Fortune Favours The Bold: Why Disrupting Industry Standards Pays Off

Advertising agency Zulu Alpha Kilo on bucking tradition and championing bravery

In 2007, Zak Mroueh was ranked as the number one creative director in the country and was a partner at Canada’s top advertising agency. But like every budding entrepreneur, he envisioned a better agency model. And so, he walked away from his equity and the industry’s most coveted creative job to start Zulu Alpha Kilo (“ZAK” in the NATO phonetic alphabet).

“I wanted to build a company and culture where innovation would be baked into our DNA. We wouldn’t be in the advertising, design or digital business. Zulu was going to be in the bravery business,” says Mroueh, commending all his early courageous clients for putting their trust in a scrappy startup.

He founded Zulu Alpha Kilo in 2008. Their website? A hilarious parody of pretentious agency sites. Rather than issue a traditional press release to announce Zulu’s opening, he had a 10-by-10 “think box” installed at Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square. It was filled with talented innovators and offered “inside-the-box thinking” to passersby, solving their random business problems within 20 minutes. The stunt paid off. Soon after, Zulu was slinging solutions for major brands like Bell, Coca-Cola, Google, Interac, Subaru, Uber and Whirlpool. Over the years, the agency has stayed true to its entrepreneurial roots, working with disruptive, local clients and recently taking an equity stake in Toronto’s Consonant Skincare.

The company has done away with many of the antiquated practices of the ad world. They abolished unpaid internships, replacing them with an innovative “employeeship” program that pays candidates and helps Zulu recruit the next generation of creative talent. And, best and most famously of all, they stopped participating in speculative new-business pitches—an industry standard that asks agencies to pitch costly “spec work” for free, without formal contracts or fees in the hopes of landing an account.

Instead of chasing new business through the traditional model, Zulu focuses on providing exceptional service to its existing clients. Despite turning down over 80 per cent of the RFPs that don’t align with its pitching philosophy, Zulu’s unrelenting focus on its current client base has made it one of the country’s most sought-after agencies.

“By consistently over-delivering for existing clients, we still exceed 20 per cent growth annually through new-business referrals from them,” adds Mroueh. Today, the company has 130 employees (or “Zuligans”) and has been recognized by the likes of U.S. trade publication Ad Age and Forbes as one of the world’s top independent agencies and most innovative companies.

Now, they’re doing something even braver: In an era when many businesses are scaling back or shuttering altogether, Zulu is thinking bolder than ever. With imminent plans for expansion across Canada and into the U.S., they will soon be welcoming more global innovators into the Zulu creative collective.

“In a previous life, the biggest challenge was encouraging creative bravery, and for marketers to see that a breakthrough idea can be the most powerful tool at their disposal. Fortunately, we don’t have that problem. We get to choose our partners, and the clients we collaborate with embrace innovation,” he says. “They know that it can be a game-changer for their business.”