A collision of storytelling and technology: Wrestler’s Ben Forman on the agency’s direction, fostering creativity and helping talent thrive – PART TWO

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.

Read part one here.

Just Playing games

Ben Forman

Alongside Wrestler’s growth, has been the rise of games, with the gaming industry set to reach a net worth of 1 billion by 2024. In New Zealand, that growth is reflected by the development industry growing 13 percent to earn $88.9 million in 2018.

According to the latest survey by New Zealand Game Development Industry (NZGDI), 78 percent of New Zealand gamers are over 18.

Forman calls the growth “mind-boggling” and credits it to the launch of smartphones as mobile gaming has opened gaming up to the world – it’s no longer limited to players sitting behind consoles.

He says there’s now a real demand for games of all different categories of content but as the number game studios hasn’t kept up, there’s little diversity from the classic shoot ‘em up-style of game.

“There’s so much opportunity to give people more than just like these like shoot ’em-up games or zombie games or whatever,” Forman says – so that’s what Wrestler wants to do.

So how do games fit into Forman’s visions of cross-platform story-telling?

“You can use gaming engines to develop worlds with characters and scenes and storylines and stuff, and then you can retrospectively output content from that. You could output a PC game from that, you could create an AR experience from it, or take the characters and animate them, or create 2D content.”

He sees a game being the instigator for a movie, or TV show, or comic book in the future so says: “Watch this space.”

Fostering ideas

And Wrestler isn’t sitting around waiting for people to think about this content. Its studio is also open to creating original IP that can be scaled – hopefully internationally.

“IP is infinitely scalable,” says Forman.

“Ideally we would create the next Star Wars universe but we would come up with an idea that from day one has the ability to work really well in each of these different mediums.”

Knowing not all ideas are going to stick, it’s going to try a number of ideas across different mediums, take those learnings and establish what resonates best with audiences before doubling-down on the best idea.

One of the ideas already in its portfolio is Frame, a video documentary series broadcast on The Spinoff. The series shines a light on local stories that are otherwise ignored by mainstream media and it’s been so well received, it’s received further NZ On Air funding for season two.

And while Forman and the team are brimming with ideas, they don’t have to come from within Wrestler’s walls. Forman wants Wrestler to be a place where anyone can come and foster their ideas.

“That’s kind of part of the whole studio thing is to be super open to an inviting to people with interesting ideas because we just want to make cool stuff.”

By opening its doors up to the others, it hopes to be a place where creativity and talent thrive – a meeting place to encourage the Medici effect.

That idea is what makes its location in Wellington so valuable, as the city has many creatives looking for work between gigs and have their own ideas to bring to life.

“I think Wellington is a cool place to do that because everybody is so cordial and respectful and collaborative and it’s just like, it’s quite easy to do that here, which is great. And there wasn’t anything in Wellington that was like this.”

As well as its ‘Wellywood’ reputation, the capital city also has a reputation for values-based work as the government is a major supplier of client work for agencies.

“Government work is all about values – it’s all about helping people and pushing the country forward,” Forman says, and it’s that thinking Wrestler wants to have across all its work.

Forman says it doesn’t want its work to sell plastic products. Rather, it wants its work to add something to the world.

“At the start of this year we made a conscious decision to be values-driven and that’s where we are starting to pivot our brand and the brands we work with. The work we do is about trying to evolve the collective consciousness of the world,” he says.

“We want to push positive messages – whether it’s around sustainability, equality, inclusion or something along those lines.”

The power of that idea came clear to him earlier this year when he attended the New Frontiers Summit in Upper Hutt earlier this year. There he heard from pioneering minds, but being an Upper Hutt local, he could see a disconnect between the speakers and those outside.

“The people from Upper Hutt don’t know about what those people are doing, so I realised I could take these big ideas and translate them into something that people can get excited and passionate about.

“That for me was exciting and empowering.”

International frontiers

One of the brands it has worked with to promote a positive message is All Birds as it’s focused on sustainability.

It helped launched that brand and in doing so, put the Wrestler name on the world map as Forman says it picked up a few New York-based clients off the back of All Birds.

It was new territory for Wrestler and with that came lessons as American culture is different from New Zealand. Forman says while New Zealanders take a collaborative approach, American’s take an alpha role and will undermine and unpick your ideas if you don’t back them.

It’s learned from that and can now take those insights to help other brands take on new markets.

“Helping brands grow internationally is a niche for us – we can expand that to not only grown New Zealand brands grow internationally but really help any brand that is values-based grow internationally.”

It’s a big vision Forman has for Wrestler and sitting in the studio you can feel the hum of workaround.

But while it’s ready to push boundaries, are marketers willing to let it do so with their brands?

When asked for the advice he as for marketers, Forman says it’s about taking risks getting uncomfortable.

“I have this philosophy that might make me unpopular with marketers, but when talking events and it’s a room full of marketers, I tell them ‘you like shouldn’t really be liked in your organisation ­–you should be the person that when you walk into the room people get nervous about what you’re going to pitch next’. Because progress and creativity are in the uncomfortable.”

He says you can’t evolve and grow if you keep doing the same thing, and with the introduction of more data, marketers have grown comfortable leaning on it to tell them what’s worked in the past without thinking about what will work in the future.

However, taking a second to look back on his own past, Forman has come full circle. Where he was once a budding creator at Rubber Monkey, he’s now the one with open doors for creatives to bring their ideas to life.

“When I look back nine years ago when I went into Rubber Monkey, I had planted a seed for me to build a studio and it wasn’t until I built a studio that I realised I had built a Rubber Monkey of my own.”

And being able to take the road he wants with Wrestler is the joy of being an independent agency he says.

“We don’t have to be anything we don’t want to be so we will probably always just move and evolve and pivot to what the industry needs us to be. As long as there is storytelling and technology involved then that’s where we will play.”

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