ZAG Creates: A Family Business That's Growing With Its Clients

May 1, 2023

As a regional bank, City National Bank of Florida works closely with the local small businesses that form the backbone of our communities—and economy. For Small Business Month this May, here are the stories of small business clients who have partnered with us for even greater impact.

For over 10 years, marketing and advertising services agency ZAG Creates has been on a growth trajectory—going from a one-client shop to a full-service ad agency with a large roster of clients. The family-run Coral Gables firm is now on the verge of competing for a chunk of Fortune 500 business. And, its interesting backstory certainly has a lot to do with it.

How it All Began

The entrepreneurial journey of ZAG Creates' founder and visionary Zoe Torres started in real estate development, where she worked on multiunit properties and condo conversions. Lance Ladaga, Torres's son and cofounder of the company, smiles while recounting his mother's unusual rise. "She was a force to be reckoned with being one of the only female developers in the Latin Builders Association," says Ladaga, the nation's largest Hispanic construction association, based in South Florida. “She learned marketing by selling those properties."

But, in 2008, the recession halted most real estate development. While undoubtedly a hardship, it might also have been a blessing in disguise for Torres. It was during this time that she reinvented herself, becoming a Spanish language television host, which exposed her to branding, placement—and a lot of networking.

At one event, she came in contact with an executive who was dissatisfied with his ad agency. Torres was able to share a few ideas for a new campaign and that was all it took for her to be hired as a one-woman agency responsible for a large Chicago Hispanic Insurance agency's $5 million advertising budget.

Since then, it's been a family affair. Ladaga joined the team. Then Torres's daughter, Tessie Fernandez, came on as chief operations officer after obtaining her MBA and working in project management for several years. They both helped Torres grow the agency to where it is today—over 15 employees strong and servicing clients that range from local universities to high-profile professional sports franchises.

Here's how hard work, key partnerships, and a little foresight got ZAG Creates to the next level.

Tessie Fernandez, Zoe Torres, Lance Ladaga

A Plan for Growing and New Capabilities

Ladaga, a recent business school graduate when the company first began, saw new opportunities emerging online, so he said to his mother, "Let's take this a step further." Since digital was starting to emerge as the most innovative way to reach new people, "I started really being an advocate for that, to layer it into what we were doing with traditional media," says Ladaga.

With this strategy in mind, ZAG Creates spent the last decade adding clients—including No House Advantage, a fantasy sports betting app; G.O.A.T. Fuel energy drink; Florida International University; among others.

"We started to scale rapidly and brought on staff to manage the workload," Ladaga recalls. As the headcount grew, Zag Creates expanded its capabilities to create video content, run social media campaigns, and even produce live music events, creating custom-tailored approaches for each client.

“We became known for comprehensive, multi-touchpoint strategies. We're able to come up with a central campaign for a brand, then create a plan that touches on all the different channels, "says Ladaga.

Zag Creates surfed a wave of continuous growth for about nine years. Then the pandemic hit, which created the need for a banking partner that understood ZAG Creates' specific situation.

Key Solutions to Surviving Pandemic Setbacks

In the spring of 2020 when COVID-19 hit, potential clients cut budgets almost overnight and the outlook for new business looked hazy. “We were in survival mode like other family-owned businesses," says Ladaga.

Once again, Torres' penchant forming connections proved invaluable. She doubled down on networking through business group BNI, hoping to generate new opportunities to keep Zag Creates afloat. During this time, Torres met Carlos de la Rosa, a City National Bank of Florida Commercial Banker. The bank helped Zag Creates navigate a solution that would allow the company to retain its entire team with full pay and benefits—a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA).

Like most small businesses in 2020, the team had a lot of questions. Would the loan really be forgiven? What would it cost them? “Carlos did a great job educating us—and reassuring us—that we would get through this time," says Ladaga.

With the PPP loan in place, the team survived the first tough quarters of the national lockdown. ZAG Creates then began to experience an unexpected upturn: Brands that needed to pivot from in-store marketing to online were flocking to ZAG Creates for its online and digital expertise.

Strategies for Getting Back on Track

The pandemic stretched ZAG Creates resources, but City National Bank of Florida was able to offer a cushion during a time when it wasn't possible to drum up new business. After seeing revenue sink from its 2019 high, ZAG Creates rebounded to surpass 2019's revenue by 13% in 2021, and in 2022 saw 25% growth with revenue over $2 million.

“We've been able to scale pretty quickly, and we've brought on some new, full-time employees," says Ladaga. Zag Creates' permanent staff now exceeds 15 employees, and they often lead teams of up to 30, including contractors, when projects call for it.

“We're growing as an agency and our clients are growing as well," says Ladaga. At this point, Torres has stepped back from managing day-to-day operations, staying on as chief visionary officer and overseeing key client accounts while also sharing her empowering story through speaking engagements, media appearances, and corporate coaching. Ladaga has stepped into the roles of both creative director and chief strategist.

Having persevered through the challenges of the pandemic with help from City National Bank of Florida, the company is now free to pursue its true growth potential. Ladaga would like to see ZAG Creates in the running for major brand campaigns with Fortune 500 clients.

Small Businesses with Large Capacities

To help fulfill his future vision for the company, Ladaga plans to continue working with City National Bank of Florida as ZAG Creates grows. In fact, he hopes the bank will be part of that growth. "The bank can help by introducing us to other businesses within its clients list," he says.

As two relatively small organizations with big capabilities, Ladaga feels a strong connection between the City National Bank of Florida and ZAG Creates. Both organizations, he observes, tend to fully focus on the needs of the client. “We both have that high-touch, white-glove approach," he says.

Ready to grow your small business but not sure of the next steps? Contact a City National Bank of Florida financial advisor for more information.


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