The lure of the USA was always strong for Brian Sweeney, who remembers his childhood in the early 1960s in rural Morrinsville as a “monochrome” environment without a television and with the overriding feeling of New Zealand being this windswept, isolated land, forgotten at the bottom of the globe. When that TV did arrive, the “bright lights and inspiration” of America shone through even from its black and white screen.
“I particularity remember the assassinations of Robert Kennedy Jr and Martin Luther King Jr,” he says via a video call from New York, his home for the past 16 years. “They had become quite inspirational political characters and their deaths were a jolt. It all opened up this idea of America in my imagination as this place of huge size, that something really big lay outside New Zealand.”
Brian has politics coursing through his veins, also; quite literally—his grandfather was Michael Joseph Savage’s electorate chairman, a founding member of the Labour Party, and West Auckland unionist. “There are certain influence that motivated me to get involved in shaping my environment. I figured out at an early age that if you wanted to improve or change your situation then you had to take responsibility for it yourself.”
Brian attended high school in Tauranga where he was the editor of student newspaper, The Hillsdene Reflector. “We took a political approach on a lot of things. I founded the Tauranga branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament when I was about 16, and I was involved in various campaigns opposing Apartheid in South Africa. Not only did we believe in these things, but if felt exciting to be part of such significant events.”
True to form, Brian went on to study politics at Waikato University, and also run the student newspaper. “Politics was certainly important during that time. It felt as though you were part of something, changing the DNA of the country.”
Brian Sweeney has since set about changing the perception of the country overseas, dedicating his days to the promotion of ‘brand New Zealand’. In Wellington in 1987, with partner Jane Vesty, Brian founded award-winning SweeneyVesty who specialise in communication, business strategy and public relations, now with operations all over the world. Brian has worked across the arts as a producer and manager, is a member of the TED Conference, and, in 1999, launched website New Zealand Edge (nzedge.com), a place that celebrates the accomplishments of Aotearoa’s greatest historical figures, while promoting the contemporary crop of Kiwis who have been covered by global media (some such stories may hopefully be finding their way on to book store shelves, too). Brian describes the site as “my personal nation branding campaign”, and, considering the internet was still a relatively new (mainstream) phenomenon in 1999, I ask him about his anticipations for it 20 years ago.
“From the late ‘80s until the early 2000s, Telecom New Zealand was a client of SweeneyVesty and we were fully involved in the transition of New Zealand from analogue to digital and that helped us anticipate the potential of the internet.”
Brian was also an early participant of the TED conference (do check out his super 2013 TEDx Auckland Talk, ‘The New Zealand Story’), attending his first TED in 1994 in Monterey when “they were discussing CD-ROMs and multimedia, and come ‘95 the entire conference was about the worldwide web and its possibilities to reach billions”.
“NZ Edge is about putting New Zealand stories in a global context,” he continues. “And that context comes from evolutionary biology that says the edge of any species is the most fertile place for change. As the least populated and the least orthodox, it’s where new ideas can emerge. That metaphor struck me as a powerful way of defining New Zealand’s place in the world.”
It must have been fascinating to watch New Zealand’s international trajectory since then, and especially since your time in New York with the likes of Lorde and Lord of the Rings doing so much to shine a light on these islands?
“Having been publishing the site for 20 years, we’re just starting to look at the patterns that have emerged and what the data tells. It’s quite clear that the All Blacks are a leading ambassador for New Zealand to the world, while the film industry, led by Peter Jackson and other filmakers, has been responsible for not only a cultural perception but has also fuelled tourism. And then there are our political leaders, we have three prime ministers over the past 20 years who have all made a distinctive mark internationally. Increasingly, we’re also seeing the innovators, and innovation has always been a big part of New Zealand’s DNA.”
Brian cites Kiwi merino footwear company Allbirds as fine example of an NZ-US hybrid that has continued New Zealand’s reputation for innovation, while adding a thoroughly modern twist.
“You can’t tell from the title that they’re from New Zealand, but when you look at the backstory and the fundamental role of birds in New Zealand’s evolution, it’s a very nicely embroidered story.”
Do you think the future of New Zealand rests on technology or more traditional industries?
“All of the above. The produce from the land has always been and always will be critical. There will be significant change with the future of food, how it is made and consumed. The availability of water, the impacts of climate change, all these things are going to mean New Zealand will have to lead in the way in how it produces and exports things. There is a huge reliance on tourism now, and there is work happening to improve infrastructure and sustainability, and clearly within the digital industries there are a lot of very smart things happening. It’s about our abilities as multi-taskers and problem-solvers.”
Historically, much of that innovation has been put down to necessity, mainly through New Zealand’s isolation, do you think that talent has now seeped into the nation’s DNA?
“There is an vibrant curiosity with New Zealanders. A guy who lived in LA told me a nice story once about how when Californians look at the sea they see a horizon, but when New Zealanders look at the horizon, they think of possibility and wonder.”
Through New Zealand Edge, Brian has located New Zealanders living in over one thousand different international towns and cities: “We’re all over the map, making contributions to local communities, or running global businesses and institutions. There are, for example, clusters from the Waikato which have made global contributions in business, politics and music. How local is that!”
The disparaging view of those who take their talents abroad is another topic that Brian has addressed.
“The whole idea of the brain drain always struck me as being a really negative way of creating value. One of the things we have sought to do by way of story-telling is create a global community of New Zealanders, and to create greater flow of capital and creativity between New Zealand and its diaspora. It comes back to the power of language—we said that there are a million New Zealanders that live overseas, which drew attention to it, shifting the New Zealand population from four million to five with the stroke of pen. The creation of a diaspora has broken down the notion that you’re an expatriate, I don’t abide the term ‘expat’, that you’ve buggered off. It implies you are an exile. This mingling of the local and the global is a fundamental part of life for an increasing number of people.”
Besides, travel is also fundamental for us developing as people, and in the understanding and empathising of other people and other cultures. Of discovering all those possibilities over that horizon. Brian expresses concern about the ever-creeping consumer society. He is, and always has been, he says, “motivated by the quest to find something bigger than the self”. And he hopes to have, and to continue, to inspire others to do likewise.