2019 Digital AOY Bronze: Zulu Alpha Kilo goes deeper on data

Data and creativity play nice at the Toronto agency, where strategy and facts are seen as "creative jet fuel."

Zulu Alpha Kilo Group Photo
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of
 strategy.

Since its founding eleven years ago, Zulu Alpha Kilo has operated on the belief that “the world needs more creativity,” says Zak Mroueh, the agency’s founder, CEO and CCO, from a boardroom in its labyrinthine offices in Toronto’s east end.

That founding mantra guides everything Zulu does, Mroueh contends, from deciding not to participate in spec work pitches, to remaining independent, to treating strategy and creative as one discipline. To this day, the founder believes what differentiates his agency is its “genuine passion and maniacal obsession with the end creative product.”

The world is not the place it was eleven years ago, though. Big Data has led some creative thinkers to push back against numbers superceding old-fashioned intuition. But Mroueh believes the two can happily co-exist, and he’s structuring Zulu accordingly – without, he says, losing sight of the agency’s original purpose.

“A lot of companies are changing themselves to be about data,” says Mike Sutton, president of the Bronze Digital AOY shop. “Our data practice hasn’t completely changed the purpose of who we are as a company – it’s enhancing our ability to be more creative.”

Within the last year, Zulu’s data team has been “instrumental” in helping some clients transform their social strategies, which at times has involved posting content less frequently, Sutton says. Its capabilities have helped clients revise their online strategy for the better, with “higher engagement, more positive sentiment and improved content.”

Earlier this year, Zulu promoted brand innovation director Sean Bell into the new role of group strategy director, content and innovation. Bell leads a multidisciplinary team working on strategies, digital properties, social platforms and emerging media. The group was behind “Earning Curve,” an award-winning branded podcast series for Interac that helped the brand connect with small business owners.
Often collaborating with planners and creatives on the floor, Bell says his role entails having “one foot in the present and one foot in the future” in order to identify opportunities where data can inspire or bolster an idea.

As it has outgrown its original office space, Zulu is expanding into adjacent buildings, which has led to divided departments, with the exception of the data team, which sits comfortably on the same floor as creatives (and Mroueh himself).

“We sit the creative with the data analysts and have them ideate and collaborate together to bring the best of both worlds into the conversation from the beginning,” says Bell. “For some of our clients that have rich, first-party data sets – where they have transactions rolling in literally by the second – there are opportunities for creative and data to be equal partners in the development of an idea.”

Mroueh envisions an expanded role for data in the creative process down the road, creating a new kind of team that includes not only an art director, copywriter, planner and designer, but also a data analyst that can help quell concerns around fact-based decision making.

“For the client, [data is] strategy and facts. But we want it to be creative jet fuel,” Mroueh says.

Mroueh keeps Zulu’s future plans for the data team close to his chest. “There are some things I wouldn’t want to say publicly, to be honest… I’d rather do it first.”

He has reason to be guarded. Mroueh says Zulubot – the agency’s content division that launched in 2014 and created Harley Davidson’s “Common Ground” and Tim Hortons’ “The Away Game” – is booming and consists of almost 20 full-time employees. “I’ve had other agencies come by and do a tour,” he says, “and the next thing I know they’re trying to set up a content division.”

Sutton considers Zulubot to be the shop’s “secret weapon” and says its success comes from more than having added editing suites and recording studios. “It’s easy to copy the functional things,” he says. But the agency has a level of expertise that comes from having managed a ton of different work for clients (ranging from short-form to long-form digital videos that eventually aired on TV), says Sutton. In 2018 alone, the studio was responsible for more than a thousand individual pieces of content. “The real unique differentiating point [for Zulubot] is all of the learning and capabilities that we built [over the last five years].”

Key new business
Subaru, Responsible Gambling Council, Fuzz Wax Bar, Noblegen, Senokot, SingleCut Beersmiths, Coalition for Gun Control

New hires
Catherine Allen, Ian Simpson, Rodger Eyre, Gerald Kugler, group CDs; Ryan Booth, CD, design; Susie Lee, Jonathan Smith, CDs; Elliot Riordan, Caroline Sierra-Bornais, Anton Garneau, ADs; Marco Buchar, Susanne Gardynik, Victoria Lee, CWs

Staff
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Digital AOY cases

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Just how do you make it Big in Japan? You use beer, gaming and QR codes. Singlecut Beersmiths in New York was looking to launch its new product, Big in Japan IPA, with a splash. So the agency created the first-ever Spotify-enabled beer that used QR codes to turn each label into a game of “Name That Tune,” directing consumers to a song. Gamified codes were also shared on Instagram to let people know where they could find the brew, creating a new kind of beer game.

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The shop linked Kitchen Aid’s iconic mixer with the star of Toronto’s skyline: the CN Tower. A billboard of the multi-hued mixer changed colours in sync with the tower, showcasing the endless potential for personalization of the product.

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To get people to sign a petition for the Coalition for Gun Control, Zulu gave Candians the opportunity to identify just how close they were to a shooting via an app. Users were encouraged to share staggering findings on social media and to add their signature to the battle against gun violence.