The path to the top often starts in humble toil. Former pizza makers and carpet cleaners, senior ad execs of today talk about their first jobs — and what they learned from the experience.
Jon Haber, co-founder, Giant Spoon
I was a dancing cellphone outside of an All State Cellular retail store as a 17-year-old in San Diego. I am not even sure how cell phones worked back then. It was definitely an intro to marketing. I found success in the supportive honking of passing motorists but learned about failure from the drivers who would throw trash at me. But it was foreshadowing for my career in advertising with a focus on technology and innovation. At least I wasn’t a dancing pager.
Seth Solomons, North America CEO, Wunderman
I was probably 16 when I went to this strip mall in Monsey in Rockland County in New York, walking door to door asking if anybody needed help. I wound up walking into this shop called Cut Right Carpet, whose owner needed somebody to clean the showroom. I was the guy cleaning the dust and remnants of carpets after school and vacuuming the place. It really was not glamorous. It was part of the maturation process, taking on responsibility, showing up and doing what you’re told. The takeaway for me was that in a business, every job is everybody’s job. Even today, regardless of my title or role, I still do everything I can to make sure I understand every facet of our business and do whatever’s needed in any situation.
Wendy Clark, CEO, DDB North America
My first job — a great story now that we’re running the account — was at a McDonald’s in Sarasota, Florida. I worked there for a year and a half, starting when I was 17. I wanted a car, and this was the way to get it. And the proximity to the unlimited chocolate milkshakes didn’t hurt either. I did everything from birthday parties to running the drive-thru, and was a shift manager by the time I left, gaining a pretty informative skill set ranging from manning cash registers to customer service. I used my experience on the pitch as a way to talk about my depth of knowledge about the business as well as my commitment to the brand. I truly believe they’re a magical company and have my blue uniform hat still.
Marcus Collins, head of social engagement, Doner
In high school, I used to cut grass for my church in Detroit. I was the landscaper and got $100 a month, from sixth grade until graduation. My uncle was the pastor, and my father was also closely involved, so I really didn’t have a choice in the matter. There would be times I would just be finishing, and my uncle would sweep the hedges, and I’d have to do it all over again. But it taught me work ethic and that you can’t half-ass anything. There’s a certain dignity to putting your everything into the job.
John Patroulis, creative chairman, BBH New York
When I was 16, I started working at a Little Caesars in Toledo, Ohio to earn some extra bucks for dates and prom. I worked on the line a few days a week, dressing the pizzas, putting them in the oven, taking them out on the other side and then packaging them. I remember working on the Super Bowl, probably the busiest time of the year for a pizza place, so it was a lot of pressure, especially for a 16-year-old. But it taught me the value of hard work, and also that any job could be fun.
Maurice Bernstein, CEO and co-founder, Giant Step
Having grown up and gone to college in the U.K., I didn’t have the need for a true job. That changed quickly once I moved to New York at 23, hoping to kickstart a career in the music industry. I started working at a West Village spot called Formerly Joe’s. I had to learn to think on my feet pretty quickly. We had an oyster shucker who swore like a sailor at staff and patrons alike. He eventually toned down his language and went on to achieve fame and fortune as Anthony Bourdain. All in all, the work was tough and the hours were long, but my time at Formerly Joe’s taught me what it really takes to make it in this city. Nothing’s ever easy, but the pay-off is worth it.
Bryan Weiner, executive chairman, 360i
I started my career during the summer of 1992 as the Kool-Aid mascot. During that summer, I learned the importance of working your way up. At the time, I was interning for a sports marketing firm called PSP, making $5.50 an hour. They needed help working on a promotion for Kool-Aid, but we didn’t have any extra budget to hire a Kool-Aid mascot, so that role fell to the lowest rung on the ladder — me. For every event, I would put on the inflatable suit in the sweltering heat and wave at the kids who were trying their hardest to knock me over. My work that summer eventually led to a full time offer from PSP, a role that kicked started my internet career in 1994. And now, 24 years later, I still have a photo on display in my office of me in the Kool-Aid costume with Knicks star John Starks to remind myself and others of the value of unglamorous and hard work. Starks signed the photo, “Starting at the bottom makes success that much sweeter.”
Gary Vaynerchuk, CEO, VaynerMedia
My first job was when I was in the eighth grade. I was a D and F student in Edison, New Jersey, but I was good at looking at things a little bit differently than everyone else. I was good at selling. Baseball cards were a big deal back then, so I started trading and selling baseball cards at the local card shows, eventually making $2000 a weekend. I learned to watch people’s eyes. I day-trade attention — eyes and ears are very important. I’d sit there for hours at the baseball card shows and try to understand from the purchaser’s perspective, so I strategized as a kid how to make my table and cards stand out.
Robbie Whiting, co-founder and CTO, Junior
I was 15 years old and on a school work permit when I was assigned to the men’s suit department at Sears in Riverside, California, after spending about an hour learning how to operate a cash register. I don’t think I’d even worn a suit, but soon enough — later that day — I was measuring, chalking, pinning and selling. And I was completely lost. There was very little training, and I was the youngest person in the department. I kept thinking why the hell did they put me here. And then I was given some good advice from the elder statesman of department while re-stocking The Arnold Palmer Collection: “Don’t worry, you’ll learn. Just talk to anyone you know who wears a suit. You don’t have to wear suits personally, but you need to understand the people that wear them, and why.” Priceless UX advice that I didn’t fully understand until much later in life.