Lifting the Lid on Creative Wellington

Home to the central government, a thriving film industry, the Royal New Zealand Ballet, two universities and a more than generous distribution of incredibly steep hills, Te Whanganui-a-Tara has built a reputation as the heart of New Zealand’s creativity. But how does that translate into advertising? Caitlin Salter speaks with Wellington creatives to learn more about the close-knit industry, quirky creative and Wellington as a challenger brand.

In early 2021 Wellington became a stage with the ‘What If The City Was A Theatre?’ programme. Outsiders might have done a double-take at unicorns and mermaids dancing in shop windows, but Wellingtonians barely batted an eyelid. It’s just another day on Cuba Street.

Wellingtonians are a proud bunch. In the Nielsen Quality of Life Survey (2018), 89 percent of respondents rated the city as having a ‘good’, ‘very good’ or ‘extremely good’ quality of life. But the secret to Wellington’s success in these rankings is in Wellingtonians’ honesty. The cliche of the city being unbeatable on a good day is always said tongue-in-cheek because Wellingtonians know most of the time the weather is horrendous.

Measuring on sunshine alone, the city’s climate looks good on paper. On average, Wellington receives about 87 days of sunshine per year – slightly more than Auckland’s 84 days. But clearly that’s not the full story (everyone knows about the wind).

Wellington NZ GM Marketing and Communications Anna Calver says Wellington’s wild weather and its reputation as a creative hub go hand-in-hand.

“We’re a really wild place, the sun isn’t shining everyday. Therefore you get really interesting, talented people who are attracted to that environment. It makes the fabric of this place quite different to other urban centres where the sun is always shining.”

Wellington is not alone. Chicago, Manchester and Amsterdam all have reputations for being hives of creativity, despite also being known for inclement weather. 

“It’s not an accident,” Calver says.

The population is just 542,000 (being generous and including the region), compared to the 1.6 million people who call Auckland home, but that’s part of its charm. Despite being the capital of New Zealand, Wellington is what is known as a ‘second city’, Calver says.

“We’ll never be the largest city in New Zealand, so you can’t compare us to Auckland, which is always going to be bigger and more successful in economic terms. We need Auckland, the rest of the country survives because we have a city like Auckland.

“It’s a fun thing that people often like to compare the two cities, but the size of Auckland makes Wellington a challenger brand. We have to push ourselves to compete with Auckland because there are more jobs there so it’s harder for us to retain talent.”

Formerly a hub for television production in New Zealand, it looked like Wellington might lose its footing when the studios started to shift away in the 1980s and shut up shop for good in the 1990s. But the explosion of Peter Jackson’s ‘Wellywood’ in the early 2000s put Wellington firmly on the map as a one-stop-production shop.

In the agency world, Saatchi & Saatchi Wellington was the jewel in the industry’s crown through the 1990s – at one point it ranked in the top 10 agencies globally (Advertising Age). But a shake-up in the early-to-mid 2000s saw other big players entering the once monopolised Wellington market. Global network agencies like FCB, Clemenger BBDO and VMLY&R are now joined by ever growing independents like EightyOne, Wrestler and Stanley Street. 

As the nation’s capital (in 2013 Wellington was ordained ‘the coolest little capital in the world’ by Lonely Planet) and seat of central government, working in the public sector is Wellington-based agencies’ lifeblood. 

Government town 

During the national lockdown for Covid-19 in 2020, the abundance of government work was a lifesaver for many Wellington businesses, including Wrestler. CEO and founder Ben Forman says they didn’t have to downsize because government work kept them more than afloat. 

“We were lucky when Covid hit because we already had the Police as a client and we did the Covid response with them, as well as working with the Ministry of Education. We became like an essential service during lockdown which was wild. We worked our butts off.”

Wrestler, which Forman co-founded with his wife Kat Linlott, has been built as an agency that has Wellington at its core. An office opened in Auckland only lasted a few months because, Forman says, the working culture was just too different.

“Wellington is a lot more casual, there’s no dog-eat-dog mentality here. As agencies we are collaborative – we invite each other to our Christmas parties, there’s no rivalry or tension.”

Simply put, Wellington is too small to be a dick, Forman says.

“People don’t live in Wellington because it’s the best city in New Zealand. There’s more to do in Auckland, the weather is better, even the food is better now,” Forman says. “You live in Wellington for the mindset, and that’s an openness and because nobody takes things too seriously.”

It’s this perspective about the realities of living in the city that pushes the best creativity, Forman says.

“Wellington is great if you can leave it because it always inspires you to do more. If you were in a city where there was so much going on and you were always having to keep pace, you might lose that sense of wonder about what else is out there.”

Wellington’s reputation as a small city with a plethora of government clients can mean local agencies have to assert themselves more to take a bite out of Auckland’s private sector pie.

Interestingly, Wrestler managed to get a bigger foot in the door by signing with global brands – not just local ones. Working with Allbirds, which is based in San Francisco, has been a game changer. 

Wrestler first worked with Allbirds to launch the brand in 2016, and released two campaigns in 2020 ‘The Dasher’ and ‘What’s in a Footprint’ – the latter starring very proud Wellingtonian Bret McKenzie.

“Having a solid foundation of government clients is so reassuring, but we’re getting more and more private sector clients now, and big ones too. We’re starting to escape the trap. The market in Auckland is servicing Auckland just fine, our sights are set on the international market,” Forman says.

“Wellington agencies are separate from the mainstream vernacular – Auckland is the epicentre of New Zealand which creates a sense of homogeneity. We use that to attract international clients because Wellington has a bit of an edge and is a bit more abstract.”

Having a city full of creatives also doesn’t hurt when it comes to staffing campaigns. Up-and-coming actors, scriptwriters, comedians and production staff all turn to advertising when between jobs. The only trouble is, the disconnect between Miramar’s film industry and the rest of the city. Getting creatives to stay when the film industry is so dominated by contract workers can be a challenge. 

“If you don’t have enough of the supply of that work, you will lose people. People tend to move to Auckland with no intention of coming back, so in that sense there is a talent shortage,” Forman says. “The other side of that is Weta, which has so much talent. We do get people from that space because we’re in the VR/AR world but it would be cool to see Miramar blend with the rest of the city.”

Wellywood v Adland

Long-time Weta Digital animator Victor Huang may have a solution for that. After working for Weta on-and-off since arriving in New Zealand from California in 2004, Huang has recently left the company to focus full time on his own agency – one that is currently nameless.

“All the work we get is through referral so I’ve never got around to naming it, I should probably look into that,” he says.

In the meantime, Huang has plenty to keep him busy. The studio space in central Wellington has become a hub out of which TV shows, commercials and brand video creative are produced – most of which are for international clients. 

Recently, the studio has worked on campaigns for Swiss supermarket chain COOP and the Spanish branch of telecommunications company O2. An upcoming campaign for the Vietnamese food company Chin-Su features seven flavours of instant noodles personified as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A finished video for Air New Zealand was canned last year because of Covid-19.

The basis of Huang’s agency was to provide another opportunity in animation and production outside of Weta Digital – particularly for those who ride the tide of contract work. The aim is to keep them in the city when, traditionally, other opportunities can only be found elsewhere.

“There is a massive amount of talent in Wellington, and Weta Digital will always grow and shrink depending on what they’re working on throughout the year. But the problem is there was no alternative place to work if you wanted to stay in animation and visual effects.

“That was a big motivation for opening up this space. Because there is a big cache of artists working at Weta, you have access to a huge amount of talent.”

After working all over the world, Huang is embracing all that the city can offer and says he loves the distinctly Wellington opportunities here. For example, what could be more Wellignton than a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop at the front of an agency? Evil Twins coffee keeps his clients and passersby suitably caffeined at all times.

“Everyone wants to collaborate on cool stuff here. I haven’t found that anywhere else, it’s very unique to Wellington,” Huang says. “It’s not about money or position or getting somewhere, people just want to help out. I’ve noticed it’s not like that in Auckland.”

Taking Wellington to the world                                                                                                            

After 19 years working in Auckland, VMLY&R Wellington Managing Director Fleur Head packed up her life and moved back to the her hometown in 2018.

“I was attracted by the chance to work with Wellington social-change clients to make a meaningful difference to Aotearoa. I was also really passionate about disrupting the traditional agency ways of working and attitudes. The culture in Wellington is more nimble and open to innovation and change, which suits me.”

According to Head, Wellington is small enough that any charlatans in the industry get found out rapidly. As a result, the quality of people tends to be top notch, she says.

“There’s a vibrancy, open-mindedness and refreshing lack of bullshit in Wellington. […] It’s a place where you can do very meaningful work and grow a business at the same time.”

Working in the Wellington office of a global agency is always going to be a different experience to working for a genuinely local independent – but Wellington people are Wellington people no matter who they’re working for.

“I see it as our role to influence and lead the global network, not the other way around. We are ahead of other countries in so many ways. We have the ability to innovate and implement change rapidly, learn from our mistakes and pivot again.”

Inserting that agility and Kiwi can-do attitude onto the global stage is important to Head. Just recently she presented at a virtual global meeting with 18,000 employees and was also invited to share a karakia to commence the proceedings.

Auckland has come knocking on EightyOne ECD Chris Bleackley’s door multiple times, but while each time he’s seriously considered the offer, all it has done is make him want to make Wellington work more. He’s worked in London, Paris and New York City, but he thinks there’s just something about Wellington.

“We should feel very lucky to live here. Nowhere is perfect but I think we get more things right than wrong so I’m glad I live here. I’m a kid from Liverpool, so to me it’s like a tropical paradise.”

Being able to have a social conscience helps make the agency world in Wellington so exciting, and it’s a big part of EightyOne’s portfolio. In 2020, EightyOne launched the ‘Safe Night’ campaign for Women’s Refuge to both raise awareness and find a solution to women and children needing safe accommodation away from family violence. 

By July 2020, nearly 40,000 ‘safe nights’ had been gifted, 32 percent above the fundraising target. 

“It’s rewarding work. They came to us with a need to turn their reputation around and the campaign is working very hard. It’s an example of us working with clients to help solve business problems. We always want a more long-term commitment in relationships with clients.”

Wellington agencies love to take a punt, and be a bit edgier. During the heat of the US general election last year, EightyOne was banned from Twitter multiple times for the ‘Trumbers’ campaign criticising former US President Donald Trump. 

“Changing the world seems like a lofty ambition, but we want to change it in as many ways as we can. We want to make a difference, cause as much trouble as possible and have fun doing it,” Bleackley says.

Working smarter

EightyOne sister company DOT Loves Data is also based in Wellington, with clients all over the country. CEO and founder Jason Wells was working at Y&R when he noticed a lot of briefs could be answered better if the client’s data could be used more. In the six years since the company has grown fast and Wellington is the perfect place to nurture that growth, he says.

“There is a practicality in Wellington. You have to do things differently here because we’re not as big as Auckland – so there’s a desire to get on and do stuff. Wellingtonians have to be more agile because we don’t have the private sector clients in the same numbers as Auckland.”

DOT has plenty of public sector clients to keep them quiet, including Waka Kotahi NZTA, ACC, Ministry of Education and Police, but they also work with big names in the private realm. The Warehouse, NZ Rugby, Spark and Kiwibank to name a few. 

“The public sector is Wellington’s bread and butter. We work with amazing government clients here and with councils throughout New Zealand. It’s really interesting work,” Wells says.

More than a schtick

Windy Wellington, Wellywood, Coffee Capital of the World… Wellington NZ has been showcasing Wellington as a creative place consistently for 15 years, but it’s not a manufactured reputation. People flock to the city for the universities and secure government jobs and stay for its walkability, closeness to nature and genuine people.

“Our environment inspires our creativity,” Calver says. “You don’t have to separate urban life from nature here which makes it a great place to live. Wellingtonians do things with purpose, create change and contribute to a better society. They make Wellington what it is.”

This article was originally published in the March/April 2021 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

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