Interview with Marksteen Adamson

marksteen adamson

1. 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.

2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?

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.

They believed in me and that helped me overcome most of my insecurities. My biggest hurdle when I started out was getting a grip on the English language. I often felt stupid when I was in a situation and I didn’t have a clue what people were talking about.

3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?

Portfolio. Always over deliver and clients will speak well of you. 80% of new business for us is referrals. Do good work. Be honest, stick to your principals, and new business will follow. Sending out Hand written letters is good too.

4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?

Be honest, Be generous, Stick to your principals, and clients will stay. But if a client gets abusive, fire them. I’ve done it twice. I won’t have anyone (and I don’t care who) treat our staff badly.

5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?

Scope out your project. Show the clients all the stages including costs, and mention to them at the start that you will be charging 60% upfront and the rest on completion of the initial concept stage.

Implementation is always TBA’s as you won’t know what you need to produce until you’ve done the concept and its been agreed. Don’t do creative pitches for free. If they ask you to, tell them you don’t do sex before marriage.

Or, yes, you’ll do a free creative pitch if they agree to come and paint your whole house for free – inside and out?

6. What does your typical work day look like?

Super busy. Helping others, getting through admin that piles up, dipping in and out of personal projects, in and out of meetings at ASHA on various projects. The days vary a lot depending on the projects we have and the stage they are at. I’m at my best at the conceptual part of the project making sure we get the projects going in the right direction.

I spend a lot of my time helping clients re-position 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.

I’m also lucky to have a really talented team to work with. We just click really well and everyone has a part to play.

7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?

We need to change 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.

Connect with
Marksteen Adamson

More strategies to boost your design career

Interview published on: May 16, 2017

Check out these other designers

Carston Glock

Carston Glock

When did you realise you wanted to be a designer? It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment. Drawing floorplans of huge...

Sarah Fleming

Sarah Fleming

1. When did you realise you wanted to get into the creative industry? I very much doubt he’ll ever see this, but I owe...

Kurt Kretten

Kurt Kretten

1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer? I was a comic book nerd. I wanted to be a comic book artist. And...


  1. DJ

    Lovely to hear that story again MSA! Very best wishes, DJ

  2. Pamela Chen Moore

    Really lovely to learn your story Marksteen– inspirational and thought-provoking!!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.