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Resn founders Rik Campbell and Steve Le Marquand.

The rebel CEOs of Wellington

Creative storytellers, digital entrepreneurs and social warriors share why this little city is making such a big impact.

Not only is Wellington New Zealand’s culinary and cultural capital, it’s blazing a trail in business. We talked to the ‘rebel’ CEOs of seven Wellington businesses who have taken huge risks, pushed the boundaries and come out on top, making a difference not only in their communities but on a global scale.

Rik Campbell and Steve Le Marquand, Resn

Where do Spotify, Adidas, Netflix and Lexus look when they seek a creative agency that can make their brands stand out in a crowded marketplace? Yep, it is Wellington, where digital design shop Resn dreams up interactive websites, games, 3D animations and mobile applications that have now garnered over 300 international awards.

Founded in 2004, the agency has embraced successive waves of new technology, from the iPhone to the rise of social media, infusing everything they do with, as they put it, “gooey interactive experiences that amaze and stupify”.

“To do that from a distance, we had to build a brand around ourselves with projects that stood out,” says co-founder Steve Le Marquand.

Over 90% of Resn’s clientele is based offshore, served by 42 staff spread between the Wellington office and Amsterdam, which Resn chose as its European base seven years ago to replicate many of the professional and lifestyle advantages of Wellington while overcoming the timezone challenges.

“We had great people who had grown up with us who wanted to go and see the world but didn’t want to leave Resn and we didn’t want to lose them,” says Steve.

Phyo Thu, CEO of animation company Fox & Co.

Phyo Thu, Fox & Co

Myanmar-born Phyo Thu came to New Zealand as a high school student with the intention of going on to university to study architecture. But his plans changed as he was exposed to a string of visual effects-heavy blockbusters that were largely off-limits in his home country.

At Massey University, filmmaker Sir Richard Taylor attended one of Phyo’s lectures and gave the class a peek at some of the visual effects technology that went into The Lord of the Rings movies. That was the deciding factor for Phyo who went on to pursue a career in animation and visual effects, first as a freelancer, then banding together with like-minded creatives.

In 2015, he started Fox & Co, a boutique animation agency based in Mt Cook. Phyo had visions of working for award-winning studios in Los Angeles or New York, but his Myanmar passport made it particularly hard for him to travel to gain experience. So he opted instead to build his own dream studio.

Fox & Co’s eight-person team now does 70% of its animation work for offshore organisations including the likes of Google and MTV. They specialise in applying the visual effects sophistication you’d expect from Weta Digital to smaller commercial projects.

“I don’t want to grow for the sake of growing,” says Phyo, who considers Wellington’s compact size and short commute times key factors working in the city’s favour.

“I want to focus on quality work, the majority of which will be completed here. You really can have the best of both worlds here.”

Double Denim’s Angela Meyer and Anna Dean. Photo/Georgia Veitch.

Anna Dean and Angela Meyer, Double Denim

Double Denim is a creative agency and consultancy specialising in gender intelligence, launched by Anna Dean and Angela Meyer. Using their in-depth insights into the economic and emotional lives of women, smart strategies and great creative they’ve worked on some of New Zealand’s most talked about campaigns, including Treat Her Right, Powershop, and the launch of Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

The launch of Double Denim was motivated by a disturbing discrepancy in statistics. “Only 3% of creative agencies are run by women, while 80% of all purchasing decisions are made by women. We wanted to create female-focussed strategies and campaigns that get cut through and help ensure women’s equality is always high on the agenda.” explains Angela. “Our company believes in changing the status quo. We unlock the opportunities in connecting to the biggest market in the world: women. Simple in principle, radical in practice, Anna adds.

Angela and Anna love working in Wellington as they’re found they’re surrounded by like-minded people and businesses. “We really like the proximity of a heap of people getting good things done. I guess you’d call it a ‘public service’ mentality. People here are genuinely trying to make things better. Social and corporate responsibility is key, and that’s always inspiring. The focus is often on collaboration and compassion rather than competition.”

Josh Forde, left, and Breccan McLeod-Lundy of Ackama. Photo/Supplied.

Josh Forde and Breccan McLeod-Lundy, Ackama

When web developer Breccan McLeod-Lundy set up shop as an independent contractor in 2010 it was with the aim of making the world a better place by designing better technology.

Through Enspiral, the DIY collective of Wellington social enterprises, he found a like-minded partner in Josh Forde and Rabid Technologies was born. Almost a decade on, Ackama as the company is now known, has clients ranging from PledgeMe and SPCA to Open Polytechnic and the Marlborough Harbourmaster.

Business value, customer happiness and ethical outcomes are Ackama’s overriding priorities in a world where the early promise of the web has given way to the realisation that some of the biggest tech platforms don’t always have our best interests at heart.

There’s a movement right across business and government to be more explicit about the social impact of what we do.

“There’s a movement right across business and government to be more explicit about the social impact of what we do,” says Josh.

Ackama has a heavy weighting of social good and charitable organisations and unashamedly pursues tech activism to tackle some of society’s biggest issues.

Last year, Ackama built a digital presence for the Climate Vulnerable Forum which represents the 48 nations that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

“Climate change is apparently the ‘nuclear-free issue of our generation’ but as a country and society, we are way off track with making the changes we need,” Josh says.

Ackama expanded into Australia last year, but remains proudly headquartered in Wellington where, Forde says, it has the freedom to operate with the “integrity and creativity” that has fueled the company’s success.

Julia Marshall of Gecko Press.

Julia Marshall, Gecko Press

Gecko Press was launched in 2005 by Julia Marshall, who chose to live in Wellington after years of living in Stockholm. She loves that it has a centre, is walkable, and is built around the sea. “It’s a great size for doing business. It’s easy to meet people doing different things – art, tech and business. All here.”

Gecko Press translates and publishes children’s books into English from the best authors and illustrators in the world. The books are sold in New Zealand, Australia, North America and the UK. It also publishes a small number of author/illustrators from New Zealand.

When Gecko Press began, 1% of books published in the UK were in translation (compared to 40% in Europe). When Julia reported this number to the Swedish publisher of Margaret Mahy he said, “I’m surprised that figure is so high. You’re either an idiot or it’s a niche. Let’s hope it’s a niche.” Fifteen years on, the figure is said to be closer to 5%. In 2017 Gecko Press was awarded New Zealand Publisher of the Year. Last month Julia took on the post of President of the Publishers Association of New Zealand.

Gecko Press works hard to stay true to its vision of publishing curiously good books from around the world – to actively publish books that are not mainstream, and sometimes challenge convention. “If a book touches us emotionally and stays with us lastingly, if we think it adds something to the book world, then we publish it. We publish thoughtful, philosophical, funny and entertaining books, in the interests of encouraging all children to love to read – this is a right, not a nicety.”

Aro Digital co-founder Tim Dorrian. Photo/Supplied.

Tim Dorran, Aro Digital 

Aro Digital, co-founded by Tim Dorrian and Jonty Hodge, provides data-driven digital marketing solutions that generate new leads, smash client’s KPIs and grow businesses, with clients such as Weta Workshop, New Zealand Red Cross and InvestNow.

But it isn’t just interested in digital outcomes, Tim and Jonty are passionate about growing the digital scene in Wellington, giving back to the wider community and graduates.

Aro Digital’s social initiatives include digital marketing education workshops to help businesses understand and achieve their digital marketing objectives; Aro Bootcamp, a free digital marketing education for university students providing practical on-tools training and strategies to help bridge the gap between tertiary education and the workplace. Impact Hour provides free marketing education for start-ups, social enterprises and charities.

Tim admits that when he started setting up online businesses he felt lonely, unsupported and broke. “Aro’s social initiatives all exist to support people in growing their awesome ideas by providing a space for digital marketing conversations, questions and advice.”

Wellington’s supportive tech community and relaxed culture had allowed the Aro Digital team to “live and work authentically.”

“We’re 100% ourselves in business, meaning we skate to meetings, avoid suits like the plague, have adventures with the team, and chase our curiosity endlessly.”

Hamish Johnson and the Flying Saucer crew on location for a commercial shoot. Photo/Chris Maunsell.

Hamish Johnson, Flying Saucer

Flying Saucer’s CEO Hamish Johnson has been described as having an inbuilt curiosity meter stuck on high. With a background in tourism and marketing and a keen interest in photography, he started working on commercials at the age of 30, but it quickly became apparent that the traditional work-your-way-up-the-ranks approach was not for him. In 2007 he took the bull by the horns, bought a laptop, tripod and camera and set up his own production company with partner Anna. The first few years involved a lot of crazy adventures as they travelled the country making video content. “I had so much to learn from a technical perspective,” Hamish says. “It was like being in a river swimming for your life… trying new things, making it work.”

Now Flying Saucer is one of Wellington’s established production companies, making award-winning work for the likes of Tourism New Zealand and Department of Conservation, through to non-profits like Capital Kiwi. The business grew organically. “It’s old school, based on referrals and long term relationships. I’m of the mind that success is in doing great work, working with inspiring people, but also taking the opportunity to go for a surf, or hang with my partner and kids.”

At present, Flying Saucer is working on a (top secret) world-first project of their own. “It’s technically and creatively challenging, but will be incredibly exciting if we can pull it off. It helps to surround myself with people who offer up ideas and different ways of thinking.” This is where his city comes in. “Wellington’s compact geography and friendly atmosphere provides an incredible environment for creatively-minded people.”