Co-founders Sophie Mayer and Leila El-Kayem on breaking rules, Berlin and bourbon
Photo, from left to right: Sophie Mayer and Leila El-Kayem
The Adventures Of office in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighbourhood is a large open space with near floor-to-ceiling windows. It feels a bit like a spaceship. There’s a tipi in which to chill out and a ‘Dirty Lil Shed’ if someone needs some privacy to make a call. (Disclaimer: it’s a genuine shed plastered with cut-outs of old Playboy mag models.) There’s a genuine underlying vibe of having fun and getting shit done.
And when you meet founders Sophie Mayer and Leila El-Kayem, it’s no different. They’re a duo of infectious personalities, friends as well as business partners, who both love what they do. With Leila at the creative helm and Sophie leading the strategic side of the business, they launched The Adventures Of in 2014 with the aim of breaking all the rules learned at the big, corporate agencies which they’d previously called home.
LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with them over a burger and beer to find out more.
LBB> Where did you grow up? Do you think that as a child you had any traits that might have signified you’d work creatively?
LEILA> I was born in New Zealand and I grew up moving around a lot – in London and Montreal mainly – and I’ve been in Berlin for almost 15 years. As a kid I didn’t like authority, and I think that’s a trait that creatives tend to have.
SOPHIE> I was born in England but I was raised in Johannesburg. I have to echo Leila’s sentiment on authority. When I was five my mum came to pick me up from pre-school and I’d been placed outside - again - for being naughty, and the teacher said to my mum, “I hope the world lives up to Sophie’s expectations”.
LBB> Where did you guys meet and why do you think you work well together?
LEILA> We met at a previous agency here in Berlin. I come from a creative background and Sophie comes from strategy. I think when those two come together it can be quite powerful. That’s when the magic happens because it puts everything into context. You can create anything when those two components come together.
SOPHIE> And we both like bourbon!
The office tipi
The 'Dirty Lil Shed'
LBB> Why is the agency called The Adventures Of?
LEILA> That’s a good question. We both collected comic books as kids and they’re all about storytelling and the heroes of those stories. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Spiderman, Superman – they’re all heroes who do amazing things and blow up stuff and spit webs from their hands.
LBB> And what inspired you to launch it? And what was the vision that you had for the agency?
SOPHIE> Having spent the majority of our careers in big, corporate agencies learning the rules, we decided it was time to break them. So we set out to build the company we couldn’t find. Not only in Berlin but the world. Secondly, we built The Adventures Of on the ethos of Berlin, a city of misfits, which attracts unconventional people and ideas. That makes it the ideal place for us to integrate into and gain daily inspiration. We felt that there wasn’t necessarily a global, creative advertising agency that reflected Berlin – the anarchy, the high levels of artistic creation and expression. We built the company that we thought could really echo this wonderful creative metropolis.
LBB> What do you think makes it unique?
LEILA> I think that it was founded by two women makes it unique. There aren’t many - if any?! We’re also quite selective. We’re doing this for ourselves and we want to make cool shit. That’s like our North Star.
SOPHIE> We’re also an advertising agency but we don’t necessarily just do advertising. A lot of the outcome of what we do is more embedded in culture. I think social currency and relevancy is what modern marketers are looking for.
Sophie and Leila
LBB> Speaking of culture – a tagline of yours is ‘Ideas at the speed of culture’. What inspired that?
SOPHIE> We didn’t launch this agency on Madison Avenue. We launched in a city that is almost anti-advertising and more about sub-culture. What we really pride ourselves on is being community led. So ‘Ideas at the speed of culture’ are ideas that are culturally relevant, embedded in the hopes, dreams and fears of the community, which means that they drive better business results and higher engagement. That’s been something that we’ve been really passionate about from day one. There’s also a huge amount of agility and speed in what we do.
LBB> What do you look for when you bring in talent?
LEILA> We’re always very aware of what the task is – so we don’t just hire someone to fill a particular role. We want to make sure that we get people in that are passionate about the work we do or the brands, categories and industries that we’re working on. They also have to be a cultural fit. We’re not a sweatshop, we don’t work late hours. Culture is very important. They’re often the misfits, from the fringes…
SOPHIE> The dreamers, the doers, the poets, the writers…
LEILA> … They’re not normally regular ad folk. People that are just talented in what they do, it doesn’t matter if they don’t have classic ad experience.
LBB> Let’s talk about Mister Twister, your self-published zine that explores “the everyday absurdity of creativity”. What inspired it? It’s not tied to a brand – so why is it an important project for the agency?
LEILA> At the end of the day it’s about fun. I think with the Internet and the Instagram lens on the world, everything is normally very curated and very beautiful. We wanted to counter that and show the messiness of creativity and the beauty of individuality in a me-too world. So it’s about fun but also having an outlet to just do some bizarre, absurd things.
SOPHIE> We don’t really believe in methodology or one size fits all. We’re really passionate about the messiness of the creative process. Mister Twister was inspired by that process and how it fluctuates. You can’t really understand the creative process, you need to allow for a lot of magic and freedom, and Mister Twister is our little playground. This is reflected in how we work very collaboratively with clients. We bring them right in close to the creative process, and into that beautiful messy organic process of unearthing the idea that will take the brand to the next level.
I think that’s staying true to trusting the creative process. There are no methodologies, no magic triangles. There’s a bit of science, but at the core it’s art. We’ve actually been called conceptual artists by a client before. True story! And an agency you want to have a beer with!
Inside Mister Twister
LBB> Which pieces of work from The Adventures Of are you most proud of and why?
LEILA> There are two that come to mind. For our most recent work for Audible we developed their new brand campaign: ‘choose your own audio series
’. It was about showing the power of audio through using different audio tracks over a visual. It’s a three-part series that launched in May with the final episode launching in September. At the centre of the brand platform is a short film which changes every time you watch it because we change the audio. It’s super fascinating. It’s very daring and is a really interesting dive into exploring the power of audio and how storytelling with spoken word can really change how someone watches a film. Each film has the same story but with six different audio interpretations by the best voice talent in Germany. So the viewer sees the commercial and it might be a thriller – but then they can see it again and it’s a romance and then sci-fi. But it’s the same story.
at the moment is a great project for us. We’ve created a bunch of different assets for various products of its GEL series. These are coming through various media, from graphic design to 3D design to photography. It’s really about creating very beautiful imagery and giving them more strength in their visual identity. It’s been an amazing process.
SOPHIE> For me, all of our work makes me proud, because we select our partners so carefully. One piece of work however, which is close to my heart, is a short film that we produced and Leila directed, called ‘Rebellion and Johannesburg’ [which has recently been selected for screening at the San Francisco Dance Film Festival]. The dance film tells the story of xenophobia, violence and resilience set to the backdrop of the Marikana mining massacre which took place in 2012 in Rustenburg in South Africa. The short film features eight dancers from the Moving into Dance Mophatong, one of the few mixed race groups from South Africa, formed during the height of Apartheid. Our dance film is a re-interpretation of a dance production of the same name, Rebellion and Johannesburg, which premiered in Germany in September 2015, featuring choreographer Jessica Nupen. We shot the film in the Neukölln neighbourhood in an abandoned electrical building in order to tap into the unique spirit of Berlin’s changing cultural landscape. The story we wanted to share is about the trials and rebellions of the lost generations of post-apartheid South Africa and post-GDR Germany.
LBB> What’s the most frustrating thing about advertising now?
LEILA> That there are still shitty things about advertising.
SOPHIE> And that people still think it’s shitty. We built this company on the backend of the thought that advertising does not have to be shit. We’re out to prove that. It doesn’t have to be toxic, you don’t have to work late hours, on shit you don’t like, and it doesn’t have to be unethical or manipulative or intrusive. Our purpose at The Adventures Of is not to be another advertising agency, our purpose is to share the world’s untold, unseen and unheard stories.
LBB> And what’s the best thing about advertising?
LEILA> It’s a constantly changing landscape. The ‘big guys’ don’t have to own the industry anymore. There’s definitely a huge opportunity for smaller agencies like ourselves to be able to do amazing work – especially in the German market. And I find it super exciting that there are so many different ways to do things and explore various territories these days. We’re also not striving to win the next Cannes Grand Prix – although it’d be a nice bonus. It’s about knowing the business and creating very relevant things that the community wants to engage with. Keeping it real, understanding what we’re doing, not just doing things for the sake of doing them, creating good shit.
SOPHIE> Pale, male and stale is over. The old guard of advertising, the madmen, don’t really understand the Internet, diversity or the changing world the way that we digital natives do. Enter the new era of engaged, smart, diverse communities who favour substance over style and want platforms for dialogues around self-identity, belonging and creative expression. The Adventures Of launched itself with listening at its core, we embrace that communication in its many forms has become the social currency with the most influence on change – now that’s a reason to get excited to come to work at The Adventures Of everyday!
LBB> What do you get up to in your spare time to keep yourselves inspired?
LEILA> The newest addition to the agency is a 1979 Asteroids cocktail table. So that’s definitely keeping us busy when we’re at the office! Outside of the office, I’m personally a walker. I love taking in the city and people-watching anywhere I go.
SOPHIE> I read. A lot. Books, magazines, newspapers – anything I can get my hands on. I’m currently reading The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. It’s a magnificent story, epic and full of adultery, betrayal and adventure.
The Adventures Of products
LBB> What’s coming up in the next year for The Adventures Of?
LEILA> I think just scaling what we have.
SOPHIE> And sticking to our principles.
LEILA> We’re driven by having fun and doing really good work. It’s about nurturing the partners we have and finding new partners to continue doing stuff. But as long as we’re having fun and creating awesome stuff, I’m happy.
SOPHIE> We’ve started to see some of the rewards of our labour in our experimentation in short film and publishing. I think where you’ll see us evolve is with The Adventures Of as more of its own brand. You’ll see more stuff coming out of The Adventures Of and we’ll be growing the Mister Twister community. I think ultimately we want to blow shit up. We’re going into our third year and we’re going to be ramping it up. Next gear. Next level shit.