Over the past two years, Los Angeles-based agency Zambezi has worked hard to grow beyond its sports-marketing beginnings, landing clients like AutoTrader, The Honest Company, Focus Features and The Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. Staffing has doubled, and the agency has brought on C-level execs to head creative and strategy for the first time. Now the woman responsible for overseeing Zambezi’s transformation is moving up, too. Last week, chief operating officer and majority owner Jean Freeman became the agency’s CEO, taking the reins from founder Chris Raih, who moves to the newly created position of president.
"Chris and I have always split up how we operate and run the company," Freeman said. "He's very involved in strategy and creative, and I have always been the engine behind business operations in terms of investments that we make, new services that we offer."
"This shift is really about setting up Zambezi for our next evolution," Raih said. "Jean is ready. She is a rare combination of doer, thinker and leader. Jean has been the key decision maker in everything we have done."
And the agency has been busy. Zambezi recently won a competitive review for the North American business of a major tech company, and will roll out new work for that undisclosed client later this year. On the back of that win, the agency is poised to hit 85 employees and just purchased a building adjacent to their Culver City headquarters that will double the office’s footprint once the interior walls come down.
Billings have increased from $15 million in 2015 to $22 million in 2016, according to Freeman. Zambezi has set its sights on a competitor, Rauxa, the largest independent women-owned ad agency, which specializes in direct-mail campaigns. "We're definitely going to be over $30 million [in billings] by 2018," said Freeman, who hopes to soon outsize the shop and claim that descriptor. "We could be at that point in 2017, but I think that'll be a little bit aggressive."
The growth and management changes signal that the agency is becoming more grown up. In 2006, Zambezi began as a shop dedicated to serving the image of LA Lakers star Kobe Bryant, the primary investor of the fledgling agency. One of the agency’s first projects was his website.
Freeman joined from M&C Saatchi in 2008, as director of operations, and helped shepherd the agency through its first round of explosive growth. It leaned into sports brands, landing new clients like Foot Locker, 2K Sports and Nike and becoming known for work that often featured sports stars and celebrities.
But by 2014, the Kobe-centric vision the agency was founded under began to fade. Freeman and Raih wanted to expand the agency’s offerings beyond sports, and in 2015, they bought out Bryant and Freeman became COO. She brought in Josh DiMarcantonio from 180LA as executive creative director and Kristina Jenkins from McGarryBowen as chief strategy officer. "That was a big signal for us that we were making a commitment to really broadening our abilities and types of brands we could work with," Freeman said. Just last month, Freeman brought on board Gavin Lester as the agency’s first chief creative officer.
Now Freeman’s elevation to CEO puts her in rare company. According to a 2016 IPA study, only 27 percent of ad industry CEOs, chairs or MDs are women. As a woman who is both CEO and owner of an ad agency, she recognizes that she has a platform she can use to advance issues of gender diversity and inclusion in the industry. Until recently, though, it was a topic she shied away from publicly. "I didn't want to be known as just a woman-run business, I wanted to be a successful business," Freeman said. "I knew there were a lot of changes that we needed to do in order to earn that respect, and I feel now the company is in a condition where we can be looked to within the industry and be taken seriously."
Beginning last year, Zambezi started touting its status as a woman-owned agency. It sponsored the 3% Conference for the first time, and the agency hosted events for the women’s mentorship organization SheSays.
The changes are being felt internally, too. Freeman recently introduced three months of paid parental leave for Zambezi employees. And on March 8, the agency is closing its doors for the day to support A Day Without a Woman, a general strike aimed at drawing attention to gender discrimination. "The movement has asked businesses to stand with women by giving them a day off to participate in solidarity," the company said in an internal memo distributed to employees. "Instead of just allowing women to have the day off to engage in this effort, we are extending this to the entire company. Men and women need to be united to support this effort together."
Freeman is also exploring ways the agency can support educational opportunities to increase diversity in the C-suite. (Freeman’s mother and other relatives are teachers). "Our industry obviously focuses a lot on creativity, but understanding business realities and principles is necessary in an executive position," she said. "The way that we're going to see more women and people of color advance in our industry is through education and exposing people earlier to business concepts."
That’s a perspective she learned from her father, who was CEO of the day planner company Day Runner when she was growing up. Freeman followed in his footsteps, heading another notebook scheduler company, Blue Sky. Even the decision to join Zambezi nine years ago was made with the intent of running the business at some point. "I'm involved with a few other companies as an investor and a consultant, so I knew for me to be CEO, I would have to give my full and uninterrupted attention to Zambezi," she said. "I'm at a point now where I can do that. It's just the appropriate time for where we are in the company."