Green Bay Packers tight end Martellus Bennett would rather you not think of him as a famous pro athlete.
“I’ve never really viewed myself as a football player,” he said on a recent visit to the Adweek office. “I’d never worked for anyone else until I got to the NFL, and this will be my last time working for someone else.”
Bennett said creativity has always been a big part of his life, and he connects his childhood love of drawing and writing to the decision, three and a half years ago, to launch a multimedia production company called The Imagination Agency. So far, the project is best known for its interactive book series “Hey A.J.,” which was inspired by his young daughter.
The entrepreneur, whose work to date landed him on Adweek’s 2017 Creative 100 list, has big ideas for the future of a business that he hopes will outlive and transcend his pro football career.
More adventures for A.J.
“When my daughter was born, I was reading a lot of children’s books, and there weren’t any characters who looked like her,” he said. “For all the content that’s out there, there aren’t many African-American protagonists. I looked at it like, if there isn’t someone else creating it then I have to do it myself.”
He created the interactive book and app “Hey A.J., It’s Saturday” not to tell a story about the black experience but simply to spin a tale of “kids having fun and going on adventures.”
“What if Macauley Culkin were black in Home Alone? Most people would write it differently … but I would write it the same way,” said the self-described Harry Potter fan.
Given the first volume’s success, Bennett has a second app and book planned in addition to educational mobile games and a miniseries documenting more of A.J.’s adventures.
Bennett’s daughter, who didn’t realize at first that she was the inspiration for the character, has since become more actively involved in the creative process. “She always gives me feedback,” he said, adding, “When my friends come over, I give their wives wine and take their kids downstairs to the Imagination Lounge to have them be my focus group.”
Expansion plans for the Imagination Agency
Bennett’s agency has slowly grown since its inception, and it now employs four full-time staffers including a project manager, a chief finance officer and a “jack of all trades” who he compares to an NFL tight end. He also outsources much of the “heavy lifting” to freelance creatives, in part because of the demands of his day job.
“I’m never not working at Imagination Agency, so it keeps me balanced,” Bennett said, adding that most of the work itself occurs during the offseason, thereby leaving time for feedback, edits and revisions during the six-plus months from training to postseason.
Beyond the multi-platform A.J. series, Bennett also plans to introduce a new character who will inhabit a separate world.
He does not, however, plan to turn The Imagination Agency into a traditional marketing shop. “I would do some projects with major companies that will underwrite the costs of what I’m doing,” he said, expressing interest in Samsung’s virtual reality efforts. “But I don’t see myself being an agency you can hire to do work for you or come up with campaigns. I’d rather keep all the good ideas to myself.”
This is in keeping with his general approach to sponsorships, which he sums up with, “I’m not a guy who holds up a product and says, ‘Drink this.'”
Toys and clothes and comics, oh my
The Imagination Agency has already moved beyond the digital world.
Bennett recently released a comic book titled Towel Boy chronicling the adventures of a young man who works on the sidelines of a pro football team. He also helped design a line of 10-inch vinyl toy figures called Skydiver McGuire that are based on his alter ego along with a line of children’s clothing for Mimobee. (He said that he was interested in fashion design as a childhood hobby.)
“We’ll be able to put out more projects next year with more content and more characters,” he said. “Right now it’s about gaining trust for the brand with parents and kids.”
Future projects include a “pack” of football-themed GIFs created in collaboration with the Giphy app and released under his nickname, The Black Unicorn. He also recently recorded a song with fellow father and entrepreneur Snoop Dogg.
Bennett says his ultimate goal is serving as a role model to young black Americans—but not through his football stardom.
Noting that he writes as “Marty” rather than using his full name, he said, “I’d probably sell more books as Martellus Bennett, but I’d rather people just like the work and know me for the characters I created. I’ve put a lot of work into [pro football] and I should be known for it, but there’s something about creating something from the ground up.”
He then added, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”