Member Profile: Zach Rubin

Head of Business Development, Bonfire Labs

Founded in SF more than three decades ago, Bonfire Labs is an SF based creative studio notable for its soup-to-nuts approach to creative services as its repeat client list, which includes Google, Adobe, HPE, GAP, Fitbit, and Hims & Hers.
Zach shares how a flexible, multidisciplinary approach and being scalable as hell is essential to longevity in the marketing world.

Bonfire Labs is a creative studio that does it all! Could you give us the elevator pitch?

We combine the services offered by an ad agency – upstream thinking about brand, strategy, creative concepting and storytelling, with the speed, flexibility and execution of a production company. We make all our own work, shoot it, edit it, and do all post production in-house. And we make friends in the process.

Tell us about the people you work with.

We’re a design-focused, tight-knit team of 30 full-time employees and a rotating freelance staff spanning artists, producers, directors, and technologists. Our collaborative approach means everyone has knowledge of production, design and the creative process. Most importantly, our flexible approach drives everything we do in terms of deliverables for clients and how we work, think, and run our business.

What types of projects does Bonfire Labs typically take on?

We develop strategy, brand platforms, integrated ad/marketing campaigns, broadcast commercials, web content, social media, launch films, tacos—we make it all!

We’re scalable as hell. Our flexible model lets us adapt our process, talent, and timeline to any project. We can come in anywhere along the strategic, creative or production cycle to own projects A-Z or work on pieces with our clients. Flexible and scalable (as hell).

Can you share some details of a Bonfire Labs project?

We’re in our fourth year working with Google on Google Career Certificates, which provides job training and job placement at tech companies and in other desirable industries for people who might not be the best candidates for a traditional four-year college experience.

Courses encompass highly marketable job skills, like project management, IT support, and UX design. Applicants include first-generation folks who were educated in their home countries but don’t have a degree from a US institution, making it difficult for them to transition in their careers. We’ve also seen uptake among people who are older, changing career paths, or affected by the pandemic and seeking change.

For the first year, we worked on a fully integrated launch. The second year, we focused on people who went through the program, profiling them and sharing their stories. During the third year, 2023, we built upon that foundation with user-generated content, posting around 100 pieces of content across various social channels. Now that we’re in the fourth year of this project, we’re creating the coursework that people engage with to become certified.
We’re really proud of this as it shows long-term relationship building, flexing all of our skills from strategy and creative concepting through live-action production and post, to education and incorporating AI. Plus it’s a project to feel good about: we’re providing training for jobs and work placements for people who might not otherwise have had these opportunities. Go team!

The marketing landscape is always evolving. What new developments are you most excited about applying in your work?

Our DNA is built on creative exploration and constantly trying new things: technologies, processes, hiring folks from diverse disciplines. Right now, I’m most excited about AI. Shocker, right?

We’re seeing that AI combined with traditional creative and production techniques can lead to some killer stuff. I don’t think we’re at a place where we’ll be replaced by robots anytime soon—it’s not like we can just click the AI button. It’s about using AI as another tool in our belt to make compelling, and rad ideas and content for our clients.

How does Bonfire Labs position itself to keep up with the rapid pace of content and the corresponding needs of brands?

The core word is flexibility. Every brand is set up differently and needs different things, so as we engage, we shape our process, team, and approach to the client’s needs rather than the other way around. At traditional agencies, we saw rigidity—almost an adversarial relationship between clients and the agency—and teams pushing back on client input, framing it as a fight for a pure creative product. The output from this mentality was occasionally great, but it was a pain in the ass on both client and agency to get there. Plus, the approach led to tension and short relationships.

At Bonfire, we foster a creative environment where we collaborate with our clients to build healthy, long-term partnerships. As a project-based business, we’re earning the next job with our performance on the current one. We strive to be the folks you call again after you’ve worked with us once not only because the output was great, but the process was enjoyable too.

Tell us about a service that reflects your flexible approach.

We have a unique approach to branding called Rapid Brand Prototyping, purpose-built for fast-moving startups, tech brands, and companies poised for their next stage of growth.

Historically, a branding agency would gather information from a client and come back to them in six months or a year with a brand bible of do’s and don’ts set in stone. When we were on the receiving end of those brand bibles, we discovered they didn’t account for the evolving media landscape and weren’t expansive enough to work for video, animation, or motion.
Brands in the modern day and age should be developed and consumed the same way software is developed, where you’re constantly iterating, testing, and learning by putting things out in the market and seeing how customers react. Based on that real-time feedback, we can make the brand “book” more of a living document versus a bible. Move fast and break things. Someone should copyright that.

What does success look like for you?

Success for us means continuing to grow intentionally while moving brands further, faster. That might mean taking what they’re already doing and building on it—perhaps a simple explainer product demo, a high-level brand commercial, or rapid brand prototyping. We’ll define what they need and move quickly to get that creative product out into the world.

We don’t want to be 500 people with ten offices around the world—growth for us is not necessarily swelling as we take on more clients, but securing more work from the clients that we already have and expanding with new clients in different categories. We like to be involved in our existing relationships, continue to produce effective work and have fun in the process.

What would you say is Bonfire Labs’ greatest accomplishment to date?

When you consider the bread and butter of a business, it’s organically growing your current client base alongside retaining and bringing in new clients. The thing we’re most proud of, our 10-year-plus relationships with some of the biggest brands in the world. We’ve worked with Google, Salesforce, Adobe, Logitech, HPE and meta. We’ve continually grown those relationships, getting in with new product groups, doing new projects, and expanding our offerings.

We put our blood, sweat, and tears into answering every brief. Our clients keep coming back because we offer high-quality output of creative products and the process is enjoyable! Well, for that and my great hair.

Are there any significant changes you see coming in the industry?

Historically, people coming out of school were focused on one discipline: you studied to be a copywriter or graphic designer, or you’d start your career as a production assistant before being promoted to editor or producer. Now, everyone’s a generalist: with all the tools accessible on their computer or laptop, graduates are shooting and editing videos, doing their own graphics—even making high-end CGI using AI. I’m excited to see those people grow up in this world and see how they creatively influence marketing and advertising with their multidisciplinary thinking.

How does your CANOPY Membership support you in your role?

For many years, Bonfire had a physical studio a couple of blocks from CANOPY in Jackson Square. We decided to go fully remote when our lease was up at the end of 2021. Previously, we were all Bay Area-based and working in person, but during COVID, our people spread out to Tahoe, LA, and all over California. We have a production office in Ciel shared creative space in Berkeley, and our business address is a Private Office at CANOPY Jackson Square. It was supposed to be a short-term solution, but we were really happy and stayed. Our office at CANOPY enables us to maintain a smaller footprint while providing an upscale, bespoke base for team members and access to beautiful conference rooms in a central location for creative meetings with brands and prospects. Also Brian’s jokes and cortados don’t hurt.

What are skills everyone should master?

Listening more than talking, and staying positive and curious.

Do you have a favorite podcast or playlist you’d recommend to anyone?

Speaking of listening more than talking, I always like to ask people what they last listened to on Spotify. Or what they’re reading. Or watching. Or experiencing. I can talk with someone about their experience and where they work, but to be good at this job, you have to be curious about people and culture.

I’m not judging them on their taste — I’m interested in how they respond, and what moves or excites them.

I grew up in Los Angeles where hip-hop, punk rock, surfing, and skateboarding were huge parts of my life. And they continue to be today. Weird mix, I know, but those are some of the things that define me. I’m happy to talk with you about waves, DJ Premier or sneakers.

Do you have a place that you love to travel to?

I’m lucky to go to the Big Island of Hawaii a couple of times a year. And I’ve surfed all over the world. I also love to walk the streets of any major city as you can learn so much about people and, in turn, yourself. You can go to all the museums you want, but there’s no better experience than sitting at a café or bar, anywhere from North Beach to Les Marais, watching the world go by.

What’s your favorite thing to do in the SF Bay Area?

Hang with my wife, kids and King Charles Cavalier, first and foremost. When I’m bored with them you can find me eating and drinking in North Beach. I also love to surf, run, and workout. Which counteracts all the eating and drinking.

Follow Zach on Linkedin and. Follow Bonfire Labs on Linkedin and Instagram @bonfirelabs.