Emerging stronger, more creative and scrappier

Zulu Alpha Kilo's Zak Mroueh on what will help the industry pull through hurdles like layoffs and pay cuts: its people.

By Zak Mroueh

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of strategy.

Dog-1_185A8151_CropIt’s human nature to want certainty in our personal and professional lives. In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, it’s impossible to have.

What I can say is, just like every defining moment, we’ll search for meaning. Our eyes have been jolted wide open to what matters. People have come together in ways never imagined. There are silver linings that point to a path forward for our business.

I discovered that COVID-19 was about to hit a crisis point while away with my family in March. That morning I planned to turn my cell phone off but took one last peek. I then learned the gravity of the escalating situation back home.

After scrambling to organize an emergency conference call, we decided to close Zulu’s office immediately. It was Thursday, March 12. Looking back, the speed of that decision was critical.

I booked us return flights the next day and started working on COVID-19 briefs from home. With our partners at Tim Hortons, we collaborated on work that went to market in record time. For Subaru, our now virtual agency created one of the first tributes to frontline workers within 24 hours. It was instantly approved and on air at lightning speed. Days later, the brand was flooded with grateful calls and emails.

Our industry can act with incredible speed and agility, so why don’t we always? In normal times, we tend to overthink things. As one of Zulu’s most successful clients told me years before this crisis, “Our secret weapon is we make decisions together faster than our competition.”

As March payroll approached, I decided to stop taking a salary. The next day, my executive team voluntarily took a significant reduction in their own pay. My wife and I were teary as they offered it up.

During an all-staff video call a week later, I got choked up again as I outlined the magnitude of what the entire industry was facing. For the first time in Zulu history, we had to lay off some of our staff. We shared the reasons and all the protective financial measures we had taken to ensure we would come out of this strong.

It was the toughest moment of my career. I was horrified by how this news would go over. But the response was overwhelmingly empathetic. Several staff at various levels volunteered to take pay cuts of their own. Being transparent and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable has brought our agency closer together, just as it has our relationships with clients who have opened up about their business realities.

Through this, I’ve realized that good news is easy to share, but bad news is vital to share. In a post-COVID world, companies that embrace a deeper level of transparency will retain more staff, attract the best talent and have thriving cultures.

Those cultures won’t have to exist in a physical workplace. They’ll exist in the people. The fact that our agency’s camaraderie is stronger now despite a displaced workforce has challenged my belief in our need for conventional office space.

Working remotely has forced us to build better resourcing systems overnight. We have daily Capacity Reports for every discipline and person at Zulu. Not only creative. We know exactly who’s busy, needs help, and has bandwidth to pitch in. It is a tool we’ll be keeping permanently.

To thrive in the new economy, we’ll all need to be as efficient and productive as we were while away from our offices. And continue to be flexible about where and how we work.

This time apart has reminded me what I love about the industry and who it’s always been about: people. They’ll go above and beyond when you least expect it. The adage “your most valuable asset goes up and down the elevator every night” couldn’t be more relevant than it is today. The companies that value this will emerge stronger, more creative and scrappier than ever.

Zak Mroueh is the CEO/CCO and founder of Zulu Alpha Kilo