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Calling Zetteler Zetteler was not my idea, but it is pretty fun seeing your name on your beautiful (Downey printed) stationery.
23rd July 2017

Meet the team: Sabine Zetteler

Four years ago, Zetteler was pretty much a one-woman band operating from a desk in a shared office. Today, things are rather different. The company has grown enormously in terms of team, clients and scope; the office is now (if we do say so ourselves), both massive and rather beautiful, and we’re privileged to work with some of the most exciting people and brands on the creative scene. 

So it’s only natural that we’ve recently taken to wondering ‘How the hell did this happen?’.  To answer that question, we thought it would be a good idea to pin down our founder Sabine Zetteler and ask her some probing questions about why we’re here and what on earth she thinks she’s doing. 

Here – in the first of a new blog series in which we get up close and personal with ourselves – is what she said…

Hello Sabine, how come you’ve named a company after yourself?

Ha! Calling Zetteler Zetteler was not my idea and was never the intention. I know it’s what most people do for ease, but I’m quite awkward about narcissistic-seeming things like that. I am pretty comfortable in my skin, true to my values and extremely proud of everything we've achieved – but it was never and will never be about me. Actually, I love the fact that, for the most part, we (PR agencies in general) are the silent middlemen in nearly everything we do – celebrating amazing artists, makers and innovators and informing writers, curators and thinkers about their work. PRs are never at the forefront. However, in the process of planning a website and getting a bit more serious about having a company, we went through lots of names, and my editor (Anthony Leyton) pointed out that my name is ridiculous, probably quite rare and therefore pretty useful on the internet. 

My beloved desk at Zetteler HQ. I genuinely love being there, which I do realise is really lame.
Before Zetteler, most of your professional life was spent in TV and travel – why did you decide to set up in the design field?

My dad was a paper man and my mother an artist, and together they created a wildly successful paper company in the ’70s (at one stage very much a peer of G . F Smith, which is funny). Collectively they had many creative friends; they made beautiful books and my mum has read at least 50% of the books on earth, so curiosity about creativity came as standard. My first boyfriend was/is a product designer and, as I gained an understanding of his process at university and his extraordinary (obsessional) interest in the ergonomics of everything, I started to question everything I interacted with too, and the magazines, documentaries and conversations followed. That same hunt for the truth of things, how they're made and what they are for (and how they can be made better) now sits at the heart of what I do every day of my working life.

When I started work at Mr & Mrs Smith, I'd never done a day of PR in my life – but what was important to James and Tamara (aka Mr and Mrs Smith) was a person's enthusiasm, effort and ability to communicate as a human being. I'll be forever grateful that they didn't require a degree in something to be able to do it, only a determination to enthusiastically tell the truth. If something is good enough, you'll never need to lie or exaggerate, but you do need to know who will care and make sure they do. Those values have spread into everything we do at Zetteler, and it's what makes us different. No bullshit. All our clients listed on the site (no white-labelled ones we take cash from but don't actually want anyone to know about). Total transparency and an absolute faith that they're all great. We know they are, because if they weren't we wouldn’t represent them…

Design and values combined. The most enjoyable part of Milan this year were the talks by Disegno x British Council. The whole team were obsessed.
When you first went freelance in 2013, did you plan to set up a full-service PR business, or has it developed organically?

Again, not at all. When I left Mr & Mrs Smith and went freelance it was to work both with the wonderful Henrietta Thompson, supporting her with the million amazing projects she was working on, and Andy Dunn on our documentary-production company Zetteler & Dunn (now Zetteler Films).  

I also helped my friend Olivia Triggs of Breed London with some of her comms thinking and social media. Since Henrietta was curating 100% Norway at London Design Festival, I shared loads of ideas with them about how I thought they could take their communications forward, and in the end they offered me the whole gig. I met a lot of design industry heavyweights while working with Henrietta, art and graphics industry players through Olivia and G . F Smith, and made a whole host of amazing new contacts making films with Andy. Knowing my history in PR, more and more people asked me to help them with their businesses, and suddenly we were off. Then came loads of incredible projects, then an employee, then some more, then an office to call our own... and now we have room to dance about. Not a bad trajectory, all things considered.

Working with people you love for people you love feels pretty special - Ioana, Camille, (me), Jodi and Julia last week. Good vibes.
What do you look for in someone who’s applying for a role on the Zetteler team?

Someone I like. 
Someone who has skills I don't. 
Someone with ideas and vivacity. 
Someone with a beating heart.
Someone who wants a better world (I mean that in the least fluffy way possible).
Someone who genuinely gives a shit. 

Me and Andy Dunn (friends for 11 years now) on a recent film trip to Malmö in Sweden (June 2017).
What’s been the hardest lesson to learn in the last four years?

That no matter how organised you are, how carefully you plan and how many hours you put in, there are 999,000 elements that are out of your control and you just need to be flexible in reality. Prototypes fail. Shoots get cancelled. People don't turn up. Invoices don't get paid on time (or sometimes ever). My employees are brilliant, but at times they'll need to focus on pressing family issues at the busiest periods. I work my ass off, but I too have difficult life experiences that take me away from my work (physically or mentally), whether I like it or not. 

Grit. Great book. Running your own business demands SO much grit. At 34 years old, I reckon I'm 50%.
…and the proudest moment?

I love listening to the team every day as they manage their own tasks, organise themselves, create incredible press coverage and live and breathe the values we’ve built our company on. There is something magical about bringing people into your space, your idea, your greatest passion in life, and feel them understand it in their own unique ways and work hard to represent it with everything they've got.

This is going sound a bit self-indulgent, but reading the testimonials we received recently from a handful of clients and contacts in the press also made me feel amazingly proud. They're incredibly awkward to ask for, but the responses changed my life, no joke. Knowing that we’re useful is a wonderful thing and every time a new testimonial comes in it fills me with pride about how we are actually helping people build their worlds up and get their ideas out there.

Getting our De Beauvoir office in November 2016 was a really big deal for us. And a very proud moment for me.
Although Zetteler’s grown a lot recently it’s still a small company – what can it offer that the big companies can’t?

Genuine collective thought. Vivacity. A nimbleness to adapt to change. Bigger companies seem to have flashier slogans that communicate their ability to be flexible, to create the best 'campaigns' and the rest but all we ever hear is that it's all talk. The directors go to the meetings, promise the world and then when it comes to it, they delegate almost everything to their junior account managers – that’s not how we work at all. We're all in the team meetings talking about all our clients and projects (including consultancy commissions, PR projects, social media clients and editorial work). That keeps us all thinking about how our areas connect and allows us to offer a lot more than a list of services for a list of prices. We help one another help our clients get the best out of every brain in the room.

Half of Team Zetteler last week at Camille Walala's launch at NOW Gallery; Jess, Dorothy, (me), Emily and Katie.
Do you have a favourite designer or creative?

How to alienate your client-base in one easy step. No I don’t, although I saw Paola Antonelli of MoMa speak at a Riposte event earlier this year (thanks Danielle) and she is now who I aspire to as a creative and as a human (except that she clearly hates vegans). She is an absolute legend.

LUSH book by Jenny Lewis about the area we all live in and love to work it. It's very special, you should probably buy it.
How much do your own interests and values influence Zetteler as a whole?

So much – I can't deny that. There's no point risking everything, investing everything and doing everything in your power to change something for the better if you're not doing it in a way that feels morally and ethically sound. My team make all kinds of decisions on their own – their individual press pitches, Zetteler social posts; we debate the validity of potential new clients and we debate the purpose of everything – and it works because at heart we have different interests (valuable) but similar core values (vital). I might be the founder, but Zetteler works as a collaborative project among each of its component members.

I've been pretty incapable of shutting up my entire life, so I guess the PR lifestyle is just my character.
What keeps you awake at night?

Not being useful. There's also no point in any of this if it's not progressive. It’s tempting to just keep it calm and cruise along when everything is going well. But actually, sod that! If we can do it better, we will do it better – which is a wonderful, if rather restless, way to live.

What are you bad at?

Saying no. Though I am improving in that department.

Some of the crew a few months back; Katie, Jess, Dorothy, (me), Amy and Jodi.
What do you think are the essential traits and skills you need to run your own business?

Flexibility. A natural ability to graft. An endless source of optimism. An ability to take calculated risks because of the bigger picture you can see somewhere down the line. 'Growth' in the capitalist guise is of absolutely no interest to me; that’s not the goal here. But continually trying to make things better, making more meaningful connections, reflecting on what went well and not so well, becoming more knowledgeable all round, making bolder decisions where necessary and being more critical are all part of the essential process of moving forward. If you want to do things in a socially, environmentally and emotionally responsible way, you have to be willing to take the long road. That might mean (speaking hypothetically, naturally) renting a one-bedroom flat with your boyfriend at the age of 34 because every wedge of profit you make can be flowed into a pay rise for someone, a charity project for someone else, a beautiful, bright office for the team to spend their daily lives in and great stationery (because that shit matters). 

Beautiful stationery by Downey. Because that shit matters.
We're pretty lucky to have all the daylight at Zetteler HQ - block of windows on both sides of the office. Dreamy.
Who or what has had the biggest influence on your life and work?

I have been helped in a thousand ways on a thousands days throughout my life. Growing up I watched my mum single-handedly manage her job, the house, my sister and me – and remain unfailingly kind and generous in the process – and that definitely instilled in me an undying determination to never be dependent on anybody. Then there were my lecturers at university in our sustainability modules and the people I work with at the homeless shelters I’ve volunteered at. Between them, they’ve taught me our effects on the delicate ecosystems on earth and how our self-serving global infrastructure impacts our society. Growth for the sake of growth, for the money or for the prestige will only make us tired, distant from the parts of this design landscape that we love and distracted by the shiny things in life. Good work is good for the soul. Keeping it nimble and creating a long-term, fun, inspiring, challenging, ever-changing place to work is what I want for the rest of my life... and for anyone who wants to work there with me. It may be risky, and there is no safety net – it's just me, my team, our experience and our desire to be better. I truly believe that's all we'll ever need.

Restoration Station - introduced to us by Jodi Moss. Owning your own business means owning your own cash flow and deciding to work with all manner of charities and causes for free is something I have the freedom to do - and the team are right behind me.
We may be mostly women in the daily team, but we're lucky to work with some exceptional men, like Anthony Leyton (our editor on the left) and Anthony Burrill who gifted us these dreamy prints after we collaborated a show at Clerkenwell Design Week this year. Thanks guys!

Studio 3
De Beauvoir Block
92 De Beauvoir Road
N1 4EN

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