Ad Age Small Agency Award Winners Describe Life After the Champagne

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Zuligans 3x2
Zuligans 3x2 Credit: Zulu Alpha Kilo

After Zulu Alpha Kilo won an Ad Age "Small Agency of the Year" award in 2016, Frank Zulu started getting invitations to speak at conferences and even an inquiry to buy his agency.

But there was one little problem: Frank Zulu, the bombastic founder and "Chief Executive, Executive Officer" featured prominently on the company's website, does not actually exist. The agency's parody site is designed to be a "piss-take parody of the industry," to poke fun at the traditional agency model and weed out potential clients or recruits who don't appreciate the humor. That didn't stop a few people who wanted to team up with the agency after the win — and didn't do their homework.

"We had to respond to people and let them know it's a joke," Chief Creative Officer and CEO Zak Mroueh said.

Zak Mroueh, Chief Creative Officer & CEO
Zak Mroueh, Chief Creative Officer & CEO Credit: Zulu Alpha Kilo

Zulu Alpha Kilo and other agencies that have taken home the gold for "Small Agency of the Year" the past few years -- including O'Keefe Reinhard & Paul and Muhtayzik Hoffer -- said the award drew widespread attention, attracted new clients and even predated an acquisition. The Small Agency Awards honor outstanding independent shops with 150 or fewer employees. This year's conference will be in Nashville on July 18 and 19, with two days of speakers, panels and discussions.

For Toronto-based Zulu Alpha Kilo, winning meant a lot of interested potential clients, so many that Mroueh says he's lost count. The year since the win also brought the agency's first U.S. client win, New York-based Wink.

The company also picked up work for Whirlpool Canada and Stella Artois in Canada. But Mroueh said the company remains thoughtful about taking new business, and not just because it hasn't done spec work in years.

"It's easy to sort of be tempted by all the opportunities that come your way, and I think you have to be selective," Mroueh said.

2x3 Tom O'Keefe
2x3 Tom O'Keefe

For O'Keefe Reinhard & Paul, a Chicago-based agency, the 2015 win came before work for Groupon and Gildan. OKRP was behind Groupon's "Have" and "Have Dones" campaign, which rolled out in May 2016, and Gildan's new "Not Your Dad's Underwear" campaign.

"Even though we have a lot of veterans who have been in the business for a while, (OKRP) is still a startup," CEO Tom O'Keefe said. "Winning something like that definitely helped us kind of take it to that next level in terms of legitimacy and credibility … Anybody wants to make sure that they're dealing with something that can be around, and having an award like that made it sound like we're in this to stay."

Muhtayzik Hoffer, the San Francisco-based shop that won the Small Agency Award in 2014, has had a big few years since. The company was acquired by U.K.-based agency VCCP in May 2016, then officially opened its New York office late last year — the first of what it hopes are more offices around the U.S.

"It's still early days, but everything has been awesome so far," Eric Perko, head of media and associate partner, said of the merger.

Eric Perko, Head of Media, Associate Partner
Eric Perko, Head of Media, Associate Partner Credit: Muhtayzik Hoffer

Perko said the agency has also won clients like Audi of America, AAA and online personal finance company SoFi, which it did launch work for. "We were doing a lot of really cutting-edge guerilla tactics, like projection mapping on former bank buildings with the overall brand message of 'don't bank,'" he said.

He said the award helped Muhtayzik showcase the ways "small can be good."

"You don't want to stay super small, but winning an award like this gives you the momentum to grow at the pace you'd like," he said.

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