The Agency Perspective on How Kobe Bryant Made His Mark on Advertising

The star had an impact on people at AKQA, Zambezi and more

"Kobe inspired creativity, strength and vision to bring all people together through wisdom, love and oneness," AKQA's Ajaz Ahmed said. - Credit by Getty Images

While he will always be best remembered as an NBA legend, Kobe Bryant had an impact off the court as well, particularly within the Los Angeles community.

The world of advertising is no exception.

Following the untimely death of Bryant and his daughter Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant (along with seven others) while on their way to Mamba Sports Academy, where Kobe coached his daughter’s team, agency professionals from around the industry shared their thoughts about Bryant’s impact and what they took away from working with him.

“I was fortunate enough to meet Kobe when he was 18 years old, and a long friendship was started. He was a great man, a great father and someone who inspired a generation. I loved and admired him,” said Steve Stoute, founder and CEO of Translation, which was named as creative agency of record for the NBA back in December 2014. “This is yet another reminder that we’re not promised anything. We must live each day like it’s a privilege.”

“What made Kobe Bryant unique among athletes in the marketing space was his commitment to going beyond putting his name on something to putting his heart and mind into it,” said Jeremy Carey, managing director for Optimum Sports, Omnicom’s sports media and marketing division. “Whether that meant being involved in writing the copy or actually investing in a company, he never just showed up to read lines or do a shoot. As he was on the court, he was always 100% in the game.”

Over the course of his career, Bryant appeared in ads for brands including Adidas, McDonald’s, Nike and Sprite. Bryant was an early investor in the sports drink company BodyArmor, even co-writing a campaign for the brand. He also made a direct impact on the agency world as a founding partner at Los Angeles agency Zambezi.

“There simply aren’t any words. Some people seem invincible, immortal, almost extra-human,” Zambezi president and founder Chris Raih said. “Kobe was like that. He inspired billions of people to reach for greatness. Ardent prayers for the entire Bryant family—Vanessa and their three surviving daughters—and all those affected by this tragedy.”

“Kobe was our partner in the founding of Zambezi in 2006, along with Brian Ford. But more than that, he was a giant of willpower and a tenacious winner,” he explained. “That rubbed off on all of us. My God, even the name Zambezi and the backstory of the adaptable, ferocious shark—who does that sound like? He was the Godfather. Simply put, we wouldn’t be here without him.”

Those who worked closely with Bryant spoke of his lasting inspiration.

“Kobe inspired creativity, strength and vision to bring all people together through wisdom, love and oneness. Kobe’s career is characterized by a commitment to equality, encouraging future generations. We all have a responsibility to that legacy,” AKQA founder and CEO Ajaz Ahmed said.

AKQA worked closely with Bryant on House of Mamba, a first-of-its-kind full-size LED basketball court created in collaboration with Nike that utilized motion tracking and reactive visualization for player training based around Bryant’s training regimen. Ahmed said Bryant himself used the court to teach 30 players from across China.


“I’ve spent 20 years working with marketing icons, celebrities and athletes. And not once did any of those legends so thoroughly [dress me down] and inspire me at the same time like Kobe,” said James Bray, executive creative director at Arnold, which worked with Bryant on a campaign for the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit think thank for values-based leadership.

Slightly over a year ago, Bray recalled pitching a concept to Bryant and “trying to match his unmatchable swagger,” he said. “I’m failing. And then, almost as if we were in a huddle during a timeout—as if advertising meetings have a fourth quarter and a shot clock—he leans over to me, looks me dead in the eye, and says, ‘Just don’t be safe. It won’t work if you don’t hit them in the face with it. ‘You know what I mean?'”

To Bray, it was a demonstration of Bryant’s coaching skills. “They empower you to take the shot. To believe in yourself, in your talents,” he said. “I’d been in the ad game for quite a while, and he schooled me just as I’d watched him school so many before. But being schooled by Kobe isn’t embarrassing. It’s actually quite empowering. It actually made me a better creative director.”

For Zambezi’s Raih, who worked with Bryant for 10 years, the main lesson was “to fight self-satisfaction. To ignore the voice that says, ‘I’ve done enough, I’m good enough.’ Because when you think you’ve reached your limit—that’s exactly when to keep punching. Then you reach the next level.”

“But the voice comes back: ‘OK, this is it, it’s as high as I can go.’ So you fight your weaker self again. And you level up, again. Rinse, lather, repeat,” he added. “There are a million guys with more natural ability than Kobe. But he knew the secret: Your main rival is the current version of yourself. So get punching and keep going. Fight the voice of self-satisfaction, answer the call to self-actualization. Thank you, Kobe. Rest in power.”


@ErikDOster erik.oster@adweek.com Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.
@Minda_Smiley minda.smiley@adweek.com Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.