Indie Influence: Zambezi’s ‘Craft Services’ holiday auction spreads joy to communities in need

Zambezi's replaced holiday parties with their annual "Craft Services" auction, pairing handcrafted work with local charities

Welcome to Independent Influence, a series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies across the country. This week we're featuring Zambezi’s annual 'Craft Services' holiday auction.

We’ve long known of what to expect at agency holiday parties. Spiked eggnog, secret santa, old carols blasting over the public address system. For the past five years, Los Angeles-based Zambezi has done away with advertising traditions and made one of its own - its 'Craft Services' holiday auction.

In 2013, partner and creative director Kevin Buth dreamt up the idea of doing something a little different to the boozefests that round out the typical agency business year. “Instead of just getting drunk” said Buth. “I was thinking of creating a holiday event that had some meaning, a party that allows us to do something for someone else.” The auction sprung forth from this, one with the mindset that creativity can come from anywhere—swimsuits, framed dollar bills, handmade sculptures—and one that can have purpose behind it.

“Everyone at our shop is creative,” Buth said, “even if you’re an account person or a strategist someone at the front desk. What we wanted to do was create an environment where people can bring in whatever they want, as long as it’s handmade.” That was the idea behind the name of the auction, “Craft Services”.

Buth considered previous work he did with non-profit 826Valencia, a “pirate supply store” that doubles as a creative writing center for children, and partnered with sister store 826LA (the “time travel mart”). In the first iteration of the auction, Zambezi raised over $5k for the charity.

In the years since, the auction expanded the items up for grabs got more creative, and the charities became more varied. One year, the bicoastal non-profit Story Pirates, that helps children turn its original stories into sketch comedies. Then there was Alliance of Moms, an organization with a goal of breaking the intergenerational cycle of babies born to teens in foster care. And in another auction, Free Arts for Abused Children, an art therapy organization.

Will Leather Goods also partnered with Craft Services; Buth laughed about walking into its flagship store to purchase its Give Will backpacks. “They have a ‘buy one-give one’ deal,” not unlike other social enterprises like Warby Parker, he explained, where one purchases a backpack and a second one goes directly to a child in need at an underfunded school.

“We walked in one day and requested $1,500 worth of backpacks,” Buth laughed, “and asked if they’re gonna match them. They looked at us like, ‘Uh, we don’t really do that.’” They did.

There have been some great items auctioned off, including a freestyle rap session and a handmade sharksuit, but there’ve been some terrible ones as well. “One of my least favorite things was this cardboard furniture,” he laughs, “a table and a chair—and I papier-mâchéd some art on it. It sold for six bucks!”

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Creating the auction items gets competitive, but in a fun way. “The thing is, we let people let their guard down. A lot of people are worried in a big meeting to speak up and voice their creative opinons or suggestions, but when it’s done in a format that’s for someone else, then it sort of allows and gives license for those who think that, even if they’re not creative to at least try.”

Buth, who’d been with the agency for over 9 years, considers this one of the great assets of Zambezi, “We really embrace creative suggestions from any role. I really mean that: people constantly say that this place is creatively-led, the creative is respected within the walls, it’s collaborative, and people feel comfortable knowing they don’t need to stay in their lane, which is great.”

He’s stepped back since pitching the idea years ago, and the torch of holiday goodwill has been taken up by other Zambezi employees. “People have taken it on and ran with it. It takes a team of three, four, five people in an organization to get together and want to get something done. There’s a little bit of cost from the company itself, but a big amount of support.”

Advertising is a service industry, after all, he says. “People forget that. You truly want to be of service to something this time of year. It just feels good."

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