There are those who dream of change, but rarely take action. Then there are the dreamers who envisage a better world and dedicate their entire existence to making it happen. Since it first began as the fledgling creation of two best friends back in 2004, creative agency Josephmark has cultivated an enviable stable of clients and offshoot projects, including music aggregator site We Are Hunted, online t-shirt design studio Made in the Now and, most recently, the redesign for MySpace. But don’t let founder Ben Johnston’s laid-back, shaggy-haired-surfer demeanour lead you astray – this 29-year-old entrepreneur has his sights set on changing the world. And he’ll do everything he can to make it happen.
When you are born to exceptionally creative parents, life often takes one of two paths. Either you revel in your creative upbringing, nurturing it and exploring it in every aspect of life, or you rebel, yearning to explore a world of quantitative logic and concrete, provable theory. But when these two contrasting mindsets manifest themselves in one individual, an unshakeable entrepreneurial spirit is born. And such was the case for Ben Johnston.
“I was an accident for two hippies,” he explains as the reason for his existence. “They were both teachers who dabbled in art and when I came along they both changed their careers to be at home with me. They became live-at-home artists – my mum became quite an established papermaker and my dad did watercolour and sculpture. I had this crazy creativity around me all the time.”
In spite of the creative influence, Ben’s penchant was for the analytical, particularly maths and science, and in his final years of school he began working towards a career in engineering. But a last-minute flirtation with the world of industrial design seized his curiosity in the end, and it was that path he followed into university.
It was while Ben was at university in 2004 that the impetus for the beginning of Josephmark came. He was living with best friend Josh Capelin and their girlfriends (who also happened to be sisters). Josh was studying advertising and the two lads decided to combine their complementary nous and start a business from their Paddington abode. “We had these ideals of running the business and surfing heaps, which we were kind of successful at,” Ben says of their initial philosophy, laughing at their neophyte naivety. “But we were really stimulated by ideas in general. It was design orientated but we didn’t really have any particular goal in mind, so the first couple of years were really spent just learning how to run a business.”
In the first year, the boys sourced the bulk of their work on the back of their youthful enthusiasm and laid-back cool. “We spent most of the time walking around in bare feet and with our shirts off,” Ben describes of the duo’s work environment. “Eventually we knew the business was getting serious when we spent more time with our shirts on than off!”
About 18 months into the business, Ben and Josh hired their first design-specialised employee, Jess Huddart (who, these days,is Josephmark’s creative director based in New York City). Lack of space forced them to search for a new work milieu, which they soon discovered within the charming confines of Substation 4 on Petrie Terrace. The responsibility of employees and rent was incentive enough for the lads to knuckle down and work hard at the business. Within a year they had gone from subleasing part of Substation 4, to occupying the entire building, which still remains their headquarters today.
While Josh left Josephmark in 2007 to pursue other dreams, Ben says that, even after evolving for eight years, many of their original visions for the business still imbue its daily activities. “We never wanted to feel like we were going to work and we carried that ethos through when we started building a team,” he explains. “I guess it stemmed from our own desire to create a workplace that was fun and enjoyable, with work that was stimulating.”
Another core aspect is voracious curiosity. “Curiosity was one of the reasons that we started the business and has continued to carry us to some very interesting places,” Ben says. “We’re very comfortable with playing in the unknown.”
Those forays into the unexpected have led Ben and the Josephmark team to expand their work into other realms. First there was Gilimbaa, an indigenous creative agency that brings elements of indigenous art and storytelling to the world of contemporary design and communication. Then there was the digital strategy company Native Digital, creative agency Breeder, music website We Are Hunted, and online t-shirt design studio, Made in the Now.
And on top of all that, Ben still found time to open West End watering hole The End in 2011. “That was based on years of experience in drinking beer,” Ben laughs. “Originally we were looking at setting up a bar in the Substation and thankfully came to our senses and realised it would probably be detrimental to our businesses. When we eventually found the West End location, it became a pet project to create a space that represented our perfect bar that we really wanted to go to.”
Two of Josephmark’s latest projects include the design of online independent newspaper The Global Mail and the recently launched redesign of MySpace. Asked how a small creative agency in Brisbane caught the eye of the powers behind the revamp of the pioneering music site, Ben says he was just as confounded. “In September last year we got an out-of-the blue email from someone at MySpace asking if we were interested in taking part in their worldwide tender for the redesign,” he explains of the surprise. “We later found out that we were one of only five agencies asked to tender, and the only one outside the US. They’d approached us based on our experience with We Are Hunted. But, to be honest, I think we were thrown in at the last minute.”
Despite being up against some of the world’s best digital agencies, three weeks later Josephmark received the phone call confirming it had been awarded the MySpace contract. The site relaunched last month, but Ben says they’ve only just scratched the surface. “What was released to the world a few weeks ago is just a fraction of the overall picture,” he enthuses.
The recent success has allowed Josephmark to wedge its foot into the industry in the US, buoying creative director Jess’ efforts to build the brand’s reputation in New York.
While their trajectory now points steadily towards success, Ben says there have been tougher times. “It hasn’t been an easy road and there have been times in our history when there’s been no cash in the bank and we’ve had to find ways to pay wages. It really makes you question what you’re doing.”
But in the end, Ben’s desire to make change always won over the doubts. “I think it was a naive optimism that made me not give up,” he muses. “I believed that we genuinely had a business that gave back more than it took and I just knew that it had to go on.”
These days Ben finds his inspiration within his tight-knit community of friends, who he says ground him in both a spiritual and business sense. His other greatest inspiration is nature. “I just love the dirt and I love the water and I try to spend time outdoors as much as possible,” he says. “And I try to look at the stars a lot and think about how small and insignificant we are in space and time. It gives me the confidence to do whatever I believe in.”