Kate Hamilton and Emily Ames are the duo out to shake up the world of brand communications. Previously Editor-in-Chief and Brand Director respectively of fashion and travel magazine SUITCASE, they founded content and communications agency Sonder & Tell in September last year with the aim of helping brands tell better stories. We caught up with them to talk about how they got started, what makes a great piece of content and why the name Sonder & Tell…
How did the two of you meet?
We both landed in Barcelona as part of our university degrees and met there, having been put in touch by a mutual friend. We basically dated each other – going to tapas bars, football games and weird dancehall nights, and quickly hit off one of those friendships where you feel like you’ve known each other your whole life.
What prompted you to set up Sonder and Tell?
It’s fair to say we always knew we wanted to do something together but it took a while to figure out just what that looked like. After finishing up at university we went to work as part of the in-house team at SUITCASE Magazine (Kate as Senior Editor and then Editor-in-Chief; Emily as Brand Director of the magazine and then Content Director of SUITCASE’s media agency). We spent an incredible five years travelling and writing with SUITCASE, but were also aware of how much the editorial landscape was shifting – more and more brands were producing their own content, but not always getting it right. We felt like there was a real need for brands to think more critically – more journalistically – about what they were putting out into the world.
How is Sonder and Tell different from other content and communications agencies?
We’re not interested in creating content for the sake of it. There are so many words out there today – in the form of newsletters, blogs, podcasts and more – that if a brand isn’t adding value or sparking conversation then its voice is just adding to the noise. We make sure every brand we work with has a really solid story, before working out how to tell it in a way that aligns with their business objectives. That might mean using Instagram as a vehicle to drive sales rather than investing in a blog that few people will read, for example.
Another point of difference is that we actually try not to refer to ourselves as an agency because it sounds quite disconnected – we’re essentially a brand director and an editor who think strategically as well as tell stories, and can become part of your extended team.
What do you think makes a good brand story?
On a basic level we always tell our clients to think of their brand story as you would any other good narrative – it’s likely to have protagonist (a founder), characters (the people who are at the heart of the brand), a plot (what the company does), as well as a sense of conflict (what problem they’re trying to solve) and a solution (how they’re fixing it).
But the stories that really go the distance and make a brand stand out are the ones that have a wider positive culture – whether that’s a food brand educating the world about a sustainable way of eating, or a fashion brand promoting body positivity. A brand story has got to be authentic, too – there’s no point just telling people what you think they want to hear.
What has been the hardest thing about setting up your own agency? What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt?
Talking about money is the most difficult thing! Don’t think anybody truly finds cash chat easy, but you just have to leave any awkwardness by the wayside when you’re on your own; when your pay depends on you negotiating a decent rate for yourself. We’ve had to get comfortable discussing budgets, and have learned to do so early on in a client relationship. When you’re starting out it’s easy to get over-excited about each and every potential project that comes your way – we’ve ended up being led down the garden path and giving away ideas for free. So there’s a lot to be said for keeping a level head until anything is confirmed.
Why the name Sonder and Tell?
The word sonder was dreamed up by an American writer called John Koenig, who defines it as “the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” It’s basically that feeling you get (often on public transport) where you realise that everyone has their own stuff going on. We loved the idea that every person, and by extension every brand, has their own story. We exist to find a voice for those stories to be told.
What does a normal day look like for you?
There’s no norm at the moment. We don’t have an office yet so we generally commute to each other’s houses (a 70-minute ride on the sweet number 36 bus…) or work at Soho House, especially if we have meetings. If we’re with a client then we’ll start off with a brand immersion exercise – that might mean spending a day at a restaurant and interviewing all the staff, setting up focus groups or interviewing investors and founders. There’s usually a fair amount of writing and editing on any given day. And Fridays are for interviewing and photographing new content creators for our editorial platform.
How do you go about choosing those content creators that you feature on your community page?
Our community page is a complete joy to put together and every content creator we feature creates work that we really love and respect. It’s everyone from millennial obsession Dolly Alderton to the lesser–known but equally incredible photographer and writer Riaz Philips who created Belly Full, a book on Caribbean food in the UK. There’s no real formula to choose who’s next, but we do our best to make sure we’re profiling a diversity of perspectives and professions – that we’re showing just how many stories there are to be told.
We’ve also just starting putting on events to introduce our audience to the creators we feature IRL. Our first was a photowalk with two amazing photojournalists called Emily Garthwaite and Alice Aedy in aid of Women for Women International. More recently, we collaborated with Riposte Magazine to host a night of discussions on childhood reading with writers Rosalind Jana, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, Kieran Yates and Charlie Craggs. Our next one will be interviewing writer Jamie Bartlett on his new book The People Vs Tech (in aid of Unicef Next Generation).