Chris Raih and Brian Ford first met on the rooftop at Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., where they worked on the Nike Basketball business. It was an auspicious meeting. In 2006, the pair left big-agency life behind and founded Zambezi, based in Venice, Calif.
The 26-person shop is named for the shark that populates the African river of the same name, because the fish is "resourceful, adaptable and undeniable." Also, it's just a cool name. Mr. Raih, 28 when Zambezi got off the ground, says his "Rolodex wasn't super strong" but he and Mr. Ford had "a lot of belief and hustle."
"We took our lumps, as most companies did during the global financial crisis," Mr. Raih says. "Our growth stalled, but we've punched things back, and I'm happy to say we've come screaming out of the recession."
Zambezi has tripled its number of full-time staffers in the last year, is moving to bigger digs Labor Day weekend, and is about to open an office in Shanghai. The Shanghai office will service Li-Ning; Zambezi is the global agency of record for the company's basketball business. But Mr. Raih says the office, which will initially have a staff of three, should also position the agency to support western brands that are expanding to China.
Already Zambezi has an impressive client roster, including Champs Sports, Vitaminwater, PopChips, the L.A. Lakers and Beats by Dr. Dre, among others. And, recently, the agency produced a Jennifer Aniston "Sex Tape" for Smartwater, which went viral, with nearly 10 million views on YouTube and extensive media coverage across five continents. (It's safe to say that Mr. Raih's Rolodex is slightly bigger these days.)
"Sex Tape," Mr. Raih said, is the kind of work that stems from an agency where the staff is diverse, hip to the latest trends and adept at managing multiple constituents. The staff hails from the U.S., Philippines, Australia, Italy and Sweden, and they have backgrounds in public relations, film production, design and brand management. There are former college athletes and stand-up comedians.
"We've tried to keep our group as diverse as possible," Mr. Raih said. "We're not all ad guys and gals. We thought it would be uninteresting to have a bunch of large-agency clones."