The Monday Media Diet with Ben Liebmann

On media, Noma, and the business of creativity

Ben Liebmann (BL) is a friend of WITI and one of the most interesting multi-hyphenate characters we know. He works in the business of ideas and creativity: on one side, as the COO of Noma, and on the other hand as a media entrepreneur building something new. Ben is a superb Twitter follow, so stay tuned as his new projects emerge. We’re pleased to have him on the page today. -Colin (CJN) 

Tell us about yourself.

I’ve spent twenty-plus years working in the business of creativity and with some of the world’s most extraordinary creators – musicians, film and television writers and producers, chefs – to develop their ideas and intellectual property into brands, and their brands into sustainable businesses. I’m often asked how I’ve managed to navigate what on the surface appear to be very different and distinct industries, to which my response is always “strip away all the romanticism and everything is intellectual property”. Whoever owns and controls that intellectual property can develop, package, and monetize it in ways that are truly transformative. And, whoever owns and controls the intellectual property can also protect it. Knowing that fine line between creativity and commerce is something I think I’ve managed to keep a handle on.

I am the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Understory, a media, and production company dedicated to creating genre-defining entertainment with purpose and impact. 

We recently commenced production on our first series for one of the global streamers. It is an epic international project with an extraordinary team, in-front and behind-the-camera, assembled to bring it to life. I really have had to bite my tongue to not reveal who’s writing and directing - couldn’t be prouder or more excited. But follow me on Twitter or connect with me on LinkedIn and you’ll be amongst the first to know 😉.

I am also the Chief Operating Officer of Noma, a small but acclaimed restaurant in Copenhagen; the Chairman of Sanchez (Oaxaca Group), founded by the extraordinary chef Rosio Sanchez; and Board Member of MAD, a non-profit working to create lasting change within the global hospitality community and food system.

I was born and raised in Sydney, Australia, and grew up around media from an early age - my father was a journalist and television presenter, which influenced and shaped my career path. 

My first full-time job out of university was in “new media” (kids, gather around…that’s what they used to call digital) at Warner Music. I was there for the final years of the heyday and the beginning of the disruption, including the arrival of Napster and iTunes. From there I moved to Vodafone and the era (the first time around) of telcos trying to become media companies, before moving back to media and entertainment with FremantleMedia and then Shine Australia. Before joining Noma, I was the Chief Executive Officer of Shine 360°, the global commercial rights management arm of Shine Group (now Banijay Group) in London. 

My approach to media, and business and leadership more broadly, has been shaped by some extraordinary people that I have worked with over the years – Jon Simon (Warner Music); Simon Fraser, Steve Rosser, Jon Penn, and David Ellender (FremantleMedia); Scott Howard, Carl and Mark Fennessy (Shine Australia); and Elisabeth Murdoch (Shine Group) – that I consider myself lucky to count as friends. colleagues and mentors. 

Creativity-wise, René and the extended Noma family – James Spreadbury, Peter Kreiner, Rosio Sanchez, Richard Hart, Thorsten Schmidt, and Thomas Frebel  – are all friends and inspirations.

I am the father of an amazing 12yo who has all the fun, creativity, kindness, and empathy of her extraordinary mother and my wife. We are a little team of three which has allowed us to travel the world and navigate life together – they are the best friends and companions in the world. 

Oh, and I’m a die-hard San Antonio Spurs fan. Everything about that team on and off the court speaks to me. Gregg Popovich is Yoda when it comes to creating and maintaining a culture of hard work, leadership, and teamwork.

Describe your media diet. 

Always on. Much to the frustration (all justified by the way) of my wife and daughter, I’m always plugged in and consuming media. Wherever I am, whatever time of day it is, I’m on. Mornings start with BBC World Service and WNYC which are on in the background as I pour the first of too many coffees for the day and get ready to leave the apartment. Copenhagen is one of the world’s best walking cities which means that I listen to a lot of podcasts on my way to and from the office. Too many to name, but a mix of news and current affairs (The Daily and Sway), tech/media/entertainment industry news (The Big Picture, Pivot, The Business with Kim Masters, Download This Show, The Media Show, Recode Media with Peter Kafka, The Watch), and the occasional series (Smartless and Stuff The British Stole, which is a great one from Marc Fennell and ABC Australia). Twitter is my universal feed – a lot of general news and plenty of industry news and analysis. I don’t really read much printed media, but I am always reading “the papers” (Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian,New York Times), trade journals (Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Billboard, MI-3), newsletters, and long-reads (everything by Lucas Shaw, Matthew Ball, Matthew Belloni) and magazine websites (Fast Company, Rolling Stone andNew Yorker). And when it comes to television, I’m exclusively streaming these days – AppleTV+, Disney+, HBO Max, BBC iPlayer, Hulu, and Netflix. That’s been accelerated by living in Denmark and not speaking the language, but I don’t think I’ve watched broadcast or cable television regularly in six or seven years. 

This is my new media world order.

What’s the last great book you read?

We Are The Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast’ by Jonathan Safran Foer. I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know Jonathan over the past year or so, and his most recent book was considered, thought-provoking and inspiring. Beyond looking at climate change and the crisis it represents for all of us, it is ultimately an exploration of the human condition and why, despite knowing more than ever before about climate change and its impact on the planet and both present and future generations, we don’t do anything. However, unlike other books which can leave readers overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness, We Are The Weather pushes us to move from knowledge and understanding to empathy and action. It is ultimately hopeful. 

What are you reading now?

I’m not…truth is that I only occasionally read books…You’ve seen my media diet - between family and friends, work, and all that media consumption, there isn’t much time left in the day. So reading is usually resigned to holidays which haven’t been as frequent as I’d hope these past eighteen months. However, I’m about to take a week off with the family and I have ‘Sonic Boom: The Impossible Rise of Warner Bros.Records’ (Peter Ames Carlin) and ‘Yearbook’ (Seth Rogen) packed to go. And I’ve just ordered the upcoming ‘An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination’ (Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel) which is released in a few weeks. 

What’s your reading strategy when you pick up a print copy of your favorite publication?

Sadly, I don’t really read print editions these days…again, probably a consequence of living in a non-English speaking country. If I was living in Australia (or the United States or United Kingdom for that matter), I think I’d cherish the ritual of reading the papers on a Sunday.  Start with the news, move to the editorial and opinion features, shift to the magazine, then come back for business and sports. 

Who should everyone be reading that they’re not?

Many readers here will already be reading them, but I am a sucker for anything from Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway – they balance (sometimes precariously) opinion and analysis, empathy, humour and bravado. 

What is the best non-famous app you love on your phone? 

Bandsintown does exactly what it says on the tin: alerts and live recommendations for touring bands…in town. It was part of my pre-pandemic daily media diet. I can’t wait to see live music again.

Plane or train?

Plane…definitely plane. I miss everything about international travel.

What is one place everyone should visit? 

Alta, which is above the Arctic Circle in far (far) northern Norway. We visited a few years ago and stayed at a small family-owned lodge Trasti & Trine. We went for the dog sledding which was truly a life-changing and life-affirming experience. Beautiful animals, beautiful people, delicious food (one of the owners is a chef and the other a former dogsledding champion), and a beautiful other-worldly landscape. And I know you said “one”, but I also have to say New York. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time there over the years and it always feels like coming home. Go with no agenda. Walk everywhere. Sit in Central Park and on the High Line and watch the city go by. Eat out (Wildair, Via Carota, Rezdora and Frankies 457 are where I want to go the most when I’m back) or sit at a bar (have a Negroni on the street at Bar Pisellino). Get a bagel (sorry Los Angeles) and a coffee and read the New York Times in print. See a show. See a concert. Get the subway. Embrace the city as if it was your own. I really miss New York. And then there’s London…

Tell us the story of a rabbit hole you fell deep into.

My rabbit holes are always music-related. Sometimes it only takes a random word or a sentence in passing to remind me of a lyric in a song that reminds me of an album that sends me down a days-long rabbit hole of an artist’s entire catalogue. Creatively, music has always been my first love and something I need to always have close by. Recent and regular musical rabbit holes include Something For Kate and Gang of Youths – two favourite bands from Australia. (BL)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Ben (BL)

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