Following Wrestler’s move to a new studio space, Erin McKenzie went down to Wellington to check it out and talk to co-founder and chief executive Ben Forman about how it’s opening opportunities for clients and creatives.
Take a trip to Wrestler in Wellington and you may be forgiven for heading to the wrong address as August saw the agency make a new home for itself across the road.
Bigger than its previous space, Wrestler is now home to a number of different studios, a cinema room, and quiet places for ideas to grow. But on top of it being a place of work, Forman wants it to be a cool place where local Wellington talent goes to hang out.
And don’t be fooled by the cinema room as it’s not just work for the screen Wrestler is producing. The agency is a producer’s dream, home to everything you’d need to bring stories to life in digital, social, video, VR and AR mediums. It’s no surprise Forman says “storytellers” when asked what he wants people to think when they see the Wrestler sign.
“It is a horribly wankery word but it is the one word that would sum it us.”
The moment of inception
Forman’s journey to this point started in his student years when he found an interest in identifying emerging technology and marrying it with storytelling.
At the time, he was making parody rap music with a friend when their work was spotted and they were invited to produce content with Rubber Monkey’s film and audio equipment.
With that help, their videos became good enough to be aired on TV.
Those video skills were then used to turn news articles into videos when Forman interned for Idealog magazine. At the time, YouTube was a toddler, with cat videos being the main feature. No one was using it form commercial gain and he saw the opportunity.
With this realisation, producing video content became his main passion while on the side he was studying media and marketing at university.
After graduating, Forman found himself working on The Hobbit in a role that had him assisting production staff and crew, with one of those being American designer and businessman Jim Jannard. He’d founded Oakley and seeing Forman’s entrepreneurial ambition, offered him the advice:
“If you can learn to block out the false perceptions of even your closest friends and family and believe 100 percent in what you can do you can achieve whatever you want.”
Since then, Forman has added the disclaimer: “Within the realm of physics” – however, looking at Wrestler’s work, he hasn’t stuck to that as Wrestler is transporting audiences to different worlds through virtual reality and augmented reality.
Armed with Jannard’s advice, Forman quickly registered a few businesses and began to pursue his interest in technology and storytelling.
They included a corporate video company; an online music course; a luxury travel agency; and New Zealand’s first commercial drone company. A lot of work, but the travel agency saw Forman and his wife Kat Lintott exchange video production for accommodation and film enabling them to travel the world.
About his leap into businesses, Forman says: “The worst thing that could happen was I’d have to move home and live with my parents in Upper Hutt – it was a bad case scenario but not death.”
While a corporate video company might not have the buzz to it you’d expect of someone who is all about innovation, Forman says those projects provided good learning in the art of video – “because they’re so boring, any mistake is highlighted”.
“If you film a festival, then that’s easy to make look epic because there are sexy people and cool bands and flashy lights so you just have to push a button because the rest it’s already done for you.”
Alongside this work, Forman held onto his obsession with pairing technology and storytelling and identified the potential of drones in this space.
With the technology still new, he started one of New Zealand’s first commercial drone companies, Sycamore Limited.
The business was a big learning in investing in new technologies and provided lessons in running a business in general, it also had the added benefit of giving Forman a wife in his business partner Lintott.
Today, Sycamore Limited is part of Wrestler and Lintott is the agency’s co-founder and head of VR/AR.
Prior to Wrestler, and alongside Sycamore, Lintott was working at VR startup 8i and it was when she and Forman decided to combine their work in the different spaces that Wrestler was born.
But Wrestler hasn’t always been ‘Wrestler’. When it launched, it was Stem Creative – which did not specialise in science, technology, engineering and math-related (otherwise known as STEM) creative as the name might suggest.
“I’d never heard of the STEM acronym,” says Forman, now reflecting on the name. “But everyone thought that’s what we specialised in.”
He says Stem was doing a lot of work for agencies but came to realise those agencies were focused on money-making TVCs and didn’t want to lean into Stem’s online video approach.
Stem found itself in a position where it could move to be a production house and continue to service agencies, or it could become its own agency. It went with the latter and changed its name to Wrestler in 2016.
Along with the name change came a move to a new studio where a team of four worked from 300 square meters. Forman says at the time people thought they’d over-capitalised, but he was confident if they built it, people would come.
And come they have. Work now keeps a team of about 20 busy, with other creatives and producers brought in for particular projects.
One of its hires has been Kris Hermansson, who joined the team as creative director in August. For the role, Hermansson moved back to New Zealand from Amsterdam where he served as creative director.
The significant growth has been recognised by Wrestler being named on the 2018 Deloitte Fast 50 Index, and this year, Forman was named on the Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 list in the media, marketing and advertising category.