Wrestler co-founder Ben Forman believes values-driven business is the only way forward for the world. (Photo: Supplied.)

The ad agency making business more about people than profit

Anointed by Forbes magazine as one of Asia Pacific’s rising entrepreneurial stars, Ben Forman has a vision for building an honourable advertising industry in his home town.

This week Wellington adman Ben Forman was one of six New Zealanders to be named in Forbes Asia’s latest ‘30 Under 30’ list of the region’s hottest young entrepreneurs. Some might view it as an oxymoron, but Forman wants to do good in advertising.

He co-founded creative agency Wrestler three years ago, and believes values-driven work for like-minded clients is the future for not only his business, but for Wellington.

Wrestler specialises in video production, virtual reality and augmented reality. It aims to “harnesses the power of storytelling across various mediums to create change, impact culture and push this world forward”. Its projects include the launch of merino shoe sensation Allbirds, and campaigns for Singapore Airlines and New Zealand Post.

In true Peter Jackson fashion, Forman believes the windswept capital can become the values-driven advertising centre of the universe. Auckland and the US are too profit-driven, and he doesn’t want a bar of it.

“Where Wellington can offer something different is in doing work that is slightly more human-centred,” he says. “So in a world where brands are increasingly looking to stand out, working with a Wellington agency can help them do that.”

How do you become a Forbes ‘30 under 30’?

You get nominated. I did know a guy who said ‘hey I’ve nominated you’. He got it a few years ago. Thousands of people get nominated, and I got an email at the start of the year saying ‘you’ve been shortlisted’ then asking a bunch of questions. Then I didn’t hear anything until yesterday.

So obviously you’re under 30?

Just. I turn 30 in July. I only had one shot.

You started Wrestler with your partner Kat Lintott. How does she feel that you’re the ‘30 Under 30’ glamour boy?

She gets a lot of press because she’s a female in tech so she’s happy that I’m getting my moment in the spotlight.

You’ve been in business for eight years – how did Wrestler evolve?

Yes, the first business was just me as a one man band, a videographer. The second one was corporate video, and now the third one is a creative agency. So it was a natural evolution, but with very distinct changes of our core offering and our strategic approach.

We were doing a lot of work for advertising agencies and we were kind of challenging their creative and trying to be a bit more agile and modern in our approach to creating content, which didn’t always go down as well, but the clients seemed to like it. And so we had this rub where we realised if we really want to do this stuff we’re passionate about and that we think is the future of advertising we’re just going to have to go out and do it ourselves.

So we became Wrestler. For the first few months it was nerve-wracking because there was no work, but then it just started to trickle in, and then it started to flood in, and for the last two-and-a-half years it has been pretty gangbusters.

You’ve said you’re committed to Wellington because there’s a different quality of client there that is more socially aware. And yet it’s so government-centric, and no doubt conservative – how does that fit with what you’re trying to do?

At the heart of government is people, right? What creeps into the work is you can’t help but always have that at the forefront of what you’re doing.

Personally I feel like the business culture of Auckland is more focused on just profit. And we also found that in the States, like we just got back from South by Southwest in Austin, which is supposed to be the Mecca of ideas and innovation and thought leadership, but we were actually kind of disappointed. The general theme was just ‘more’, it was just growth for growth’s sake, and it wasn’t really taking into consideration how these businesses were positively impacting the world and adding to their communities and culture.

We just feel like that’s something we can really do quite easily in Wellington, and people are happy to push their businesses in that direction. So we look for clients who are trying to do more values-driven work, and we’re trying obviously to do as much of that in our own original content as well.

I think the future of business is going to be values-led, because what else is there? We’ve got enough of everything, we’re at this point of paralysis analysis and so I think it’s the only way to go from here.

It’s an interesting time to be talking about this following the Christchurch tragedy and the Facebook livestreaming debacle. How do you feel about that given you’re making social media campaigns?

I think that’s why we need to be values-driven, because if we as the ones creating content are not putting values at the forefront of it then we’re actually doing harm to society, we’re putting bad material into the media to perpetuate this culture that isn’t progressive. I think we have a massive role to play.

I became really aware of that last year when I was at a conference called New Frontiers. It’s part of the Edmund Hillary Fellowship, global thinkers together in Upper Hutt of all places. I grew up in Upper Hutt, and it was a weird experience and I felt really disconnected to the people at that conference because they were literally global leaders of climate change and all these big issues and here I was, a guy in advertising, and I was like ‘I feel like the devil right now’.

But then I thought about the fact that I grew up a stone’s throw away from that conference and I know what the people are like on the other side of that fence, and they don’t know anything about what’s happening in this room right now. The only way they’re going to turn into anything mainstream is if somebody like me can communicate that. So I went from feeling like an imposter to really empowered to be that change.

And it’s still a journey, not everyone you work with is going to be solving the world’s problems. But it’s like, how can you get some of these messages into those businesses?  Is it casting more diversely, is it showing equality through your story lines, all that sort of thing, it’s not ‘we’re doing charity work’.

But how do you feel about the social media platforms themselves?

I think the whole model is completely flawed. It sounds weird, but the internet just sort of happened and no-one actually stopped and went, ‘wait a minute, how is this going to affect every single aspect of our lives, like it does, and what are the consequences?’ And all of a sudden we’ve got these huge monopolies, controlled by like one dude. It would be physically impossible for him to have enough empathy for all of his users, because how could you care about billions of people all at once?

It needs government to get in there. And they can start by taxing them. The social media companies seem to have this weird god-like ability to do things that other businesses can’t – how can you not pay tax, and how can that be okay?

There are a limited number of clients in Wellington. How do you see the company growing – would you set up an Auckland or Sydney branch?

Our vision is to try and help grow the creative economy which has suffered for the last decade from this big drain of work to Auckland. So many of our creatives have gone up to work in film and television, all of the big agencies are up there now, most of the big head offices are up there and they’re working with the agencies.

So there is this real drought in Wellington of a sustainable creative economy, and the only way we can compete is to offer something different, and this is the crux of my argument. Where Wellington can offer something different is in doing work that is slightly more human-centred. Generally we do have a unique perspective here in Wellington and we can put that into our work. So in a world where brands are increasingly looking to stand out, working with a Wellington agency can help them do that.

So you do you in Wellington, and people can come to you?

Yeah. And sharing the story is a big part of it as well, we need to get out there and show people what we’re capable of. When we helped launch Allbirds back in the day we got a whole bunch of offers from New York-based startups because we could offer them that unique Kiwi sensibility. But we ended up not enjoying that process.

What happened?

New Zealand and the US are so different culturally. Working with Americans, we just weren’t prepared. When you start a creative relationship you almost need to go in and be ‘we are the creative people and you will listen to our ideas and they will be gold, and you will love them’. But we went in with a very Kiwi mentality of, ‘hey let’s work together’, and they just assumed the alpha position and dominated the creative conversation which ended up diluting what we were trying to create. That was our fault, we didn’t understand the culture or how to work there, and so we drew back and reassessed. And at that point Wellington was starting to go gangbusters.

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Peter Jackson is a Wellingtonian through and through and he just decided he was going to do his business from there – is that a model for you?

Yeah. Looking at Peter and Jamie Selkirk and Richard Taylor, they’ve built such amazing empires all here in Wellington and the world’s come to them. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. You can look at them and see that original creativity that is very Wellington.

Wrestler collaborated with The Spinoff on the Frame series of documentaries


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