In this occasional series, Ad Age asked small agency chiefs what they would do differently if starting their shops today.
Life before the internet in high school meant picking up the Kerrang! magazine in London where I grew up, and finding out if one of my favorite bands was coming to town in the not-so-distant future. It meant calling my friends on a pager and speaking to an operator, an actual human being, who would write down what I had to say and send it to them to maybe hear back from them a day or two later.
It also meant that what I wanted to do when I grew up was limited to who I knew at school and what their parents did, and none of it sounded like something I wanted to do.
So what do you do if everywhere you look you can't find your future self? You watch "Seinfeld." Hours of it. You start listening to Jerry Seinfeld stand-up sessions you recorded off the radio onto your cassette player. You start looking at the world differently. You start to observe the everyday absurdities of life, like how it is possible to live off a diet of Cheerios.
And then all of a sudden you've graduated college with a fine arts degree. The world never prepared me for what happens when I would graduate with a degree in "expressing myself" and a love of Charles and Ray Eames. What it did do is expose me to smoking pot and hanging around with like-minded artsy types just making stuff up. At the time, I didn't know that that could actually be a career -- and then I landed a job at an advertising agency.
I excitedly presented ideas to the roundtable of colleagues. At first I put it down to inexperience why the ideas that made it into the next rounds weren't mine. But as I matured as a creative and as a business-minded individual, it was becoming more apparent that the acceptance I had experienced in art college was nowhere to be seen; not at the conference table, or the creative reviews or up the layers and layers of men (and women secretaries) you had to get through to exit the elevator on the top floor of the executive suite.
The irony, is that I did get to sit at the table, but the people around the table never looked like me. It took over a decade to finally take the step to start my own shop.
My partner Sophie and I don't represent the other founders posing on rooftops in front of clear blue skies. But we have created a table where not only anyone can sit, but anyone can feel heard. They may not all acknowledge every little bit of everything we did to start the agency we couldn't find -- screwing the new toilet seat on, not paying ourselves for the first six months, pretending to like football, and notf flinching when he -- he who represents all of those before him that didn't acknowledge my ideas -- introduces himself as the CEO and I introduce myself as the founder.
Looking back at the younger me, I should have known that it was never about the quality of my ideas, it was about my lack of credentials for club membership. So in all those times I sat around the table listening to my inner monologue, I could have told myself that one day I'd be the founder of my own club The Adventures Of. A club that wasn't a club at all, but a spaceship on a voyage of discovery going where no man has gone before.
Leila El-Kayem is the Founding Partner and Chief Creative Officer of The Adventures Of, an independent creative agency in Berlin
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