Ten Questions for – Marksteen Adamson

The ASHA co-founder tells us how he coerced Pentagram into giving him a job, why branding is about “being” and why we shouldn’t do drugs.

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When did you realise you wanted to be a designer? 

It was more a case of not having a choice. I grew up in Africa and went to a Swedish mission school until I was 12. Then we moved to Denmark (my mother is Danish) and I went to a Danish school until I was 15. I wanted to work in the police force in the Homicide Crime Unit doing forensics and solving crime. But when I arrived in the UK, with English being my fourth language it was clear that I would have to start all over again. I didn’t want to waste time getting a job, (we were poor and I wanted an education as soon as possible so I could start earning an income). My father suggested that since I had an interest in drawing I should try Falmouth Art School. I went down there without a portfolio and the tutors took pity on my standing there in my clogs and speaking English like a freshly-flown-in immigrant from Tanzania. They gave me a place on the course and that was my first break. I worked so hard, day and night, and only three of us on the course got distinctions. That enabled me to get a place on a degree course and I passed that with flying colours, working day and night and paying off my loan working in local hospitals cleaning toilets in the weekend.

What was your first job?

When I left Uni, I went for about 30 interviews and got offered many jobs. I wanted to work at Pentagram, and despite the fact that they didn’t have vacancies, I insisted on working there. After my morning interview, I stayed in reception until the end of the day when everyone was going home and one of the partners came down and asked me why I was still there. I told him I was not leaving until he gave me a job. That’s how I got my first job. I left Pentagram with lots of experience and then worked at Saatchi and Saatchi until I finally landed at Newell and Sorrell where I found home, love and the best bosses I could have ever wished for – John and Frances Sorrell. John was like a surrogate father to me and I love both him and Frances to this day for giving me all the opportunities that have made me who I am today.

How would you describe what you currently do?

I spend a lot of my time helping clients reposition their products, companies or countries to fit with the truth and who they actually are rather than what people might wrongly think about them. I love working with Presidents, CEOs of big organizations and visionary business owners. My main role is problem-solving and helping to shape strategies that build the right reputation, which in turn builds long-term value in the brand and also drives more revenue. I love solving big and small problems in every aspect of my life. That can also be very annoying for my wife sometimes.

What has been the biggest change in design since you started? 

The biggest change is in the language we use in the industry. I think we had the ’80s and ’90s where it was all about saying. Lots of “slogos” and stupid straplines that meant nothing. Then we have the 2000- 12 era where it was all about “doing” in the form of terrible disingenuous  CSR programmes that where no more than a token gesture for big corporations to tick a goodwill box. I think we are now entering a new and fresh era that will be more about “being”, and the only brands that we will love in the future are the once that simply just are and behave more generous than any of their competitors. The only real differentiation in the future are the brands that are truly generous.

What is your favorite project that you’ve worked on?

Behold the Man” was a personal project that I worked on in my own time over the three years. I like doing projects that have a social impact and inspire change for good. I also loved working on the brand strategy for the countrybrand work we did for Kazakhstan. Great people, great nation.

What is your favorite project, that you haven’t worked on?

I’d love to brand MI5 or GCHQ

What was your biggest mistake?

Taking drugs. I’m grateful to be Straight Edge today. Life is so much better with out using any form of stimulating substance, including alcohol.

What is your greatest ambition?

To be a better man, husband and father to my children. I’m so not perfect, but I never want to stop trying. I also want to help, encourage and guide as many young people as I can. I want them to grow and learn from my mistakes. I have a lot of God-children for that very reason.

Who is the most inspirational person you have worked with?

Louise Dawson

What piece of advice would you give to people starting out in design?

Never work on projects that you don’t believe in or doesn’t sit well with your values. It’s worth sticking to your principles. Good eventually triumphs over evil if you’re patient.

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