, size is not the measurement of success.”


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www.facebook.com/workopolis

Zulu Alpha Kilo has challenged a lot of the conventions of the typical agency start-up. With all the success the agency has had in a relatively short span of time, what does the future hold for this quiet but powerful creative shop? “I want us to continue to be obsessed and passionate about doing unusual, unexpected creative work that solves big business problems for our clients. I know we’ve yet to hit our full stride. When we do, that’s when it will get really interesting.”

Thanks to Zak Mroueh for letting us learn more about Zulu Alpha Kilo.


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article Agency Profile: Zulu Alpha Kilo

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  • http://www.Art-Director.ca Denny Kurien

    A little too sterile for my taste, never-the-less I would work for someone like Zak ‘Mroueh’ (how do you pronounce that ?) I think there is something to be said about an agency model that pursues “quiet fame”. One of my first job interviews was with Joseph Bonnici – he gave me a lot of good advice and constructive feedback on my book. From talking to him though, I got the impression that every creative who works at Zulu Alpha Kilo is a Cannes Lion Winner. Anyway, after I had that job interview, I ended up working as an Art Director for the very man who gave Zak Mroueh his stripes – Neil McOstrich (who I consider the Toronto Godfather of Advertising). Just like Zak, he started his own agency called “Cleansheet” (http://www.cleansheet.ca). Our biggest client is Wind Mobile, and it’s a pleasure working with him.

  • Anonymous

    Enjoyed seeing something different. Thinking outside the box takes alot of creativity and people who use the left side of their brain.The offices even look stress free but i am sure sometimes the brain drain rears its ugly head and the drums take a beating. Congratulations Zak for creating an agency where everyone is a top dog .

  • hue alpenhaum

    “Their minimalist website shows no work, no clients, no list of key staff.” I always wondered why it is. Gotcha. They took ideas from jobseekers’ portfolio and they don’t reveal the name of the creative director. When you see your work in public newspapers and magazine but have no idea how it happened, which company took your idea and who took YOURS, you will end up talk to Zulu. Then, you might probably heard that “We don’t show what we worked. We don’t expose who’s in charge of the project. it’s confidential. Gosh! How many companies in Toronto steal jobseekers’ works and grow up. And I’m seeing the perfect example. 


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