Zulu Alpha Kilo's Agency in a Box

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Last fall, Zak Mroueh, founder of agency Zulu Alpha Kilo and former Taxi creative leader, decided to test his own shop's skill at quick creative thinking by setting up shop in a giant white box in the middle of Toronto's Dundas Square for nine hours.

Similar to RKCR/Y&R's recent pop-up agency effort, the Toronto shop welcomed passersby to come inside with any challenge that required a creative solution. Eight agency thinkers, along with some guest participants from the world of architecture, photography, film and design then offered their best, impromptu advice. The agency recently compiled the footage of the experiment and launched a website documenting the Thinking Inside the Box project.

Creativity spoke with Mroueh about working in a box and what the agency learned from it.

When did this project run, and what inspired you to do this?
Shortly after leaving Taxi, I was invited by David Miller, the Mayor of Toronto to attend a dinner. They invited a select group of people from various industries. The topic of the night was how to make Toronto a more creative city. This inspired me to want to do things a little differently for the launch of Zulu. I wanted us to branch outside the confines of typical brand ideas for clients. We wanted to do something that would make the city sit up and take notice. So, instead of taking out a full-page in a trade magazine, we decided to simply bring creativity to the streets. The next day, the event made the national papers. For example, we were really happy that it was featured in the National Post in their "ideas" section rather than the business section. That's when we knew we'd struck a chord with the general public.

The actual event happened last winter but we didn't want to share any more until we had the video and website built. So [this is] the official premiere. It's been an ongoing project for the past six months. We had to sift through 27 hours of footage, plus edit and build the website in between our client projects.

Which of the questions were you most intrigued by personally?
Every question posed a challenge because they had to be turned around quickly. But the most intriguing and challenging question was "how to mitigate the wind in Dundas Square?" Here's what made it tough. A journalist from the National Post showed up minutes before this question was asked. And it turns out the guy asking was an engineer who wanted to stump us. Yikes. I could see the journalist's face turn to a smirk as the question was asked. How the hell were we going to answer that one, I thought to myself? Surprisingly, in the end, it was one of my favorite solutions because it was the most lateral and insightful. How do you make something not seem so bad? Make it far worse and then it won't seem so bad. If you explore the website, the video solution goes into more detail.

Did you end up acting on any of the questions posed?
Everyone that participated left with samples of the ideas and the work. Most people told us it was the most "bizarre thing" they've ever participated in. They loved it. The purpose was to show Toronto that ideas can happen anytime, anywhere and even in an instant. It was less about the solutions. More about the creative process and getting people to think about adding creativity to their day. That being said, some executions were used by the participants ie: Halloween costume, church event and the wedding invite. We are trying to make the "Cube of irresponsibility" come to life. It's a large glass cube that would have thousands of discarded, used cigarette butts spinning around in a vacuum. We've costed it out and are seriously considering building it as a pseudo art piece/social commentary.

What were some of the more unusual questions you got that are not featured on the site?
Other questions included things like "If Toronto had another hockey team, what would you name it? "How do you get more people to vote?" and "How do you make Toronto a world class city?" Believe it or not, there weren't a lot of strange requests. As word spread in the square, people told their friends. Pretty funny that people would just stand around looking at nothing. I guess they were imagining what was going on inside. The questions were all posted live to the surrounding screens in the square. We had live feeds showing us working inside.

How did this pay off for you as an agency?
The box has been used by us in various ways. It's an inexpensive way for us to test drive strategies with our clients in the room. We've used it successfully in four pitches, all of which we've won. We literally give the clients twenty minutes of our time to see how we work as a team to solve a problem. So, instead of doing spec work, they see our process in action and they're right there with us experiencing the whole thing. It's also a demonstration of our collaborative, interdisciplinary model, which clients love. When you have little time, everyone has to work together to get to a solution. There's no room for ego. Magazines Canada and Giant Tiger called us after reading about this in the national press. Mazooma, a new U.S.-based online cash payment service, hired us after we did a session with them.

When we show clients the site and the video, they instantly talk about wanting to do something unconventional. Puma and Carleton University were struck by the approach and thinking when they saw the video. It was a far cry from the typical agency reel, I suppose. In addition to the free media coverage, it bonded the agency in the early days. It has become part of Zulu's culture and lore. It was a really special day. We literally put ourselves out there, on the street, exposed. It was scary and fun at the same time.

Are you planning to do this again? If so, what would you do differently?
We'd rather challenge ourselves and do something else next time. However, the spirit of the box lives on in our strategic and creative process. Agencies always tell their clients to take risks. We took one and lived to tell about it.


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