I loved living and working in London, cycling to work and back. I even canoed to work for a while when I lived in Ealing Broadway. I’d get up at 4.30am, rig up the bike with a trailer, put my sea kayak on and cycle to Acton. There, I’d dismantle the trailer, put the bike behind a friendly greasy café and then canoe eight miles down the Grand Union Canal. Through summer and winter ice, alongside the biggest water rats you’ve ever seen, I’d paddle to St John’s Wood, where I’d get out and tow the canoe to work and park it next to the directors’ BMWs. Life was good.
After moving to Amsterdam to open an office for Newell and Sorrell, it was all about travelling backwards and forwards on planes for the next eight years. But, on returning to London in 2000, everything had changed. I could no longer just jump in a car and go and see friends, cycling had become unbearable, the Underground and buses were the same, but dirtier, older and even more crowded. It just felt like potholing all day.
In 2002, I decided to leave Interbrand. I wanted to build something of my own, and corporate life had become meaningless. I was offered a studio space in Clerkenwell, but every pub there seemed to have too many designers in them all looking the same and talking about the same things. It was like ‘Stepford designers’. I knew I’d hate it.
There was always the fear that I would no longer be taken seriously by the design community if I set up outside London. Personally, I wasn’t really worried, but from a client’s perspective I knew there would be explaining to do. When you work and live in London you convince yourself that anything beyond Ealing Broadway is a failed operation. But, after a short crisis of confidence, I moved out of London to give my family, and myself, a better life. I even relocated key members of the team with their families. I knew that all we needed to do was just carry on doing good work, and then, hopefully, we wouldn’t drop off the radar.
To date, it has made little, if any, difference being outside London. Our work is good and gets noticed. We regularly win awards and pitches against consultancies in London, and our client list is made up of blue-chip companies, global organisations, charities, banks, healthcare organisations and major retailers.
Cheltenham is also strategically situated in the middle of the UK. A lot of big organisations have now also set up outside London. Some of our biggest clients are in Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Somerset and the Midlands. Half of our clients are in London, and we work internationally, too. Meeting them in London regularly is easy. We’re members of a private club in Covent Garden, where we meet, entertain and present to clients. It’s a club with all the media facilities we need, plus library, bar and a great chef. It works well and it only takes us two hours to get home – about the same time as it takes to reach a London suburb using the Tube.
Even though we are outside London, we have all we need here for the business, and our town centre was recently voted the best shopping high street in the UK. We also live on the edge of some of the best countryside in the UK. So, no need for a second home – or private schools, because some of the best state schools in the UK are out here.
It was always going to be a big risk moving out of London. Many have done it, only to end up in converted barns in the middle of nowhere – big mistake. You don’t need to wear wellies to work outside London. Setting up in an extreme rural setting makes it almost impossible to employ the best and most trend-conscious designers. You need to be in a major city or town.
Having said that, I love going back into London. It’s exciting, creative and inspiring. But, most of all, I love the trip back home, especially on my motorbike. When I reach the A40 through Oxford, the air changes into a fresh natural perfume and, as the sun sets, I feel my temporarily broken identity falling back into place. As I get closer to home, the roads get less congested, and when I finally arrive and put the key in my door, I always think of how lucky I am to have this ‘life less ordinary’.
Marksteen Adamson is a founding partner of Arthur Steen Horne Adamson
The good life
• Do good work and you won’t drop off the radar
• You don’t need to be based in London if you know how to use it remotely
• You can still meet clients in London – try using member’s clubs
• If you do move out, it helps to be in a major town, in order to attract the right talent