2021 AOY Silver: Zulu Alpha Kilo takes control of its future

The indie agency is continuing to invest in its people by leaning into a learning culture and focusing on its values.

Zulu Alpha Kilo (Updated Oct 3)

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of strategy.

Businesses across sectors are grappling with the fact that employees are taking a hard look at their careers and where they want to work.

Zulu Alpha Kilo hasn’t had to massively rethink its approach to recruitment or retention – largely because making employees feel valued has long been its focus.

“We’ve been a values-driven company from the beginning, so if people are examining their values, that’s a benefit for us,” says president and CEO Mike Sutton.

For a while now, Zulu has offered an “Employeeship,” which gives recent advertising and design grads full-time jobs instead of internships. Staff can take sabbaticals every five years, with an established process for checking in about career development and the company’s own goals. Even Zulu’s policy of never participating in spec work has “saved people their lives and their weekends,” says founder, CCO Zak Mroueh.

“Every agency loses people, they leave eventually,” he adds. “What’s interesting is that there have been people who got offers but decided to stay. [They] realize that, yes, they can work for a great network shop, but they like working for Zulu because they know where they stand with their career plan and how their values align.”

The new 20Doors Scholarship Fund – which offers 20 students tuition to complete a year-long undergraduate course in copywriting or art direction over the next five years – is a newer example of where the agency’s values lie. While the scholarship was started to remove hurdles for BIPOC entering the industry, Mroueh says it also shows people who are on the path to other creative fields that advertising is an option, and it has further strengthened the talent pipeline to Zulu.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” he adds, “but we know people are leaving the industry, so to stay competitive, we’ve got to show people there is a place for them.”

Far from resting on what it has already done, the agency is “taking control” of its future culture, Sutton says. It took ownership of a new office building in early September, and being its own landlord gives it the freedom to build what Sutton calls a best-in-class hybrid work environment. And that will be huge for the agency – it plans to continue giving its 130 employees the flexibility to work from home, though the hope is that the 15,000 sq. ft. space is the kind of office people are excited to return to when they need.

Zulu will continue to invest in its people. For example, Sutton says roughly three-quarters of the agency’s work is in some way digital, thanks to investments in the development of its staff – which it continued by ensuring all of its employees are Facebook and Google certified.

“Leaning into this ongoing learning culture at Zulu immediately paid off, and we’re having even better, different conversations, strategically and creatively, about the work we’re doing with clients,” he says.

The last piece needed to move forward on that future fell into place in April when Sutton was promoted to CEO. His appointment concluded a “reengineering” plan Zulu began exploring in late 2019, sharpening the vision for the work it wanted to do and how it would grow.

“I was involved in way too many things, always all over the place and in every single decision, and that wasn’t the way I wanted to work anymore,” Mroeuh says. All told, the reengineering included several promotions and nearly 20 hires, including head of design Stephanie Yung and ECD Brian Murray.

Much like everything else Zulu has done, one thing will shape how the plan continues from here: its people.

“The pandemic forced us to realize that we aren’t going to grow just by growing revenue, it’s about talent acquisition,” Mroueh says. “Talent has always been the secret sauce to success. The next part of the plan is to move to other markets, and even that is really about getting the best talent from around the world.”

New business
ENMAX, D2L, Ottawa Senators, Waterloo Brewing, Campbell’s – Kettle Chips, Burnbrae Farms

New hires
Maura Kelly, Alexa MacDonald, Hayley Blackmore, Risa Kastelic, Kara Oddi, Emily Anzarouth, Chris Rosario, Stephanie Yung, Brian Murray, Jeff Watkins, Dejan Djuric, Juan Torres, Dane Boaz, Laura Biggar, Ola Stodulska, James Graham, Ece Inan

Staff
130

Cow

1. Most modern money-savvy adults think that insurance is expensive, yet few will put in the effort to find a better rate. So for the launch of insurance aggregator Rates.ca, Zulu developed the “Don’t Get Milked” campaign, which embraced the common metaphor for overpaying. In a series of TV and online videos set in an auto repair shop, a woman’s car is hoisted in the air with cow udders below. A seen-it-all mechanic quickly diagnoses her problem: she’s getting milked on her car insurance.

Feeding Imagination - Case Board

2. For Goldfish, the agency created a purpose-fuelled “Feed Imagination” platform, which featured real children’s stories in book, billboard and video game formats.

subaru-made-to-2-008b635bdd82abf79e20f0248f
3. The “Made to Be a Suburu” campaign showcased its vehicles across various integrated executions, one of which featured the Outback being released into the wild like an animal, reflecting its made-to-be-outdoors spirit.

catch the scame
4. The “Catch The Scam” platform for HomeEquity Bank was created as a masterclass to teach retirees how to identify scams they’re being targeted with.

Screen Shot 2021-09-13 at 3.17.02 PM

5. Ontario law requires riders to wear a helmet, even if it means Sikh riders remove their turban. So Harley-Davidson and Zulu created a “Tough Turban” made of impact-resistant material so they didn’t have to choose between safety and their beliefs.