The newly promoted CEO of Zulu Alpha Kilo speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about business chats over dog walks with agency founder Zak Mroueh, the agency’s "2030 re-engineering initiative”, and future plans to drop an album
During the pandemic, agency leaders all across the world have had to step up to manage the crisis for the businesses and their employees. Some have done it better than others. According to Zak Mroueh, founder and CCO of Zulu Alpha Kilo in Canada, one person who really stepped up in particular during the past year was agency president and partner Mike Sutton.
As recognition of that, Mike was promoted in April to CEO, an appointment that's particularly significant due to the fact that Zak has held the post for the past 13 years, the entire lifespan of the agency. Like many agency owners, the pandemic gave him reason to ponder the future and where he wanted to focus his time post-Covid. He is a creative at heart and this move allows him to spend more time on the creative output of Zulu Alpha Kilo.
Mike has been with the agency since 2010. He joined as managing director before being made a partner in 2012 and appointed president in 2013. LBB's Addison Capper chatted with him about taking the reins as CEO, business chats over dog walks with Zak, and the agency's "2030 re-engineering initiative".
LBB> Congrats on the promotion! You were the president before - what's going to be different about this role compared to your previous one?
Mike> Thanks Addison. I was managing director from 2010 to 2013 and promoted to president at that time. I don’t see a drastic change happening with the addition of CEO to my title. I’m working with the same leadership team, same direct reports, and our goals and ambitions are just as big as they were before my promotion. I’ve always viewed my role as being the person who needs to set the conditions within the agency and with our clients to allow great creative work to happen. That means people, culture, the right clients and often that means I’m the one who has to have the tough conversations. If anything, with the new role, I feel like my own expectations of my performance and how I support the agency have gone up since the news of my promotion became public. I guess I feel an even bigger responsibility to continue the great trajectory we’ve been on for many years now.
LBB> Zak, the man with the name on the door (kind of), has entrusted you with his CEO title! Obviously you are long-time partners and colleagues, but how does that influence your approach to running the business, if at all?
Mike> Zak has shown a tremendous amount of trust in me over the years. For an agency founder like Zak to part with the CEO title is the biggest sign of trust there is. The great thing here is that Zak is super excited about it because he gets to focus even more of his time on doing what he loves - elevating the creative product. And from day one, Zak has always been the hardest working Zuligan and I can’t see that changing. So the real winner here is our clients. Will it influence my approach to running the business? Not really is the short answer.
LBB> This promotion comes off the back of your leadership during Covid, which has proved a huge challenge for business leaders for obvious reasons. Tell us about your experiences of the past year, and the ways that you've been working with ZAK employees.
Mike> The last 15 months have definitely been hard. We’ve learned a lot and it’s tested me and the rest of our leadership team. The thing I’m most proud of is that the pandemic has brought our leadership team closer together. We’re better now as leaders and better as an agency having been through it together. Everyone really supported one another. I get chills just thinking about it. The feedback from the broader agency has told us that we’ve done a good job of managing through it and supporting people. The most formative experience for me personally was at the beginning of Covid when we had to lay off some staff. No one knew what was going to happen and we had to make some tough decisions. Zak and I were both in tears in front of the entire agency on a Teams call. Covid has taught me to be far more open with people about how I’m really feeling. As a result, people have been more open with me too.
LBB> It is also tied into the agency's long-term plan - a "2030 re-engineering initiative to prepare for the decade ahead". What can you tell us about that? How are you preparing for that decade and what do you expect that decade to bring to the industry?
Mike> The pace of change in the industry is exciting. And change means opportunity. So, the re-engineering initiative we went through in 2019 and 2020 was all about us saying, “OK, Zulu is really in a great place right now, but what does the agency need to look like in five and 10 years?” We hired an external consultant to guide our leadership team through a process and evaluate the current position of the agency, what has set us apart and ultimately where we will go in the future. What I can tell you about it is that bravery and creativity will continue to be at the core of Zulu. Some of the themes that we believe are critical for the future are speed, customer experience design, AR/VR and data as creative jet fuel.
LBB> Naturally, you'll be working closely with Zak in his role as CCO & Chairman of Zulu. What are your thoughts on that relationship between CEO and CCO? And how will you be flexing that relationship between yourself and Zak?
Mike> In any agency, the CEO and CCO being united and having a shared vision is vital to success. You won’t get anywhere without that. When I came to Zulu in 2010, I knew that Zak and I shared a lot of the same core values - honesty, integrity, kindness. At the same time, he and I are both different in what we bring to the partnership. Staff and clients always say that we complement each other in many ways. And since we started working together, we’ve also become good friends. Many of our business conversations these days happen walking our dogs together. So I don’t see that changing.
LBB> How did you wind up in this industry in the first place? Was it a planned thing or more a happy accident?
Mike> I love that you asked this question because it was a total happy accident. I did a Master’s degree in Business & Technology. During business school, they brainwash you to go into the consulting world. So that was my plan. After I graduated in 1999, I was working at a restaurant waiting tables and interviewing for a job with the big consulting firms. One night, I happened to serve a table of people who worked at a digital agency and I met the CEO. We met at their office a few days later and she made me an offer to join the agency. I turned down the offers I had from the consulting firms and the rest is history!
LBB> What was your first experience of leadership? And how did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?
Mike> My first experience of leadership came through sports. Growing up I had some incredible coaches playing hockey and basketball. They taught me that you can accomplish great things when you have a team of people united by shared values and the same goals. I also learned that you have to have both talent and work ethic. One of those isn’t enough on its own. I also saw how my coaches held people accountable to the team, which is an important part of leadership. My personal leadership style was also shaped by many of the bosses I’ve had over the years as well as some clients I’ve worked with. Early in my career, I’d observe leadership traits that I’d admire in other people and take those on board into my own personal leadership style.
LBB> You are known as a leader and a mentor - but, as you developed your leadership skills, did you have a mentor? If so, who were/are they and what have you learned?
Mike> Yes, I’ve had some wonderful mentors throughout my career. At the time, I probably didn’t even realise that I was being mentored, but looking back I see it clearly. My bosses that I looked up to in my first agency were Allison Greene and Dawna Henderson. Allison was an account director, and she was masterful in how she collaborated with other disciplines and agency partners. Like an orchestra conductor. I learned a lot from Dawna about what it means to be a truly committed agency partner to your clients. She taught me the importance of being direct and honest with clients and then going to great lengths to show support for them. During my five years at Grip I reported into Bob Shanks, one of the founding partners there. The trust and support that I got from Bob was something that helped me grow as a leader. He was an incredibly busy person leading the agency, but no matter what was going on, he always had time for me. I’ve tried to emulate that… damn it’s hard! And in the Zulu chapter of my career, I’ve had two awesome mentors. Zak is certainly one of them and he’s challenged me to think bigger than I could have ever imagined. He’s also one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever met - business is very personal to Zak. Lastly, I couldn’t possibly leave out Merrill Pearce. Merrill has been my executive coach for the past seven years. I’ve matured a great deal through my work with her. She keeps me honest and she’s always asking the most insightful questions that sharpen my thinking and help me get to the answers I’m looking for in my job and my life. I’m forever grateful to all of these great mentors.
LBB> How important is your company culture to the current and future success of ZAK? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely for so long?
Mike> Creativity thrives on talent and culture so it’s something we spend a lot of time on at Zulu. With everyone working remotely it’s made it more challenging from a cultural standpoint, but our leadership team and social committee have found a way to keep it going and ensure that everyone is moving in the same direction. Our culture is radically transparent, so we have weekly all staff meetings that are hosted by a different Zuligan. We share new work that’s launched, and it allows us to put the spotlight on the people behind the work. It’s also a time to share business updates including any new business we’re pursuing, and we love sharing new business opportunities that we’ve turned down and why. It’s an opportunity for us to reinforce our values and beliefs.
LBB> When you're not working, what do you do to relax / stay happy / entertain yourself?
Mike> Me and my family are very lucky to have a group of families in my neighbourhood that we’re close to. We all have kids the same age and we spend a lot of time just hanging out and doing activities with the kids, which is fun and relaxing. Golf is one of my happy places ever since I was a little kid. When I hit my ball off the first tee, anything else that’s going on in life just drifts away and I focus on the game. Mentally, golf is meditation for me. On the creative side of things, I’m a drummer and I enjoy singing. I’m mainly a classic rock guy. I started a band with a couple of friends, and we’ve been writing songs the last couple of years. Plans are in the works to put out an album. Look out!