Zak’s track record of creativity and innovation spans 35 years as a writer, creative director, and entrepreneur.
Over this time, he has been recognized as one of the top creative directors in the world by AdAge and been named Canada’s top CD of the year by strategy magazine numerous times throughout his career.
But it certainly wasn’t an easy road to get there. In 1987, Zak sent over 300 application letters to agencies across Canada and was rejected by every single one. He finally landed a job in the mailroom at Saatchi & Saatchi, followed by a year of writing direct mail copy at Sears. From those humble beginnings, he would eventually work at SMW, Chiat\Day, BBDO, and McCann UK. Along the way, his work was recognized globally with Gold Lions at Cannes and other major international awards. Locally, Zak was consistently ranked as one of the top writers in Canada.
In 1999, he joined a small boutique called TAXI. Under his creative leadership, the agency catapulted to international acclaim and won seven Agency of the Year titles from strategy and Marketing. During this period, he oversaw an array of iconic work for brands like WestJet, Nike, Viagra, Canadian Tire, TELUS, and MINI, helping to cement TAXI’s creative reputation internationally. In 2007, at the height of his success at the agency, he shocked the industry when he quit as a partner and CCO, walking away from his shares to spend time with his young family.
Then, in 2008, he took the biggest leap of his career and started his own agency in the midst of a recession. Fourteen years later, Zulu Alpha Kilo (aka “ZAK” in the NATO phonetic alphabet) is a thriving 130-person shop. His reputation for creating iconic, brand-building work continued with Bell, Cineplex, Interac, Harley-Davidson, HomeEquity Bank, Harry Rosen, and Subaru.
In starting Zulu, Zak set out to do away with many of the antiquated practices of the ad world. He abolished unpaid internships, replacing them with an innovative “employeeship” program that has helped Zulu recruit the next generation of creative talent.
Perhaps best, and most famously of all, he stopped participating in speculative new-business pitches—an industry standard that an agency’s existing clients invariably wind up funding. Instead of chasing new business through the traditional model, Zak’s vision to keep an unrelenting focus on Zulu’s current client base has made it one of the country’s most sought-after agencies. In 2015, he directed a video called “Say No to Spec,” which shone a light on the practice and became a viral hit internationally with millions of views.
Along the way, Zulu has been recognized by international publications such as AdAge, Campaign, and The Drum, as one of the top independent shops in the world. Zak’s proudest career moment came in 2016 when Zulu won Ad Age’s Small Agency of the Year top honours globally. It was the first time in history a non-US shop had ever won that international competition. His agency repeated as Ad Age’s International Small Agency of the Year in 2017 and again in 2021.
In 2018, Zak was featured in Forbes “Top 100 Innovators” issue for his creativity and unconventional approach to business. The journalist behind the feature article? Bo Burlingham, author of New York Times Best Seller Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big. It was a pivotal moment, bringing Zak’s entrepreneurial story full circle, since Burlingham had written the very book that had first inspired him when he started Zulu.
Over the years, Zak has not only been recognized for his trailblazing creativity but also for his business acumen as an entrepreneur, winning recognition as one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies five years running. In 2021, Zulu was elevated to Gold status in one of Canada’s most prestigious business rankings as vetted by Deloitte. That same year, Zak launched a scholarship program for BIPOC students called 20Doors. The initiative is providing 20 creative scholarships for aspiring writers and art directors over the next five years. It’s his way of giving back by opening the door for 20 of the best and brightest minds.
It is thanks to all those rejection letters that Zak has always been a champion of Canadian creativity, knowing the talent is out there just waiting for the right door to open. He’s most proud of seeing many of the creative people he mentored go on to found and lead some of the top agencies locally and internationally.
At a time when the ad industry lacks identity, is dominated by global holding companies, and is plagued with eroding margins, Zak’s visionary creative leadership has established him as a maverick of our industry. Having a fearless mentality and being an industry agitator continue to drive Zak forward each and every day. But his biggest source of daily inspiration comes from his wife Amanda, his sons Noah, Liam, and Rhys, and his dog Gibson.
Not bad for a guy who got his start in the mailroom.