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A Zambezi is a shark that goes by another name—the bull shark. It’s also a Culver City, California–based independent ad agency. In the case of the shark, a Zambezi is cunning and swift, equally at home swimming in the fresh water of a river as it is navigating a sea of salt water. Most fish can only survive in one environment, giving the Zambezi a great advantage that enables it to thrive. In the case of the ad agency, Zambezi is also all about adaptability, able to glide through the waters of myriad challenges, ready to pivot and evolve based on the scenario at hand. Also ideal for thriving.

Versatility is baked into the agency’s work process and identity. “Sometimes it’s in how we answer a brief,” says Jean Freeman, principal and chief executive officer. “Maybe the template we need to go with is not an ad or a spot. Maybe it’s a party. Or a coffee-table book. Other times, it’s in our hiring—we look for people who are T-shaped so they can adapt to different roles.” That idea is embodied by staffers like partner and chief creative officer Gavin Lester, who brings an impressive track record in the ad industry, having previously worked at Deutsch; Goodby, Silverstein & Partners; and Bartle Bogle Hegarty, among other agencies. He’s also a fine artist, working in paint and sculpture. He pulls his maker sensibility and passion for art into the crafting of ads.

From left to right: Erickson Ilog, chief financial officer/chief operating officer; Jill Burgeson, executive director of brand strategy; Chris Raih, founder/president; Jean Freeman, principal/chief executive officer; Alex Cohn, head of content; Grace Teng, executive director, media and analytics; Gavin Lester, partner/chief creative officer. 

The agency decided to reflect how deeply passion informs work in a spot produced for golf brand TaylorMade in 2016. Set to the plaintive song “Waiting Time” by Willie Nelson, snowy scenes give viewers rare glimpses of a golf course in the dead of winter—icicles hanging from clubhouse rafters; golf carts lined up, motionless and carpeted with powder; expansive fields of white where there once was green. Intercut with these scenes are ones of golfers pining for the day the golf course thaws out and they can play once again. One golfer practices with his young son in the living room, hitting balls into a cup. Another stands at his front window, looking out at an icy view, wielding his club and seemingly willing the drifts to melt. The video, titled “The Wait is Almost Over,” plays out as a love letter to golfers. The effect is so moving that even if one doesn’t golf, the work feels relatable.

“Golf is a passion sport, and to capture it is a difficult task,” says Mark Buntz, vice president, global brand marketing at TaylorMade. “What Zambezi has done so well is they’ve challenged us to seek golfer truths that we as golfers at TaylorMade understand—we can’t wait for the season to begin. The spot so elegantly and simply portrays that sentiment. It’s not ‘go buy our product;’ it’s about relating to our audience emotionally.”

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Freeman has contributed to the agency from its beginning, in 2006. Her husband, Chris Raih, whom she met at Fallon years prior, had recently cofounded the agency with private investors when she was recruited as a consultant to help out a couple of days a week. Having been client-side at Nike and Intel, she had skills the then fledgling agency needed—and soon, her role expanded. As her contribution grew, the business grew, and in 2015, Freeman took on majority ownership, with Raih continuing to hold a significant stake. Today, the agency is ensconced in a large, spacious warehouse-style space west of Los Angeles, with a cavernous lobby that serves as a lunch and meeting space. An expansive bar is accented by the jaws of a Zambezi shark hanging overhead. It’s fitting for two reasons: The Zambezi reportedly has the strongest bite of any of its counterparts. And the agency motto is “take bigger bites.” This applies to staff and clients alike. “The culture here is entrepreneurial,” Freeman says. “For people who thrive here, there’s a figure-it-out mentality, and respect at all levels.” Raih adds, “Clients read value in smaller spends. Everybody should think like a challenger—taking bigger bites.”

Freeman leads business and operations, while Raih, who now serves as president, heads select partnerships and business development. At first, the agency focused on entertainment and sports marketing. “After the recession recovery, we realized we needed to broaden,” Freeman says. In true Zambezi style, they embraced change and adapted, earning retainer clients including Autotrader, Venmo and Ultimate Software. “It’s less about the vertical and more the size of business we can service,” says Grace Teng, executive director, media and analytics. “Clients who need rejuvenation work well with us. We’re not afraid to learn from our clients—we treat them as experts.”

Sometimes it’s in how we answer a brief. Maybe the template we need to go with is not an ad or a spot. Maybe it’s a party. Or a coffee-table book. Other times, it’s in our hiring—we look for people who are T-shaped so they can adapt to different roles.” —Jean Freeman

The agency, which currently numbers 80, not only creates the work, but also produces it through its production arm, Fin. With budgets shrinking across the industry and timelines getting more and more compressed, the division gives the agency needed flexibility. Alex Cohn, partner and head of content, says, “We’ve got full production capabilities, with producers, editors, motion graphics. We combine classic agency production with curating the right partnerships with production companies and directors. Sometimes the right answer is to bring everything in-house.”

In 2018, Zambezi also began building a media and analytics department. Led today by Teng, media and analytics works on projects from the inception. It’s an approach Zambezi employs across all departments, upping the level of collaboration among planning, creative, tech, media and accounts. The agency has named the process “cross-comms,” which is followed by “cross-craft.” First, cross-comms kicks off a project with brand strategy, communications strategy, and media and analytics. These combined teams perform a deep dive into the brand, immersing themselves in the business, audience research and media insights. This becomes the basis of the creative brief. The agency believes the process makes for a much more insightful brief, one which sets up the creative work for success. Cross-craft then comes in. Creative, technology and production leverage the brief to generate concepts grounded in key media insights and strategies honed from the very beginning.

For Ultimate Software, the goal has been to raise awareness of the technology company, which earns accolades in the recruitment and enterprise software space but needs increased awareness in the business community at large. “One project that really stands out for me is the What I Was Told campaign we planned around International Women’s Day 2019,” says Darlene Marcroft, vice president of public relations and communications at Ultimate Software. “Last year, Fortune magazine ranked us number one on its annual Best Workplaces for Women list, and we wanted to commemorate this award in a meaningful, impactful way. With the help of Zambezi, we put together an incredible multiplatform campaign centered around a video featuring some of our women who are in leadership roles. From the early stages of concepting all the way to media placement and buying, Zambezi was a key partner in building this moving campaign.” The video shows these women leaders of Ultimate Software sharing stories of obstacles they’ve faced in workplaces. Freeman remembers, “It was incredible how empowering it was to watch these women speak their minds.”

The culture here is entrepreneurial. For people who thrive here, there’s a figure-it-out mentality, and respect at all levels.” —Chris Raih

Teng says, “When we started looking at Ultimate, we saw how niche their audience is. We had to make sure we could reach them—how does one reach a niche audience? First, we did a ton of research. We discovered that this niche is really busy.” Teng collaborated closely with executive director, brand strategy Jill Burgeson. She came up with the idea of finding “stolen time.” “This audience might have five minutes, ten minutes—even in the way they read the New York Times,” Teng explains. “Maybe we should target news, not business. Maybe they’re checking sports and news. So we started placing messages around the way they’re consuming.” Rather than going down traditional, business-oriented paths, like trade magazines, they reached out to the audience through general-audience news and sports.

For the Venetian hotel, Zambezi’s 2016 Come As You Are campaign infused the 21-year-old Las Vegas Sands Corp. property with new energy. In film and print executions, visual tableaux are deftly layered. Each scene is styled playfully, highlighting the uniqueness of the hotel’s guests—namely, you. “Hotel advertising is so often about the property and amenities,” says Lester. “We shifted the lens a bit, onto the guests. That’s where things become fresh.”

Tapping into its extensive roots in sports marketing, Zambezi created an anthem to athletes last year with a spot for Powerbeats Pro by Beats by Dre. The wireless earphones free a gymnast, boxer, dancer, skater—any athlete—to fully realize her or his best performance “unleashed.” In striking out of home, social, in-store and online, viewers were given a window into elite athletes’ workout sessions. Within the first 48 hours of launching, the spot garnered 37.4 million views.

Buntz says, “They’re strategists, they’re planners, they’re creative. They’re kind of a unicorn.” That’s pretty adaptable for a shark. ca

Julie Prendiville Roux is cofounder of Handmade, a full-service creative agency based in Los Angeles. Alongside her work in advertising, she is a screenwriter and author.


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