Agency A-List – Zulu’s Branded Content Year

Hot off the heels of its "Say No to Spec" video, the shop is picking up new clients and making a name for itself globally.
Lily & The Snowman

Lily & The Snowman

Who knew painting a canvas could be such a tough decision.

But for Zak Mroueh, CCO and founder at Zulu Alpha Kilo, he deliberated over whether or not to paint over the giant canvas in the front lobby at Zulu. It had seven years’ worth of drawings, doodles and inscriptions from staff, clients and even his own children. Each brush stroke had been documented by a wall-mounted camera that captured every moment of the painting’s creation.

But as Zulu was about to celebrate its seventh birthday, Mroueh decided he wanted to start with a blank slate.

Painting over that canvas last fall seemed to mark a symbolic shift at the agency – the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Now eight years old, Mroueh says the shop still retains its start-up mentality. However, in the past 12 months, it seems like everything has been firing on all cylinders.

At last year’s Agency of the Year awards, shortly after the repainting, the shop unveiled its “Say No To Spec” video, comically asking people outside the agency world to provide free work.

“Our firm stance on spec work is something we’re proud of. For our clients, it means we are able to remain fully focused on their work without the distraction and upheaval that creative spec work demands of an agency,”

The video went viral. At press time, more than three million people have watched it on YouTube and Facebook and it’s been translated into other languages in markets worldwide. It put Zulu’s philosophy at the centre of a news cycle globally where Mroueh was invited to explain his stance in trade and consumer publications. (Notably, it was Adweek’s sixth most read article of 2015 and their 11th most read piece of all time.)

Ironically, since the original video went online last November, Zulu has had the most new business calls in its history. The shop has welcomed seven new clients, including Harley-Davidson, who have been directly attracted to the agency for its creative reputation, strategic leadership and track record for driving their clients’ business growth.

“Our firm stance on spec work is something we’re proud of. For our clients, it means we are able to remain fully focused on their work without the distraction and upheaval that creative spec work demands of an agency,” says Mroueh. “We consider ourselves very fortunate to work with a set of premium clients who value true partnership. They appreciate that we don’t divert the creative resources they pay for away from their business.”

FROM LEFT: Pets With Credit: A Dogumentary; #SayNoToSpec

Work it has done for clients has also gone viral, such as the incredibly successful “Lily & the Snowman” campaign for Cineplex.

The touching piece of branded content connected emotionally with Canadians. In the film, a young girl befriends a snowman that comes to life. He creates cinematic shadow-puppet tales for her with his stick hands as we watch her grow up. But, the pair drift apart as she gets older and busier with life, before she finally reconnects with the snowman as an adult, with her own child in tow.

The film features a cover of Genesis’ “Follow You Follow Me” performed by singer Adaline and has garnered more than 30 million views on Facebook and YouTube. The song itself even shot onto the Canadian music billboard charts.

FROM LEFT: Zulu’s latest work for ParticipAction shows forgotten sport balls with sad emoji faces and ends with the surprising call to action “Don’t visit our website.”; Cineplex’s animated short film, “Lily & The Snowman,” racked up more than 30 million views on Facebook and YouTube. In the U.K., it was voted one of the top ten Christmas films of 2015; Zulu’s digital team was proud when an independent study by Seevibes ranked Audi Canada as the number one most engaging brand on Twitter.

“When the work is amazing, it propels momentum for more winning ideas,” says agency president Mike Sutton. This momentum included an eight-page feature article in the spring issue of the prestigious Communication Arts annual. Zulu is one of only a handful of Canadian agencies to ever be profiled in those pages. The agency also picked up countless awards, including a couple of CASSIES, CMAs and a coveted One Show Gold Pencil. In the past year, they attracted top-tier talent, including new ECD Allen Oke and chief strategy officer, Heidi Philip.

And the shop continues to grow. Zulu is now up to 84 staff, and continues to expand its content creation facilities. Mroueh says the agency’s in-house content division is becoming a potent force in the Zulu arsenal, and is especially attractive to clients. Most recently, zulubot picked up much praise for its Interac “Dogumentary” about a dog who gets a credit card.

FROM LEFT: To promote the strength of Bell’s mobility network, zulubot produced five clever online and TV films; Interac “Dogumentary” Pets With Credit surpassed two million views in its first week; In 2015, Zulu helped Corona overtake Heineken as Canada’s number-one premium import beer.

Amid the expansion, Zulu stays focused on retaining its unique indie ethos. Playful, a little outsider, faithful to core principles, and forever evolving – as Mroueh has strategically invested in refining the agency’s skill set and offerings so Zulu can nimbly produce content solutions as marketers’ needs change.

“Despite our ‘no creative spec’ policy, the agency continues to grow with premium clients. And we’re ready for the next brave client who wants to bust open a category with us,” says Sutton.

The Agency A List stories originally ran in the June Cannes issue.