The executive creative director of Anomaly Berlin talks about the city’s unique attitude and how she combines her work with a parallel path as a conceptual artist.
“Nobody came to Berlin with a job,” says Leila El-Kayem, recalling her early days in a city that still nurtures and inspires her. She has a job now, all right – she was appointed ECD of Anomaly Berlin back in March – and indeed she’s carved out much of her career in the edgy German capital.
Like many others, she originally arrived in the city as an artist. In fact she’s still an artist, and nothing in her education suggested that she’d also work in advertising one day. How did that occur?
“Rent had to be paid,” she says, simply. “Berlin was cheaper back in 2002 than it is now, but I still needed a roof over my head. At first I worked in many different roles and capacities, often with galleries, while developing my art on the side. Then around two years in I started applying for internships as a designer. And that’s how I stumbled into advertising.”
Over the next decade she built up a wealth of experience working for agencies in Berlin and New York, developing concepts for major brands – including Nike, Asics, Google and PlayStation. When I ask her to define her work, she proposes “ideation”, before dismissing it with a laugh as too pretentious. But it’s a great word to define a magical job: coming up with ideas.
In 2014 she co-founded indie agency The Adventures Of, mainly because it was the kind of agency she wanted to work for: the international, English-speaking outfit one might find in Amsterdam but didn’t exist in Berlin back then.
“There wasn’t really an agency with that global mindset here yet. So our agency was born out of a frustration of not knowing where to go. It really tapped into the culture of Berlin and the talent here. Berlin has always attracted a wide array of people with different backgrounds and skillsets, so this was a place they could come and work. Basically we were a bunch of anarchists and misfits.”
Leila herself has an unconventional profile. Half-German, she was born in New Zealand and had a nomadic childhood, spending time in Singapore, London and Montreal. It’s the kind of upbringing that engenders openness and adaptability, crucial assets when dealing with clients.
The Adventures Of closed in 2019, but the entrepreneurial experience added business acumen to Leila’s skills. Positioning the agency in the market, ensuring the creative lived up to that vision, and championing the value of the work: all of which were in tune with what Anomaly sought in an ECD. She’d also honed the art of management. “When you’re running a company, you become not just an employer, but almost a parent to some of the younger people.”
Anomaly Berlin opened while she was finishing the last chapter of The Adventures Of – and the arrival of the US agency felt like a game-changer. It had an understanding of what Berlin had to offer as well as the right multicultural attitude. Leila initially went “back to school” – at the Royal College of Art in London – but she kept an eye on Anomaly: “And when I heard the ECD role had become available, I jumped on it.”
The Berlin agency has a staff of around 70. It adheres to Anomaly’s philosophy of creating business solutions rather than “ads”. There are no timesheets – the agency believes it should be paid based on its performance – and a wide range of disciplines under one roof. Silos are so 20th century.
As an advocate for more diversity in the industry, Leila finds Anomaly ahead of the curve – from its female leadership to the mix of talent among its staff. There are also a number of internal initiatives, including a committee called CREW: The Creative Review for More Equitable Work. It reviews campaigns to make sure less visible groups are represented.
“Overall I’d say the industry is still behind – but there has been some progress. I was out of the industry for about four years, and when I was at an ADC [Art Directors’ Club] Germany meeting recently I was pleasantly surprised to see more diversity in the room.”
Leila remains an artist at heart. She’s interested in landscape, earthworks, rock, and how matter retains memory. Hardly a Sunday afternoon watercolour painter, then. How does she balance her job with her art?
“Not easily!” she laughs. “If you look at a pie chart, my work at Anomaly takes up a large part of the cake. But I’m always thinking about how my work can develop. A lot of that is done through reading: finding out who interests me and how my work can be woven into that conversation.”
Her two lives influence each other. Her branding skills allow her to position herself within the art world – although for now she has no need to sell her art – while her artistic approach enables her to explore new forms of creativity in the communications space. “For example, ‘experience’ is becoming more important within branding. How does one create an experience, or an artwork, that can be shared?”
It's a more intellectual approach that may well resonate in Berlin, where marketing can be looked down upon as overtly commercial. The advertising industry in Germany has tended to congregate around Dusseldorf and Hamburg, even though Berlin has a creative soul. Could it ever rival Amsterdam or even London as an international advertising hub?
“Perhaps Amsterdam, because there’s an issue of space there. Berlin has potential in terms of its vastness. Certainly the talent is here, which is why the agency scene is evolving: the fact that I’m working at an English-speaking agency is a sign of that. But while the city has become more commercial – AKA ‘gentrified’ – over the years, it still retains its anarchic, progressive history. So I don’t think it will ever be London, Paris, or New York. And I don’t think it wants to be.”
While the city has become more commercial, it retains its anarchic, progressive history.