Want a Leg Up in the Ad Industry? Start in the Restaurant Business 

Agencies would be hugely mistaken to overlook talent with these transferable skills

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Growing up, I had little to no idea what I wanted to do when I got older. What I did know from a very young age, however, was that I needed to make money to buy the things I wanted that my parents couldn’t afford. That led me to my first job in the restaurant business at just 15 years old. 

From there, through college, I held almost every position there was to hold across the industry, front-of-house to back. I’ve done it all: barback to bartender, errand runner to delivery driver, long hours on my feet, double shifts into the wee hours of the morning, coming home smelling like grease… Little did I know it was shaping me to be gritty, tenacious, flexible and entrepreneurial in ways not many other jobs could have. 

After graduating with a marketing degree, I finally knew advertising was without a doubt what I wanted to pursue as a career. A couple months into my first agency gig, I started to pick up on things that felt reminiscent of my restaurant days: late nights preparing for pitches, keeping lots of plates spinning simultaneously, managing regular fire drills and juggling mile-long to-do lists. I felt right at home, even if I wasn’t exactly sure why at the time. And although advertising has changed a lot in the last 20 years, one thing hasn’t: The business is nothing short of organized chaos.

But that’s what we love about it, right? The thrill of the ups and downs. The late-night strategy sessions, balling up idea after idea until that magical concept rears its head. Getting to see our hard work manifest itself out in the world. It’s exhilarating and makes the nonstop frenetic pace tolerable, even, dare I say, enjoyable?

College students ask me all the time, “What’s the best way to prepare yourself for an ad job?” Some might answer, “Get an agency internship or two under your belt before you graduate,” or, “Be a student of advertising and build up a strong portfolio.” I’d consider both solid advice—but I answer that question by telling students that the absolute best preparation for a successful career in this industry is to start by cutting your teeth in the service industry, more specifically the restaurant business. And while you probably will never be expected to respond to a dehumanizing, cursing superior with “yes, ECD!”, the parallels and soft skills you will walk away with will perfectly match those required of you to become an incredible advertiser. 

Customer service = client service 

The first and probably most undeniable comparison is the customer-centric nature of both industries. Navigating the sometimes rigid expectations of a persnickety diner can be extremely challenging, requiring patience, tolerance and acceptance of the reality that, after all, they’re paying the bill. 

The same can be said for a tough client. Their expectation is that you will weather the storm of any request, large or small, even if by most definitions those requests could be deemed unrealistic. 

Mastering the art of customer service can be way more challenging to teach than some hard advertising-specific skills. So, this is a great place for any aspiring advertiser to start. 

Wearing many hats—and wearing them well 

Another critical and seamlessly transferable skill garnered in the chaos of a hospitality job is the ability to multitask. Fixing a broken ice machine, managing a slow kitchen that’s down one line cook, or explaining to one of your six tables why their steak is overcooked, all while in the weeds of a 7 o’clock dinner rush, is no small feat. 

In adland, especially in agency work, you’ll likely have a hand on projects across several clients with competing deadlines on a regular basis, and you’ll be prepared to handle it.

Attention to detail 

Even a small error or oversight in advertising work can result in significant consequences—both for your client or brand and for your company’s business. Attention to detail is another skill mastered in a restaurant environment where accuracy and precision are paramount for success. 

Think: taking and preparing orders correctly, perfecting plate presentation and remembering that a guest mentioned it’s their wife’s birthday. The little details matter. And it’s much easier to refine your eye for accuracy when the stakes are, well, steaks—not millions of dollars.

Thinking strategically on your feet

Restaurant work cultivates the ability to see three steps down the road and make strategic decisions quickly based on the information presented to you in real-time. In advertising, it serves you very well to anticipate and get ahead of a reaction or next request of your client or boss. 

If making thoughtful decisions under pressure is a challenge you face, take it from me: Go find yourself a kitchen job at a busy diner. Before long, you’ll be rewiring your brain to make calculated, split-second, strategic decisions on the fly with ease. 

As the list goes on, agency leaders would be hugely mistaken to overlook potential talent with experience rooted in the restaurant business. Advancing diversity in advertising includes creating space for people of all backgrounds who may not have the opportunity or resources to attend an expensive ad school or spend a summer or two on Madison Avenue. Up-and-coming talent should proudly tout these undeniably transferable skills when building a resume or moving through the interview process—it’s these very skills that will quickly catapult them up the advertising ladder. 

The good news is, while it’s certainly possible to have too many cooks in the kitchen, you never have to worry about having too many ideas or too many badass advertisers in the agency.