• Bex Waddell, marketing manager for the Whale Tales sculpture trail.
  • Takapuna artist Esther Cain, retailer and sponsor Kim Snowball of Devonport (with English pointer Chester), and marketing manager for the Whale Tales sculpture trail, Bex Waddell.
  • Bex Waddell, marketing manager for the Whale Tales sculpture trail.
  • Takapuna artist Esther Cain, retailer and sponsor Kim Snowball of Devonport (with English pointer Chester), and marketing manager for the Whale Tales sculpture trail, Bex Waddell.

A whale of a tale

She’s gone from farm girl to city school head prefect; from corporate marketing manager to developing cooking programmes for kids – and now to passionate advocate for restoration of the Waitematā Harbour and Hauraki Gulf. Rebecca (Bex) Waddell hasn’t quite done it all, but she’s had a pretty good go – and who knows where the next twist in her career might take her. Christine Young talks to the marketing manager of a major fundraising sculpture trail it will be hard to ignore in early 2022.

Bex Waddell grew up in Piopio in the King Country, and arrived in Devonport just over a decade ago. She’d left the farm aged 12 to attend boarding school in Auckland: Diocesan School for Girls, followed by Kings College as it became co-ed. These years were devoted to indulging in her interests in sport (swimming), speech and drama – and learning to type rapidly but inaccurately, she confesses. She doesn’t sound the model pupil, but one suspects she was articulate (if not outspoken), ready to give anything a go, principled, and unexpectedly, she says, became head prefect.

From school, she did a degree in Business Management at Waikato University, majoring in marketing. That’s certainly stood her in good stead, she recognises now, but she embarked on the degree with no concept of what “marketing” entailed. It led, via her OE, to more than two decades in corporate marketing, working her way up from “counting brochures” to serious roles in consumer electronics and telecommunications companies. But one of her best jobs, she says (aside from working in a Trelise Cooper retail shop in school holidays) was as Head of Alumni at Henley Management College in the UK: 18 months where she lived on the edge of the river Thames, managing events, and developing actual and online relationships with alumni. “It was a wonderful environment,” she enthuses, “high teas, the people were great; there was a pool and gym, bluebells in the woods…. Quintessential England at its best. And I could just be me. I loved it.”

But her father died and she returned to New Zealand. After a stint in corporate marketing in Wellington, she moved to Devonport. Perhaps it was the shift, or perhaps a mid-life crisis of sorts. Whatever, she “hung up my corporate cloth. It wasn’t resonating with me; there was a disconnect between me and corporate life. I wanted to go out on my own.”

A couple of new ventures followed. She co-launched LittleCooks which she and her partner ran for five years. In 2014 they wrote a highly successful cookbook for kids, Piggy Pasta and more Food with Attitude. Published by Scholastic, it’s still in print.

But, as Bex discovered, “you can only go so far with just two of you”. They reached out to sKids (Safe Kids in Daily Supervision), which runs before- and after-school and holiday programmes, and developed a cooking programme for them, which sKids now own, called FoodStorm, and is now part of sKids’ programme nationwide. 

Bex was hooked – passionate about the impact learning to cook can have on young people in terms of health outcomes. Next step was a curriculum-based cooking programme for schools, with lessons the classroom teacher could deliver, and a final lesson in which students learnt to make a recipe. Recipes included the likes of a selfie wrap: take one wrap, lots of chopped vegetables, scatter them over the wrap, and then create a self-portrait in food (using food shapes to make eye, nose, mouth) before rolling the whole thing up and eating it. Called  ‘Feed your Whanau’, this programme reached more than 5000 primary-aged students a year, teaching them basic cooking skills – and best of all, says Bex, at the end of the four-lesson programme, gave all participating children a bag of ingredients to take home and replicate the recipe at home for their family. The ever-enthusiastic Bex and her partner gained sponsorship from food giant Nestlé – and the bonus of winning a TVNZ/Marketing Magazine Award for ‘Excellence in Collaboration’.

Bex had discovered her mojo. “I loved it because I was giving back. Kids started eating stuff they would never have thought possible.”

During Covid, she gave back in another way: “I volunteered my time for Grandfriends NZ and was on the board. I nominated the charity for an ASB Good as Gold award, and they received $10,000,” she says proudly.

But after four years, it was time to move on. She had started reading about the state of our oceans, and specifically the Hauraki Gulf, and was horrified at the degree of degradation and rape of resources she had previously known nothing about. Crayfish are functionally extinct, she reports, and mussel stocks almost non-existent outside mussel farms, not to mention the myriad other lifeforms impacted by the human vandalisation of ecosystems we don’t see and therefore don’t think about. “It’s incredibly sad,” she says. “What are we leaving for our kids? What are we doing to our blue back yard? Our lives depend on restoring the oxygen-generating marine ecosystems around our shores.”

She discovered Wild in Art which has hosted sculpture trails around the globe and raised millions of dollars for charity, and a WWF-New Zealand (World Wide Fund for Nature) public art trail, already in the planning and scheduled to make an impact in Auckland in January 2022.

Entitled Whale Tales, it’s inspired by the parlous state of the Hauraki Gulf’s Bryde’s Whale. Pronounced broo-dus, these whales are found in the coastal waters around the Hauraki Gulf. But the Bryde’s Whale is now critically endangered, with fewer than 250 remaining. They feed and rest close to the surface, making them vulnerable to ship strikes, noise pollution, reductions in habitat, climate change, unsustainable fishing practices, and other human activities in the ocean. They are the poster-child for this Auckland-wide sculpture trail, raising awareness of the state of the seas around Tamaki Makaurau, along with raising funds for the vital work WWF-New Zealand does for our seas.

Enter Bex, with a new passion and a mission inspired by her detailed reading on the state of our oceans. She messaged the team working on Whale Tales offering to help, and in February this year took up the role of marketing manager – a perfect mix of her commitment to good, and her finely honed marketing skills.

The project works like this: Some time ago, artists were asked to submit designs to be painted on a nearly-two-metre replica of a whale’s fluke. One hundred designs were selected from the many more submitted. Designs in place, the team began to approach prospective sponsors; once signed up, they select the design of their choice. Sponsors can also purchase some of the 200 mini tails produced to give to local schools to paint (or schools can buy one themselves).

There are at least 15 North Shore artists whose designs were accepted, and a number of corporate sponsors are already signed up, including local North Shore business associations (Smales Farm, Birkenhead Village, Brown’s Bay and Takapuna).

Bex negotiated a sponsorship from Tile Warehouse as a result of a conversation she had as she was searching for tiles for her under-construction house. Sure, she’s the marketing manager, responsible for publicity and raising awareness of the issues and the sculpture trail, but the nature of not-for-profits is that everyone pitches in. “It’s a Swiss-army-knife role,” laughs Bex. “I love the challenge; I love connecting with people for good. I’ve met the most incredible people, artists and sponsors.”

I went with Bex to get a first look at a tail painted by Takapuna artist (also massage therapist and occupational therapy student) Esther Cain. Her design was selected by Devonport’s sole (to date) sponsor, Kim Snowball of Fitzgerald-Taylor boutique stationer on King Edward Parade. Kim is renowned for her intricate shop window displays; her whale’s tail will no doubt have dramatic impact as she displays it in-store ahead of the sculpture trail and fundraising auction in January. And Devonport as a whole will benefit as the tail features in the trail near the ferry buildings, right where visitors stop to take selfies or photos of each other as they look across to the city.

Bex enthuses about the way Kim and other sponsors are already capitalising on their sponsorships, and says the Browns Bay Business Association has “nailed it” in making the most of local engagement. They ran a competition to find an artist to design and paint a whale tail to complement the local landscape. Artist Jane Mason's design was the community's favourite and she was among the first artists to complete a tail, which is currently displayed in an empty shop at 55 Clyde Road, Browns Bay. The tail will be relocated to East Coast Bays Library as soon as the library renovation is completed in late July, where it will remain for the rest of the year. The Association plans to relocate the sculpture to an outdoor site on the beachfront reserve for the Whale Tales art trail, and then acquire the tail at auction after the trail concludes, to become a permanent feature for everyone in the community to enjoy.

Once all the sponsors are signed up and tails created (not all are painted; at least one is covered in mosaic – and, no surprises, is being worked on at a Tile Warehouse store) an app will be launched, with pedometer included, that allows anyone to locate and visit all 80 tails. A further click on the app, and they’ll access a tale to go with each tail. The tales are being curated and written by local historians and wildlife experts. And users of the app will also be able to download “treasures”: offers of discounts or opportunities from each tail’s sponsor.

As for Bex, well, she’s officially working part time on the project, but one senses that this has taken over her life. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful job,” she enthuses. “I love creating something from nothing.” She still has some creating to do, some sponsors to find, and some to continue talking to, but her energy and enthusiasm are infectious, and I leave our interview with little doubt that she and the rest of the team will ensure that we all enjoy lots of walking – and lots of whales’ tails (and tales) next summer.