Wrestler co-founder and chief executive Ben Forman has slipped into the 2019 Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 list at the ripe old age of 29. Forman is one of only six New Zealanders to make the list this year, and the only Kiwi in the media, marketing & advertising category. We chat to him about life as a young CEO and his vision for the future.
What was your journey to becoming CEO and co-owner of Wrestler?
I started out in the same way everyone else in my industry does: creating parody rap videos with my mates during study leave in our last year of high school… I failed school. From there I managed to get into uni and studied media and marketing, continuing my rap career and also hustling for some cash on the side by filming corporate gigs. After a little internship at Idealog back in 2008, I realised online video was the future, so I had that tucked in the back of my mind before heading into the film industry in Wellington, working on The Hobbit. That didn’t last long, the culture was gross and the amount of creativity was zero. I then worked out that registering a business in New Zealand is really easy, and before long I had four of them: a corporate video company; an online music course; a luxury travel agency (where my wife and I would film luxury hotels in exchange for accommodation and food while travelling the world); and New Zealand’s first commercial drone company. After a few years of doing that and working alongside virtual reality startup that my wife was part of, 8i, we decided to refocus our efforts. Kat (aforementioned wife) joined the fold and we created Wrestler, putting all of our love into a creative agency that works across various mediums with human centred storytelling at its heart.
How has Wrester evolved over the years?
We initially had a strong focus on video, and we still do, but the scope of our storytelling has expanded well beyond that. Instead of getting video briefs and adding a dash of creativity to those, we’ve been more and more a part of the strategic conversations up front, helping steer the clients towards where their audiences are and then creating content that engages most with them. This looks like fully integrated social campaigns to virtual reality activations or even games. We like to think of ourselves as the meat between the sandwich of a brand agency and a media agency. We take a brand position and amplify that to audiences across various platforms and mediums through great storytelling.
We also started creating our own content, both in a traditional documentary format, with a series called Frame for The Spinoff, and a few VR and transmedia projects, with development funding from the New Zealand Film Commission. The future of Wrestler is a separate studio focussing on original content. We’re also building a new physical studio in Wellington with an indie post production facility as a part of it. We’re hoping to run our own work through there but also have space for local creatives to muck around and make some cool shit.
On top of all of that is a real focus on values-driven work. We don’t want to make more content for the sake of it. We want to create content for brands we believe in and stories we believe in. We want to impact culture, shift the needle and hopefully add something positive to this world.
Should brands be paying attention to the development of AR and VR?
Yes, but it’s more that they should be looking at all media and the constant evolution of platforms and distribution technologies. It’s not enough for a brand to play in one or two spaces, everyone needs to think of themselves as a broadcaster now, and that means telling your story in all sorts of ways to all sorts of very targeted audiences. It’s hard work getting your story out there now, you need to be so disciplined and focussed on exactly who you’re talking to, and then you need to craft your content to deliver their wishes. If VR or AR is a platform your audience is going to actively engage with then go nuts! If not, then don’t waste your money.
What’s the best thing about working for yourself?
Putting food on the company card. Jokes! Not jokes. To be honest it’s hard to say because I’ve always done it. I don’t like to be told what to do, and generally, I have strong views about how things should be done, so having the ability to just make a decision and go with it is how I like to operate.
What’s your biggest success?
Wrestler for sure. We do great work, we have a great culture and we have a really strong brand through years of awesome relationships. I pitched the concept of Wrestler into a successful company about eight years ago when I first started, and they said ‘Nah we’re all good’ so I decided to just do it myself. And now Wrestler is almost at the same level that company was at back then, so in a weird way I feel like I’m only just getting started.
What keeps you up at night?
My 9-month-old crying. Aside from that I do overthink things a lot. Mainly about business issues, opportunities and the future. Also, a lot of time goes into thinking about the fit-out for the new studio. It’s a 600sqm space with three editor suites, a small cinema, a photo studio/motion capture studio and then a whole bunch of other agency spaces. I’m doing most of the design as I love interior design, but shit it’s stressful. If I fuck it up it’s gonna be a costly fuck up, and my staff will be like ‘good one…’.
Do you have any advice for other young creatives entering the industry?
Do work that you believe in and that aligns with your values. Don’t get sucked into the commercial world and get your soul sucked out of you by some corporate. They benefit from your creativity and you’re left with nothing but some cash. There’s more to life than that. Also, work out if you’re a commercial creative or an artist. If you’re an artist and you have to have it your way, then be an artist, just know you’ll be poor for a while, and that’s cool. You could strike gold down the line though.
What’s your game plan for the future?
Continue to grow the agency and our storytelling offering, working with bigger clients with bigger budgets and doing more of the upfront creative thinking. We also want to work with clients to role out content strategies that see us creating stories for them over a period of time that adds up to a stronger brand narrative. That’s how you get big results.
Then there’s the original content. I want to make a food show and I have the first draft of a film I want to make. Kat’s got a bunch of amazing VR and transmedia projects we want to see get funded, and who knows what else will pop up. We’re super excited about that side of the business. More to come on that. Watch this space.
We also want to help foster a greater creative economy in Wellington. All the big agencies are in Auckland and it’s lame. Wellington makes more interesting work, in my opinion. We want to help bring the focus back here.
Will the robots take over?
For sure! We’ll still end up working more though. Its makes no sense, does it? Humans are funny creatures. I’m also cool with AI being the next evolution of humanity. It’s far more efficient and could be so much more powerful. Humans aren’t showing much worth on this planet at present I would say. If you were the planet what would you prefer, a single supercomputer with the brain power of eight billion people, or eight billion people cutting the shit out of you?