Creative Changemaker: Benjamin Ari
Written by Carmen Bellot
Benjamin Ari hasn’t taken a linear approach to his career. The London native has worked in most departments of a fashion business, from marketing to communications to branding to then co-founding his creative agency, GENERATION.works, in 2018. As well as creating campaigns for Puma, UGG, New Balance and many more brands, Ben and his partner Will Kemp felt the need to further help the communities that they were highlighting in the creative work they were commissioned to create. At the beginning of 2022, GENERATION.workshop was born “to create more equity in the creative industry”. Partnering with Kodj Glover and Shola Fujah, the team have produced workshop programs that not only give the next generation of talent tangible advice and skills to further themselves, but as Ben explains in our interview with him, a segway into working with these brands themselves.
Learn more about his progression within the creative industry, the future of branding and how brands can authentically tap into a community below.
FMR: Could you explain more about how you ended up doing the marketing and events for Second Sun? Was there a plan to go into that side of the industry or did an opportunity arise that you couldn’t turn down?
Ben Ari: It was kind of accidental to be honest. I finished university at Queen Mary’s having studied English, and I had no plan really of what I wanted to do. My mum’s flat is just off Brick Lane and I was living there after I finished uni. I used to go into a shop called Gloria’s, which was one of the original sneaker stores in the UK at the time, back when you had to import a lot of the good stuff from America and Japan. I’d always been into clothes but I never really had any concept of what the industry behind it was. I wasn’t underprivileged – I’m from a very middle-class background, my mum was a journalist and my dad worked in social housing – I just was ignorant to it, I guess. I used to go into this shop all the time, and I used to beg the manager Pete Yak for a job, because he was showing me all this stuff and I found it amazing. It was pre-internet, so platforms like Hypebeast didn’t exist yet and it was hard to find information on it. He basically just kept saying no, and then finally he said; ‘I’m not going to give you a job. But there are these guys that are working on a brand called Second Son (which was actually called Loki at the time) and you should meet them.’ Pete stocked their T-shirts in the store, and that’s how I ended up meeting Will, who’s now my business partner on GENERATION.works. I was very lucky to have lived in an area where I was exposed to that stuff, and I think that’s something that we talk about a lot. When we talk about creating access and opportunities for young people, so often it’s about exposure.
A lot of what we do on The Hub is try to show our readers that you don’t have to go to uni and go down a traditional path to make your way in the industry. I think it’s quite important to instil that idea, especially now there are so many more barriers for people to even get their foot in the door. Sometimes it’s just about who you meet, and it’s about being open, friendly and interested in a shared passion that can lead you to something.
I’m always amazed by the young people that come through to the workshop projects that we do and they’re ready to share their ideas, be communicative and talk to people. When I was that age, I couldn’t talk to anyone I didn’t know. Even when I was in my early 20s, I found it really hard to come out of my shell. There are some young kids who are immediately able to do that part of it, and I’m almost always expecting them to be talented. Because when you’re young, you have way less boundaries to the way you perceive the world.
If you’re a young person and have an idea of what career they would want to go down, do you think it helps going down lots of different paths? Do you think it helped you in any way?
I don’t know if I’m a good case study because I was just really lucky and accidentally did stuff. I remember one thing a past boss said to me. I asked him what he thought I was best at, and he said, ‘I don’t know, but people just like you’. At the time I thought that was so shit! But now I think he had a good point, which is that I think leadership is not about telling people what to do. It’s about getting them to come along with you for that thing that you believe in, and they have to like you to do that. And I guess that was a skill that I was developing that I never really knew I had.
To answer your question, it’s not necessarily about doing lots of different things. But I think it goes back to the point that you’d said originally, which is about being open-minded and pragmatic enough to be exposed to lots of different people with different opinions and different processes, and learn how they work and amalgamate that into a skill set. I think if you’re not exposed enough to all of those different things, I think it can be really difficult to navigate that.
I also think you can’t know what you’re doing until you’ve done it. I think that’s a barrier that a lot of young people typically run into where they’re wondering ‘How do I get this job when I have little experience in the job? But how do I get experience unless I do the job.’
“But I think what we were trying to portray was that if you, as a brand, are talking about doing purpose driven events, actually do it as a purpose driven event, not just as a proxy marketing.”
Why did you start GENERATION.works and why did you start it when you did?
I went freelance in 2017. I then started working with a really good friend of mine, who still runs a website called The Drop Date, which was the original media outlet for sneaker news and information around drops. And at the time, his whole business model was built around affiliate marketing. And so I started working with him on diversifying his business model to have more revenue streams coming in from media partnerships etc. What we found was that there was an opportunity to build an agency completely separate from that. Because of my experience, mixed with my business partner’s Will’s experience – he’s been a designer for brands like Carhartt and Penfield etc – we thought that there were so many brands that needed what we could offer. So the three of us got together and we decided to launch GENERATION.works, using The Drop Date initially as a platform to plug into a lot of those brands that were already there – New Balance, Puma, Nike etc. Then we set up the agency and broke it off into a separate, autonomous entity. And that’s how we’ve run it since, and we’ve just grown it year on year.
You’ve said you want to challenge your clients to incorporate more purpose driven elements to the projects. How did those conversations come about?
Obviously during 2020, the pandemic broke out and there was the death of George Floyd. Because we’ve worked with brands in that sneaker space, everyone can see that all of those brands to some degree, higher or lower, have a lot invested in black culture, and particularly have a lot invested in quote unquote “urban culture” (for want of a better word), not just in the UK but globally, and they have a lot invested in sport. We were seeing a lot of performative action from brands during that time, about what they believed in and what they wanted to do to address whatever it was. At the same time, we’ve seen things like workshops almost replacing traditional brand launch events to look like the brand is doing something community orientated. But actually, most of those kids that have been invited down to those events are already tapped into all of that stuff; they’ve got X amount of followers on Instagram and that’s why they’re invited, because brands know they’ll share it.
There’s nothing wrong with that to a degree, it’s a business at the end of the day. But I think what we were trying to portray was that if you, as a brand, are talking about doing purpose driven events, actually do it as a purpose driven event, not just as a proxy marketing. That’s why we decided to start up GENERATION.workshop, which is a division within the agency dedicated to these projects. It consists of myself and Will, we co-run the agency, and our friends and creative professionals Shola Fujah and Kodj Glover. We had an aim this year to do three flagship projects; one in sport, one in fashion, and one in music – we just did the latter, the Universal Fast Forward workshop, and that was the third of the three. The idea now is that we’re now going to set up GENERATION.workshop as a community interest company, so it’ll be separate from the business completely. GENERATION.works is very much a commercial brand agency, but there’s also a ton of opportunities that come through our door constantly from those brands, so GENERATION.workshop will create space for those projects to happen without any commercial burden. It also allows us to spot talent and give them access into the commercial side of the business, so these two companies work symbiotically together. With each project, we’re building a database of young people that we work with that come through those workshops. We’re mapping out what they’re interested in, what their skills are, what opportunities they are looking for, and then hopefully we can take that data and that information into future projects.
It will allow us to challenge brands, because if a brand comes to us and says, ‘We want to launch this shoe or this product, here’s an idea for a marketing campaign and we’d like to include some community-driven aspect’. We’ll say, ‘We could do it. But we could also do that as a totally separate entity and actually help some people.’ Which is what we managed to do with the Universal Music workshop. We brought them laptops and home studio equipment and they got ten hours of free studio time. We set them up to go into the world with some kind of ammo, and then we don’t have to think about delivering some kind of creative for the brand, we’re free from that in a way.
How do you think brands can engage with different communities moving forward? Is it going to be through more workshops and more behind the scenes work? Or is there still that need for them to show their involvement through marketing campaigns, to prove that they are doing it?
We’re kind of existing in this weird space where I think brands feel like they need their creative output to be somehow superimposed with a real person or a real story, and then everything starts to look like an advert for a bank or an insurance company. I’m not saying that doesn’t always work, because we do lots of things like that for brands because that’s the brief, and we have to execute that. I don’t want to sit here and sound like we’re sort of precious creators – like I’ve said, we have to pay our mortgage to just do what we need to do. But I think the way forward for brands is to silo those things off. Creatively, you can kind of do whatever you want, it’s an open book in that respect. But I think if brands really want to do something that’s going to make genuine change or create genuine access for young people, and create genuine opportunities for young people, just do it – you don’t need to build it into a marketing campaign.
Realistically, creating a talent pipeline into your business or into your brand is going to be the marketing campaign in five to ten years time. If you get good young people coming into your business that have the talent and the ideas, and they’ve maybe got a more authentic and genuine representation of the community that you want to reach anyway, it’s better to have them in your business helping you do that constructively and organically, then weirdly, aggressively marketing to them through a sort of slightly skewed lens. I think to be fair, a lot of brands probably do a lot of stuff in the background, but you can always do more.