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A small company doing big work


Smart, talented, creative, dynamic - just don't call Zig young and hip. One of Toronto's brightest new agency stars in only its fourth year, Zig might be a baby in the industry, but "If that's true, then I'm a 44-year-old baby," laughs co-founder Andy Macaulay.

Macaulay and partners Elspeth Lynn and Lorraine Tao have built Zig into a 30-person agency since their launch as a three-person shop in May of 1999. In an industry arguably the hardest shaken by the collapse of the Twin Towers, 2002 saw Zig steal the huge Unilever account, increase their business from Danier, contribute to Sleeman's astounding success and not lose a single client. Revenue this year is up 40%.

Their 2002 highlight-reel moment - landing the Unilever account after the demise of Ammirati Puris - caused something of a stir, largely because brands like Unilever's Lipton and Sunlight seem to prefer a more staid, stodgy agency than the young group at Zig. "Au contraire," says Macaulay. "One of the things that struck me about Unilever was that one of the senior clients, the first time I was in his office, had a sign on his wall that said 'Unilever believes packaged goods advertising doesn't have to look like packaged goods advertising.' They work with great agencies, Ogilvy, PJ, and we're lucky to be one of them."

Although almost two-thirds of the 30-strong team has less than 10 years of advertising experience, Macaulay resists the characterization of Zig as an upstart agency of young, brashly impulsive talent.

"It's a lot of smart people. There certainly are some young people here; that's the way this industry is."

Using what he calls his "notoriety as a result of the Roche Macaulay thing" (his efforts helping to bring Roche an unprecedented three Agency of the Year awards before his much-vaunted departure four years ago), Macaulay teamed up with the creative partnership of Tao and Lynn, who had been working together for almost seven years before jumping ship from, ironically, Ammirati. They started small, picking and choosing their brands carefully, making sure never to over-expand or take on more work than they could handle.

That approach proved to be something of an asset after last year's terrorist attacks, allowing them to avoid the huge aftershocks suffered by many other agencies in the new gun-shy economy.

"The past year has definitely been the best year we've had," says Lynn.

One of the most encouraging signs is that Zig's project-based accounts, clients like Sony and online personals firm Lavalife, which aren't committed to retainer relationships, keep coming back with new business. "It's every bit as important to us that they came back this year with new projects as it is that we were able to find work from new clients," says Macaulay.

Another asset is that Zig is owned entirely by Tao, Lynn and Macaulay. "If we said, 'you know, the right thing for this company to do is to take a short-term hit on profitability for example, in order to make sure that as some of our clients cut back we didn't have to let people go,' then we have that opportunity," Macaulay says. "And there's a lot of people in this industry who report to New York and London who don't have that luxury."

"Maybe it's a function of our size, and maybe that we're sort of outside of some of the systemic pain a lot of the other agencies felt, but we didn't really suffer," he says. "I mean, Danier Leather is one of our largest clients, and clearly the retail business took a hit after 9/11. But our relationship with Danier is strong and they just sort of buckled down."

No stranger to controversy, one of Zig's first spots for breast cancer awareness, "Cam," centred on a teenage boy offering to examine women's breasts, and drew irate calls "from people who hadn't seen the spot but had heard a description of it," says Lynn. One woman from Calgary told Macaulay, "You liberal easterners are ruining this country - I don't have to see [the commercial] to know it's wrong." Yet in spite of their hilarious and frankly sexual work for clients like W and Rethink (for which they've created a new campaign involving men with huge bosoms playing gleefully with their new "gifts"), Zig isn't about to let anyone take them less seriously.

"Somebody else called us this, and we really liked it," says Macaulay. "A small company doing big work."

Which is better - emphasizing a brand's strengths or strengthening its weaknesses?
"Yes," deadpans Macaulay. "Seriously though, it depends on the client - in some cases clients have come to us with their brand proposition very broken, and we have to help them fix it. There, it's a question of finding what the latent strengths are and bringing them to the surface. And oddly enough the reverse is true: when somebody comes to you with a winning brand, you actually start first by finding its Achilles' heel, the problem that it's gonna run up against soon, even if it hasn't yet - maybe not in 10 years (God knows if I'll even be alive in 10 years), but certainly in 10 months."

The Year's Most Embarrassing Moment
"Last year's Christmas party was at Andy's home," relates Lorraine Tao. "We were doing Secret Santa and Andy's eight-year-old son, Garett, was unwrapping the gifts for everyone. After unwrapping one of the gifts, he held it high in the air for everyone to see. 'Daddy, what's this?' Garett said. Well, unfortunately for Andy he was holding the biggest dildo anyone had ever seen. Just under the roaring laughter you could hear Andy trying to explain to his son that he was holding a 'spine.' Right, Andy. A spine."