The New Establishment: From MD to AD

How Michael Romaniuk’s work ethic and unconventional background put him on Zulu’s (and Canada’s) creative radar.

Michael Romaniuk - Headshot

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of strategy.

Michael Romaniuk must enjoy leading a frantic, sleepless life. Outside of his day job as an art director at Zulu Alpha Kilo, Romaniuk and his fiancé run an award-winning gluten-free and vegan dessert business, which includes a line of baking mixes. He also helps oversee a historical building redevelopment in Hamilton, Ont., while somehow finding the time to compete in swing dancing championships.

But, to Romaniuk, it all ties together.

“The best place to find inspiration is outside the ad world,” he says. “It’s about noticing all the little details in life. The more random stuff you have floating around in your head, the better off you are in this industry.”

It took only two years for Romaniuk to become a go-to art director at Zulu. His boss Zak Mroueh is not shy with his praise for the 30-year-old. After working alongside him on Tim Hortons, an award-winning KitchenAid campaign and Coalition for Gun Control initiatives, the founder and CCO told strategy that Romaniuk “is one of those rare and gifted creative talents that don’t come around often.”

In his first year as a full-time creative, Romaniuk landed on the Creative Report Card at #89 (this year he’s #16), won a Grand Prix in the Carte Blanche contest for KitchenAid’s “City Colours” (which also won LIAA Gold) and earned Bronze in the Cannes Young Lions’ film competition. He returned to the fest for a Gold in 2019.

While it’s not rare for talent to rise quickly in advertising, it’s rare when it arrives with no formal training. When Romaniuk knocked on Zulu’s door in 2018, he had zero agency experience. He’d just finished five years studying to be an emergency room physician. All he had was an unconventional self-promo and a disguise that got him past reception.

Romaniuk’s always been pulled towards both creative and scientific endeavours. At school, science won out and he went into pre-med at McMaster University. But while volunteering at hospitals and working emergency response on campus, his natural creative drive continued to emerge. Working in the school’s anatomy lab, he became a medical illustrator to scratch that itch.

Surprisingly, Romaniuk’s path towards professional art direction began in 2016 when he was asked to develop a branding platform for a medical conference he was helping to organize.

“They knew me as the guy who dabbled in Photoshop, the PR guy,” he says. “I had this idea of creating a post-apocalyptic wasteland out of McMaster University” and showing gas-masked responders being first on the scene. Romaniuk taught himself AfterEffects and turned the campus into a fiery ground-zero for a campaign video he spent 90 hours producing. Diving in like that made him realize how much he loved the creative process. Something had to change and he left medicine behind.

Romaniuk discovered Zulu while flipping through awards annuals and was drawn to its creative output and policies on not doing spec work. To finagle an introduction, he and copywriter Patrick Godin (whom Romaniuk went to high school with) designed a self-promo mailer – “No Spec Specs” eyeglasses – that they delivered to Zulu while dressed as “FedUp” delivery workers.

The “FedUp” schtick got them a meeting with Mroueh and half an hour later (while still in uniform), Romaniuk was put to work on branding RGD’s DesignThinkers conference. Mroueh says he had seen similar hire-me stunts but was drawn to Romaniuk’s attention to detail when tailoring the mailer to the agency’s branding.

“Michael is the real deal,” the founder adds. “Within only two years, he’s had a mind-bending creative run and an astonishing impact at Zulu.”