My career in 5 executions: Zulu Alpha Kilo's Zak Mroueh

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From drunk driving PSAs to a motorcycle cafe, Zulu Alpha Kilo's founder, CEO and CCO prefers the view from inside the box.

Name: Zak Mroueh
Title: Chief Creative Officer, CEO & Founder, Zulu Alpha Kilo
Years in ad industry: 30
First job in ad industry: The mailroom of Saatchi & Saatchi in 1987

Zak Mroueh began his career in advertising with the briefest stint at Saatchi and Saatchi—three weeks in the mailroom.

Over the next decade, he worked at Chiat/Day and BBDO, with a two-year hiatus in the UK to travel and work at McCann. In 1996, he returned to BBDO Canada. Then in 1999, he joined boutique agency Taxi in Toronto, eventually rising to partner and chief creative officer and helping to grow the shop from a few dozen people to several hundred. He created award-winning work for clients like Mini, Nike and Pfizer. 

In 2008, he struck out on his own, founding Zulu Alpha Kilo in Toronto. Nine years later, the shop has grown to 90 people and works with clients like Bell Canada, Cineplex, Corona, Uber and Whirlpool.

"I believe in "inside-the-box" thinking," Mroueh says. "Some of the best work in my career had parameters and restrictions around a problem that forced creativity to happen." Whether an uninspiring brief, a small budget or government regulations, these issues can fuel creativity. "Despite limitations, I like to encourage teams not to look at the challenges they’re facing as creative obstacles, but as winding roads to greatness that have to be overcome. Once you crack the idea, you’ll be thankful the obstacles were there."

Here are the 5 executions Mroueh says have meant the most to him and his career.

Client: FedEx Corporation
Agency: BBDO Canada
Work: "This Ends Up"
Year: 1997

 

The first idea Mroueh—then a copywriter—and his art director presented was shot down by lawyers. A burned and crumpled box showed what could happen without FedEx. "We could have thrown in the towel and said, ‘Well, there goes that idea.’ But we didn't give up on it," Mroueh says. "We found a way around the legal restriction. In the end, we had the lawyers to thank."

This campaign earned Mroueh his first gold and silver Lions at Cannes, as well as his first One Show Pencil. "This was really a career-maker for me," he says, "and it was for a pure medium that I love."

Client: Molson
Brand: Don’t Drink and Drive PSA
Agency: Taxi
Work: "Wheelchair"
Year: 2002

 

Mroueh directed this spot, which grew out of a brief consisting only of the tagline "Don’t Drink and Drive" and a budget of less than $50,000. "Every spot at the time showed the accident or the aftermath. I was struggling to get away from all the clichés of the category," he says. 

On a long walk, a scene from Monty Python’s "The Meaning of Life" sparked the idea for this spot. "This was part of a string of work in the 2000s that helped land Taxi on the Gunn Report’s ranking of the most awarded agencies worldwide, which was a big deal for a Canadian shop, and for my career," Mroueh says. "A few years later, a number of anti-drinking and driving campaigns used the same technique we had used, which was a nice compliment to what we did."

Client: Pfizer
Brand: Viagra
Agency: Taxi
Work: "Golf"
Year: 2005

 

While the Canadian government had approved Viagra as a treatment for erectile dysfunction, it prevented ads from actually naming the condition on the air. "We had to talk about sex without actually talking about it," Mroueh says. "Initially everyone who worked on the brief thought, ‘How the hell can we execute against this strategy with all the restrictions? It's impossible!’" 

Instead, the team simply side-stepped the restriction altogether. Mroueh loved the execution so much, he called the client the night before the presentation to tell her how good it was. "In a weird way, we owe the success to the government. They forced us to think more creatively. This was just one of many successful campaigns we produced for Viagra but it’s still my personal favorite."

Client: ParticipACTION
Agency: Zulu Alpha Kilo
Work: "Don’t visit"
Year: 2016

 

This spot’s end line is one of Mroueh’s favorites of all time, but it almost didn’t happen. A Friday night phone call informed him that the line was being cut. "I just couldn’t accept it so I called and made a passionate plea as to why we should keep it," Mroueh says. "After narrowly escaping death, ‘Don’t visit our website’ was back in."

Fortunately, viewers didn’t listen. The campaign more than quadrupled visitors to the site, and the client’s CEO talked about the ad and the tagline on national TV. "More fulfilling than any of the industry recognition it got was hearing regular consumers and friends talk about the campaign and, specifically, the end line," Mroueh says. 

Client: Harley-Davidson Canada
Brand: 1903, A Harley-Davidson Café
Agency: Zulu Alpha Kilo
Work: "1903"
Year: 2017

Without a Harley-Davidson dealership in downtown Toronto, it was tough to pitch the brand to millennials. So the agency created a motorcycle café where interested customers could test drive bikes designed for city living.

It "was held up globally by Harley as an effective way to engage a new generation of riders," Mroueh says. "To me, it represents how marketing and even my own career has changed over the years. I’ve gone from a writer solving briefs for FedEx using outdoor all the way to creative directing a café for Harley."