How to Create a Winning Agency Environment that Grabs Attention of Big Brands

By Jason Swenk on March 30, 2016

In this episode, we’ll cover:

First things first. If you haven’t seen this short video called “Say No to Spec Work”, stop reading and watch it immediately. (It was originally featured at Canada’s Agency of the Year Awards in Nov. 2015 and now has had 1.9 million+ YouTube views!)

The video was created by Zulu Alpha Kilo a privately-held, 85-person agency in Toronto, Canada. In this episode I chat with the president of the agency, Mike Sutton, who shares with us the SECRET to their growth over the past 8 years and how they’ve managed to land huge brands like Audi Canada, Harley Davidson, and Corona Canada. (Hint: starts with  “#SayNoToSpec”)

Don’t be a “me too” agency

Mike says the agency’s Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Zak Mroueh, has always made it their mission to capture the attention of big brands and get to the next level. He says agencies are always telling their clients to stand out, be different, and do things that are uncomfortable. However, they don’t “walk the walk” and follow their own advice. For example, ever notice how agency websites all look the same?

That’s why Zulu’s website is one of the most entertaining agency site you’ll see. It pokes fun at the agency industry’s cliches and stereotypes. It’s edgy, it’s funny, and it’s one example of Zulu walking the walk. (I’m telling you that you’ve got to check out their site – it’s pretty awesome.)

5 Steps to creating a winning environment

  1. #SayNoToSpec  At Zulu, they don’t make decisions based on monetary gain. They’re OK with turning down work that doesn’t get them closer to their long-term goals. Spec work is a hinderance and an unfair expectation on the client’s behalf. Just. Say. No. When they implemented this 5 years ago they were turning down 80%+ of their RFP’s.

  2. Focus on long-term dominance. Zulu’s website is just one example of their out-of-the-box creativity. Mike says the humor on the site isn’t for everyone. It’s a turnoff for some – and that’s OK. They take risks in pursuit of new clients. Zulu’s thinking:  If a prospective client doesn’t like their spoofy website, they’re probably not the right fit anyway.

  3. Know why you do what you do. What’s your agency’s purpose? What are your core values? Why did you start an agency? (Don’t say you’re in it to make money. Money is an outcome, not a goal.) Determine your answers and communicate them from the top down. When you know your belief system it makes bigger decisions a lot easier to make.

  4. Be purposeful in your onboarding. Start day 1 with setting the right tone and helping a new employee adapt to the culture. At Zulu it’s an orientation called “The Zulu Way” and it’s a 90-minute one-on-one with the agency founder where a new hire learns expectations and do’s/don’ts of the agency. It sets both parties up for a long and successful relationship.

  5. Hire senior people in key roles. This circles back to not making decisions based on money. You need some experienced people – ones who’ve already made their big career mistakes – in leadership roles. According to Mike, one of the best things they did was hire a seasoned CFO and an IT Director. Stop thinking about how these positions re non-billable. Having senior people in place sets a foundation for success and their value to the agency is priceless.

As you grow, structure your agency for greatness

So wait… the Founder is NOT the President?

That’s right. After about one year juggling the roles of Founder and President, Zak Mroueh, realized he’d rather be working IN the business than ON the business. Zak hired Mike Sutton as agency President to deal with all the “business stuff” that was getting in his way of being creative. Today Zak is the Chief Creative Officer and uses his experience and technical skills to oversee all aspects of creative, while Mike is the President overseeing contracts, billing, scopes, and other business details.

Beneath the top tier of agency leadership, each department has 4-5 layers much like a traditionally structure agency.

Moral of the story: know your strengths. Know your team’s strengths. Be the best at one thing. Hire people to do what you can’t (or don’t want to) do.

That’s all great advice but what with the name?

Why Zulu Alpha Kilo? It stems from the global Nato Phonetic Alphabet, the widely known language often used by pilots (aka: the “Alpha Bravo Charlie” alphabet). It’s symbolic of the agency’s dedication to clarity of communication. And it just so happens to spell Z-A-K, which is the founder’s first name 🙂

By the way – here’s another super cool example of Zulu pushing themselves outside their comfort zone: http://creativity-online.com/work/zulu-alpha-kilo-zulu-blank-canvas/45173

Challenge:  What are YOU doing to stand out? Comment below and share how you separate yourself from the pack.

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