Michael Roth, chief executive of Interpublic. REUTERS/Sebastien Nogier
Michael Roth, chief executive of Interpublic. REUTERS/Sebastien Nogier

First jobs of Madison Avenue's ad wizards

By Chris Taylor Time of article published Nov 2, 2018

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Thanks to TV shows like “Mad Men,” the advertising world seems to many to be impossibly stylish and full of intrigue.

The real-life starts of the nation’s ad giants? Not so glamorous. For the latest in the “First Jobs” series, we talked to a few top ad execs about the gigs that got them started.

Michael Roth

Chairman and chief executive, Interpublic

First job: Hat seller

This was back in college, and the family of one of my fraternity brothers owned a hat company. At the time, the New York World’s Fair was taking place, so I worked at the fair selling hats. This would have been in 1964 - my God I’m old.

In essence I was a barker, standing out there trying to get people’s attention. My favorite phrases were ‘Lids for the Kids!’ and ‘Hats for the Brats!’ I was pretty good at it. I remember once it was pouring, and a guy came up to me dripping wet and offered to buy my raincoat and shoes. I sold him the raincoat - not the shoes.

I learned a lot from that job. It taught me how to deal with people from all over the world, and the professional barkers taught me how to really work a crowd. I was also able to wander around the World’s Fair when no one else was there, which was pretty cool. My dates were always very impressed.

Wendy Clark

Chief executive, DDB North America

First job: McDonald’s

I worked for two years at the McDonald’s on Bee Ridge Road in Sarasota, Florida. It was right at the end of my neighborhood, and I used to ride by little bike there.

My entire goal was to save enough money to buy a car, because I didn’t come from a family that could afford that kind of thing. I started as a front-line cashier, but eventually I knew how to do every single job in the restaurant. I worked my way up to become shift manager, which gave me a whole lot of ambition and confidence.

In the end, I did save enough to buy that car, a six-year-old white Chevy Cavalier. Just recently, my agency pitched and won the U.S. business of McDonald’s. So that was a lovely turn of events. And I still have an old picture of me in my blue nylon uniform.

Dave Luhr

Global President, Wieden + Kennedy

First job: Oil tank cleaner

I worked for a summer cleaning oil tanks on a tank farm in Fontana, California. The job paid well - about $15 an hour - but it was so difficult. When you emptied the tanks, the floating roofs they had ended up about five feet above the floor. So you can’t stand up straight. You are sitting in five inches of tar-like oil.

You have to put on a rain suit, and you are using a hot steam pressure-washer to loosen the tar. It’s about 100 degrees outside, and about 140 inside. It’s dark. The fumes are unbelievable.

I’d come home and take a shower and, you know how when oil meets water on the road you see rainbows? I’d get out of the shower and there would be rainbows of oil skim coming off me.

I knew that I wanted to work in a different environment, but the job taught me about the importance of a team - the people who worked there depended on each other. And that’s something that has stuck with me.

Mike Sheldon

Chairman and chief executive, Deutsch North America

First job: Zamboni driver

Back in high school in Michigan I worked at an ice rink for a year, and I desperately wanted to move from cleaning the locker rooms to driving the Zamboni. So I made friends with the manager, and he taught me how to drive it. The only problem was that I was 14 years old at the time. Nobody knew, and nobody asked.

I couldn’t tell them I didn’t actually have a license. But I learned pretty fast, because in Michigan, you learn to drive on ice or you don’t survive. Once the rink closed, around 1 or 2 am, I used to invite my buddies in, put a rope behind the Zamboni and then drag them around the ice.

What I learned from that job is, if somebody ever asks if you can do something, say yes and then figure the details out later.


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