The Worst of Times

A Spanish proverb tells us that “experience is not always the kindest of teachers, but it is surely the best.” Unkind experiences left the agency execs we polled with some valuable insights into the working world, the ad business and a few of the uglier facts of life.

“I learned that children have a lot of acne,” says Chuck McBride, who once retouched class photographs. But on that job he also learned about photo processing and color adjustment, helping McBride, now creative director, North America, at TBWA\Chiat\Day in San Francisco, land his first ad gig, in the print production department of BBDO West in Los Angeles.

Sleeping bags were scattered around the graphic-design shop in Tokyo where Akiko Naito, an art director at Wolf Group in New York, made her first foray into advertising. Before earning a spot at Foote, Cone & Belding in Tokyo, she had to complete a two-week internship at the small studio. “They basically didn’t go home,” she says. Meals were eaten standing over the drafting tables, showers were taken at a public facility for $2 a scrub and naps were grabbed in two-hour blocks. The rest of the 22 hours in her day were spent churning out more than 100 projects. By the time she got to FCB, she had realized that “advertising is not a very glamorous business.”

Like Naito, Joe Sciarrotta, managing director and ecd at Ogilvy & Mather in Chicago, learned that “you got to pay your dues,” along with the fact that “advertising was a sticky business.” He means that literally: As an entry-level art-department staffer at Doner in Detroit, Sciarrotta worked in the mat room, mounting print ads and presentation material with spray-on glue. “My shoes would stick to the floor,” he says. “By the end of the day, there was so much glue I could pinch my nose and my nostrils would stick together.”

Early in his career, Andy Berlin, now chairman of Berlin Cameron/Red Cell in New York, was hired as a copywriter at Meltzer, Aaron & Lemen in San Francisco. Six weeks later, the shop went bankrupt. “It taught me that agencies are ephemeral,” he says. “Even the most substantial of agencies can change based on the client’s belief or lack thereof in the agency.”

He also learned that when one door closes, others open. While unemployed, he wrangled an interview with Hal Riney, who ran Ogilvy & Mather in San Francisco at the time, and landed what was “a terribly important job for my career.” It was there that he met his former partners Rich Goodby and Jeff Silverstein.

It was at an industrial dishwashing company at Newark Airport that Interpublic Group svp Kevin Allen first learned how to lead people. “Thousands and thousands of dishes would come in from flight after flight,” says Allen, who was the midnight-to-8 a.m. manager there right out of college. “The heat and steam generated by the washing machines was unbearable. But it was a valuable management lesson: It is possible, through kindness and empathy, to make people feel as if what they are doing is meaningful. And that idea is not just the province of so-called educated jobs.”

Melissa Lea, director of business development at Mullen in Wenham, Mass., recalls the horrors of a nightmarish boss. “My day was dependent on what kind of mood she was in,” she says. “One day she screamed at me for taking a week off when my grandmother died. Now that I’m a manager, I try to be even-keeled, so people know what to expect from me.”

Being a tough manager got Barry Kessel, working as a cd at a Baltimore shop early in his career, in trouble. “I quickly realized my 12- person staff was incompetent: We had a copywriter who wrote one paragraph a day and an art director who [spent his days] trying to sell his comic strip,” says Kessel, president and CEO of Wunderman in New York. He dismissed staffers and brought in fresh talent, but he was quickly let go himself. “As soon as I did the right thing for the agency, I was damaged goods,” he says. “When something’s that broken, don’t fix it—just walk away. Don’t try to clean up someone else’s dirty work. You’ll get dirty too.”

Cliff Freeman, CEO of Cliff Freeman and Partners in New York, got plenty dirty at his worst job—as a teen, he did manual labor for Kentucky’s highway department one summer. He got the notion to discuss J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey with a co-worker, who then took a swing at the bookish kid. “I was a fish out of water on that job,” says Freeman. “I learned that there are all different kinds of people in the world.”

Another Southerner, BA Albert, had a fish-out-of-water experience when she moved to Chicago to work at NW Ayer & Partners. “When I offered up information at a meeting, everyone would turn their head,” says the Alabama native. “At first I thought they were listening to what I said, but I realized it was how I said it. I had many Northern friends who said it took a minute for them to realize I wasn’t stupid.”

Albert had wanted a big ad-industry town on her résumé after eight years of experience in the South, but the founder and principal at Match in Atlanta realized that, “I belong here in the South, where I’m comfortable with the nuances of this part of the universe.” She also learned she preferred “the flexibility and lack of politics” she’d found at smaller shops, along with the more “energized” atmosphere and fewer layers of management.

Some worst jobs were literally painful experiences. As a teen, Jim Mahu, a senior art director at Chemistri in Troy, Mich., picked up arrows for a Belgian archery club in Detroit. “[The club] was attached to a bar, of all places, and one day, as the night progressed, they started feeling the beers, and I was hit by one of the arrows,” he says. He came away with a flesh wound and a careful attitude: “I always look over my shoulder now,” he says.

Marston Allen was the low man on the totem pole and the smallest on a construction crew at a lake north of Toronto one summer. Allen, director of Universal McCann’s Communications Architecture, found himself “crawling in and under docks and boathouses that were raised up on jacks for repair to rip, hammer, saw, push, pull and slam the bits that needed adjustment.” The old docks were rickety, the jacks hard to manipulate on slick rocks. At 17, he was jolted into adulthood. “What I learned: I am not immortal,” he recalls. “I was the first among my friends to come to that realization.”