Before they were ad stars

It’s no accident that Jim Ferguson became a creative director. He’s been separating the wheat from the chaff ever since he worked as a “diaper sorter” in a Texas laundromat as a teenager. “There was one bin for poop, one for pee and one for ‘what the hell did this kid have for dinner?’ ” he recalls.

If that gig was enlightening for Ferguson, now 48 and executive creative director of Young & Rubicam North America, so was his first job out of college: a two-year stint as a reporter for the Vernon Daily Record (“the V.D., we called it”) in Vernon, Texas. “I did the police and fire beats, some sports,” he says. “On Saturday nights, the head guy on the copy desk would hold a contest to get a headline for the lead story. He’d get everyone to put $5 in, and there’d be $100 in there. And the guy who wrote the best line won the pot. You just learned how to write. You had to be fast, concise, tell a good story in no time. All the things we do in advertising.”

Ferguson also practiced being cheeky, with mixed results. “There was a big snowstorm in the East,” he says, “and I wrote the headline, ’16 inches paralyzes Virginia.’ They had a talk with me. I didn’t work too long on the copy desk after that.”

With its broad focus and wide range of internal disciplines, advertising draws talent from practically every other profession. The industry is populated by former doctors, lawyers, artists, actors, landlords, pro athletes and more. One ad woman in Detroit (who declined to be interviewed for this story) used to be Bozo the Clown’s personal secretary.

Ewen Cameron, 38, is CEO and ecd at Berlin Cameron/Red Cell in New York. But for a hazy time in the early ’80s, the Glasgow, Scotland, native was a roadie for The Clash. “I was 16, 17 years old,” he says. “It was a way to hang out with the band and meet girls, you know. And to pay for my leather pants and my biker jacket.”

When he wasn’t lugging amps, Cameron was learning to throw back Red Stripe beers. (“The Clash were really into reggae,” he points out.) But he picked up a few other things, too. “The whole punk movement was a combination of idealism and iconography,” he says. “It was all about propaganda. So I learned about visual impact. And I’ve always thought music was the most important vehicle for connecting with emotions. That definitely found a home in our new Coke campaign.”

Dennis Holt, 66, founder of Western International Media (now Initiative Media), came to the business after an acting career that lasted from 1948, when he was 12, until 1959. He appeared in movies, on The Loretta Young Show and as an “irregular regular” on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. (“I’d walk in and say, ‘Hi, Mrs. Nelson, is Ricky here?’ ” he says.) He also cut two records (“that bombed”) under the name Johnny Peris and for 13 weeks hosted a TV show, Coke Time, sponsored by Coca-Cola. After being told he wasn’t cut out for the job (Eddie Fisher eventually took over as host), Holt went to see Coke’s ad director and broke down crying.

“I said I was a failure, what am I going to do?” he recalls. “She stood up, slapped me and said, ‘Shut up. Why don’t you sell radio time?’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ ” Soon enough, Holt was hired as a rep at Los Angeles radio station KAZY, making $250 a month.

His acting career gave him connections, but that might be all. Asked what he learned from acting that he used later on, Holt replies, “Not a lot. I was a lousy actor.”

For Jeff Johnson, president of WestWayne in Atlanta, the road to advertising went through psychology. After earning a doctorate from NYU, he worked for the city and state of New York. Soon after, in the early ’80s, he joined Benton & Bowles, which was keen to use psychological principles in its research for Procter & Gamble.

Johnson, 51, says his training helped him as a manager. “One of the best things it teaches you is how to interpret your own behavior and how it affects other people,” he says. “Good managers do that intuitively. I just needed six years of grad school to be able to do it!”

Does he analyze his staff? “Absolutely,” he says. “Not in a nefarious way. There’s no reverse psychology. If only that would work.” —tim nudd