Insider Interviews - Zak Mroueh - President/Creative Director and Founder, Zulu Alpha Kilo.
Posted: January 3, 2012 | 9:04 ET
Zak is President/Creative Director & Founder of Zulu Alpha Kilo. The agency launched in 2008 and its first assignment was rebranding communications giant Bell Canada.
Zak has also been named one of Canada's "Most Influential" marketing people in Marketing Magazine's "Power 100 List." Before founding Zulu Alpha Kilo, Zak was Chief Creative Officer and Partner at TAXI Canada. While there, he helped build brands such as WestJet, Canadian Tire, Telus, Viagra and Nike. Zak’s work earned him a global reputation and garnered the agency world-class recognition.
Under his creative leadership, the agency won seven “Agency of the Year” titles in the nine years he was there. During this time, U.S. publication Creativity Magazine named Zak as one of the Top 10 Creative Directors in the World.
You founded Zulu Alpha Kilo in 2008 after nearly 20 years working for other people. What was the defining moment that pushed you to go it alone?
I’d always known in the back of my mind that one day I’d like to branch out on my own. I’ve always admired the raw entrepreneurial energy start-ups have, and I knew it would be incredibly fulfilling to open my own shop. Finally, in 2007, I knew it was time to stop daydreaming and start acting. Shortly after I turned 40, I spent two weeks on vacation up north with my family. The whole time I was away, I kept thinking that I'd come to a crossroads, but something was holding me back. When I returned to work on Monday, I knew I couldn’t go back to business as usual.
Something inside me was telling me to make a change. By Wednesday, I saw an article in the Globe about 'When it’s time to move on' and make a career change – and the picture alongside the article was of a bald guy with his head in his hands. There was a great quote in the piece, "The fear of quitting is far worse than the reality." If that wasn’t a sign I don’t know what is.
Zulu Alpha Kilo is the NATO phonetic spelling of your name. Should we read anything into that?
Zulu Alpha Kilo actually came about quite serendipitously. I had originally come up with Storyz Inc. Everyone I bounced it off of liked it, but it still felt a little safe and ordinary. It didn’t capture the vibe of what I wanted my agency to become. I talked to my wife about it, and then a couple of nights later we went to our son’s hockey game, where our friend’s eight-year-old son was reading a book called ‘The Dangerous Book for Boys.’ By pure chance, he was reading out people’s names in the
NATO phonetic alphabet and said ‘hey, Uncle Zak’s name is Zulu Alpha Kilo.’ I knew right away that I'd found the perfect name. The NATO phonetic alphabet was designed for global clarity, and I’ve always been all about clarity of communications. Most importantly, the name was different – just like the type of clients I hoped to attract. The defining moment was when a marketing consultant that I respected told me that no client in their right mind would award their business to an agency called Zulu Alpha Kilo. He thought it was too weird. At that moment, I thought this is perfect--if clients don't like us because of our name, they're not the clients we want to be working with anyway.
When did you know advertising was the career for you?
As a kid, I remember watching movies and TV shows like ‘Bewitched’ that had characters who worked in the ad industry. That made advertising quite intriguing to me at an early age. I was always pretty good at art and writing stories – and I loved music and film. In a way, advertising was the perfect career for me because it combines storytelling, art, filmmaking and music. It flexes all of those creative muscles.
"Marketing today is way more challenging from every angle, due to everything from media fragmentation to the globalization of creative assets. That said, it’s much easier to access information today."
If you weren’t running a successful ad shop, what could you see yourself doing?
I could definitely see myself running a restaurant. I spent seven years working at restaurants before I got into advertising. I’ve always had a passion for creative endeavours, and creating an amazing meal requires a lot of creativity. I loved the rush of the deadline-driven, fast-paced environment. I think a chef is like a creative director who oversees the creative process in the kitchen, inspiring the team along the way. Here at Zulu, we actually have a full working kitchen that doubles as our boardroom. Some of our best campaign ideas have been literally cooked up in our kitchen.
People say marketing is more difficult than it used to be. Is there any part of it that’s easier?
Marketing today is way more challenging from every angle, due to everything from media fragmentation to the globalization of creative assets. That said, it’s much easier to access information today. These days, you can ask a question about a certain segment and have the data at your fingertips almost immediately. Twenty years ago, it would take weeks and weeks to get an answer – if you got an answer at all. Yes, marketing is more difficult. But ultimately, it always was and always will be about brilliant ideas. Thanks to the Internet, we're living through an amazing creative revolution at this very moment. Which is exciting to be a part of.
Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message.” Do you agree?
Absolutely. Technological advancements and inventions like Facebook are changing society in every single way. Much like the advent of radio and television changed the way people shared information and interacted with each other, Facebook and other social media channels have completely changed the way we all behave, from young children to adults. It has truly transformed how we as a society consume, digest and share information.
I want to mix a drink called Creativity. What’s the ratio of nature to nurture?
The recipe for Creativity is elusive. But if I had to guess, I’d say the ratio would be 40% raw talent and 60% drive. I believe that everyone is creative, but if you also have the hunger, drive and passion to push yourself, you can achieve amazing things. I would always choose someone with drive over raw talent. Because in the quest for greatness, I've found that the best creative people are quite often the most relentless.
What campaign do you wish you’d created? Why?
There have been a lot of great campaigns in recent times, but I’ve always loved the Avis “We Try Harder” work from the '60s. It’s not the flashiest campaign in the world, but that raw insight really got to the core of what made Avis different. It embraced its status as number two in the market, and translated that number two position into a benefit. Avis was the underdog, and underdogs have to go the extra mile to earn your business. It didn’t have the luxury of resting on its laurels. It says a lot that I still remember a tagline that was created in the ‘Mad Men’ era. The line is still being used today. It's a timeless classic and textbook case study. It's a formula that has been copied for decades.
What about ‘Mad Men’ can you still find in the agency business today?
The funny thing is that on ‘Mad Men’, we see the core team doing everything from creative and strategy to media and promotions. The ad industry has shifted away from that integrated approach over the years, but we’re slowly starting to see the lines blur between what makes a digital shop a digital shop, a media agency a media agency, a promotions firm a promotions firm and so on and so forth. It’s not there yet, but agencies seem to be moving away from the segregated, specialized structure we’ve seen in recent years, and back towards the type of one-stop-shop we see on ‘Mad Men.’ Eventually every one of these shops will, once again, simply be called an "agency."
Tune into Insider interviews in February, when we will be speaking with James Connell, VP eCommerce & Marketing for Roots Canada.
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