The jobs you did before advertising (and what you learned from them)

The Queen working at McDonald'sThough flipping burgers or wiping tables may not be the first thing you’d think to put on your CV or LinkedIn profile, the (often unglamorous) jobs you did before putting your first step on the advertising career ladder are probably worth remembering.

Mumbrella asked a few industry figures to share the jobs they did before advertising and what they learned from them.


Cheelip Ong, executive vice president, 180, China

Cheelip OngI was 17 years old and I had six months of downtime after school. I was desperately looking for a job to earn some pocket money. I got as a florist with a little store in Marina Square, Singapore. I sold roses, but specialised in orchids. I remember one day a lady approach me to buy some flowers. It was  Valentine’s Day. She bought a bouquet of roses. She asked me to pass them to her friend who would come to collect them. So I packed them and made them into a bouquet with a note I was to give to her friend. When her friend showed up to collect the flowers, the message read that they were from me. It was an awkward but unforgettable moment. It’s very important to have a part time job when you’re young. You learn so much about the world.


Fiona Bartholomeusz, managing director, Formul8, Singapore

Fiona BartholomeuszMy first job was as an ad sales rep for a trade directory for Times Publishing. I was paid a basic salary of $600 a month and carried multiple copies of the 2.5kg book with me to B2B clients in Tuas and Changi (note: this was all before the days of the MRT and being able to afford a car or taxi fares). So getting there was roughly a 1.5 hour trudge one-way and sometimes up to a kilometre walk in the blazing sun to see someone in a ship yard or construction site. I remember coming home after the first week and bawling my eyes out because “people were so mean” and “working life sucked” plus I had $10 left to last me the whole week before my first pay cheque, so I had a reality check about what it was like to be young, hungry and poor.

What did I learn? That perseverance is key and if I could do that job I could do anything. It also made me realise I really never wanted to be a failure in life and that the job in itself was a challenge I could overcome. So I stuck with it for over two years and earned enough money to buy a car and my first apartment before I was 24. Not having a safety net back then was possibly the best lesson in life.


Ferdi Wieling, executive creative director, Southeast Asia, Reading Room

Ferdi Wieling

Fielding aged 14

Ferdi Wieling, aged 14

Age 14, working at McDonalds in the Netherlands – a lot of people knock it, but I remember it as a fantastic place and a lot of fun. Having worked in both the kitchen and front of house you very quickly realise you can’t do anything alone – during rush hour service with queues going out the door and target service times of one minute per customer means you need other people you can blindly rely on. Also, a lot of free food and banter. But mostly the team work.


Mark Ingrouille, EVP for international operations, Thoughtful Media

On guitar: Mark Ingrouille

Bath Plug

Mark Ingrouille now

Mark Ingrouille now

For five years I was a pro musician in a Punk then New Wave band, The Plugs. My name was changed to Bath Plug (the others were Spark, Jack and Rawl). It was a great time but often really hard work. Grinding, relentless driving in broken down transit vans. Arriving to discover the club had cancelled your gig. Crowds who wanted to hear covers rather than your original gems. Often for very little money. Bar bill deducted from your fee. But the values learned like the teamwork, the honest labour and talent of the roadies, the disappointments of playing to empty halls and the need for persistence really helped me in my later career.


Matthew Godfrey, president, Asia, Y&R

Matthew GodfreyAt one point in my career in advertising, the salary was such that it did not cover my rent, so I took a part time job at pub on at The Rocks, Sydney.

My gig was selling hot dogs on the street outside the pub between the hours of 8pm ‘till 3am. The clientele were mostly fairly affluent stockbrokers who would handsomely stride into the pub after work, looking their Hugo Boss best, only to then slur out sometime after midnight, wearing nothing but tequila stains on their Pierre Cardin shirts and Flaming Lamborghini burns around their lips. Payment for the hot dogs was usually in two forms. Most patrons were far too drunk to summon the mental clarity to calculate the exact amount. They would  leave a random $50 note and then happily stagger away (dropping the dog out of the bun in the process and ending up consuming bread with watery tomato sauce). They second kind would refuse to pay a cent and would walk away swearing like a sailor about the day, a deal, their mates or some girlfriend… (also dropping the dog out of the bun in the process and eating only a tomato sauced bun). The money seemed to balance up in the end. The huge perk of the gig was that you could join in for staff drinks once the pub had closed at 3am and pretty much drink in your own private pub until the sun came up with all the other bartenders and bouncers.

What did I learn about the gig? The best jobs are always about the people you work with. There will always be long hours and difficult moments. But if you really enjoy and respect the people that you share those moments with, the days and nights always seem that much brighter and the work seems effortless.


Wannee Ruttanaphon, chairman, IPG Mediabrands Thailand

Wannee Ruttanaphon

I’m an advertising graduate so I jumped straight into the business. But I broke off for five years and went into marketing. What it taught me was that advertising is the most interesting of the disciplines. But before I started my career, I worked in the printing department of Business Administration at Texas Tech University in the US. What it taught me was that if you did a good job, you would never be out of a job. It also taught me to be honest – as I could have seen my own exam paper if I’d wanted to. I worked there until I graduated. It was a rather easy job with an office hour time schedule. I was lucky not to have to work as a waitress like other foreign students and stay up late to serve customers.


Kevin Huang, CEO, Pixels

Where Kevin Huang once worked

Kevin Huang’s former work place

Kevin HuangI was a video store clerk. I learnt the importance of customer service and yield management, something I put into place today in my business; balancing the right number of products with sustainable revenue while keeping an eye out for “hits”. I had to order videos for rental, and sometimes what is a hit in the cinema is not in the video store, and vice versa. Last but not least, it taught me the value of hard work, persistence and nothing beats the value of face to face interaction with your customers and knowing them personally.


Roger Sharp, chairman, APD

Roger SharpWhen I left New Zealand for California as a lawyer and a linguist, I got a job selling hifis on commission. I’d stand by the door and observe the car they drove. If they said I love your accent, I could be pretty sure I’d make a sale. I became their number two salesman. I got a big assignment installing a hi-fi system for an Orange County deputy district attorney. As a Kiwi law graduate, we don’t really know anything about law. But after talking to him for a while after installing his hi-if, he stood there with his lizard skin boots, cigar, bottle of bourbon (it was 1pm in the afternoon) and offered me a job doing his out of court stuff.


Wayne Arnold, global CEO, Lowe Profero

Wayne Arnold

At the tender age of 21, I somehow blagged a job as the head paralegal in what was then Asia’s largest law firm. As you can imagine, I thought I had made it! I had a corner office, a secretary and a new suit. And in my mind, I was well on my way to being a character in the Asian version of LA Law.

There is no doubt my time in the job helped me to focus on my attention to detail, but more importantly it taught me what not to do. Namely that corner offices are the worse kind of spaces-perfect for building egos, but terrible for fostering collaboration.

In addition, I quickly realised I had to have to do a job I enjoyed, that gave me creative freedom and the ability to approach things from different perspectives.

Needless to say I quit the legal profession after only six months in my corner office. And went out to find an industry that allowed me to wear jeans, valued the creative mind and judged success by the value of ideas rather that the cost of your office refit.


Christopher Lee, executive creative director, Grey Hong Kong

Christopher LeeLike many ad folks, I fell into advertising by accident.

Mistake after mistake after mistake was what led me to becoming a creative many years ago. And no mistake stood out as much as an intern accountant.

I learned right away that accounting just wasn’t my thing. Put aside the fact I didn’t understand anything, there were too many rules, guidelines and structure. And while they are important wherever you go, I realised a ‘job’ is merely a name you label something you’re not interested in.

Morale of the story – stay true to yourself and who knows where you’ll go. I quit very soon, never looked back and the rest is history.


Rupen Desai, Asia Pacific CEO, Lowe + Partners

Rupen Desai

I was educated as an electrical engineer and used to make high-voltage circuit breakers before I did an MBA and subsequently joined advertising. Apart from learning how rubbish I was at it, it also taught me the value of ensuring landing wheels for great sparks…


Grant Hunter, APAC ECD, Iris
Grant HunterWhen I was 20 I had a job for the summer months between my second and third year of university. It was in the Royal Mail Sorting Office in Peterborough, UK. And was before mass automation so a lot of the mail was sorted by hand. I mainly worked the night shift and spent my time either posting letters into postcode pigeon holes or throwing packets in to their respective carts. It was just a little bit repetitive and you had to sort at a high enough rate to hit your quota.

What I learnt:

  • For a few months I knew every postcode in the UK.
  • The Queen has her own unique postcode for Buckingham Palace  – it could be interpreted as elitest with all those 1s & As –  SW1A 1AA.
  • The Royal Mail has a secret police force to make sure the posties aren’t stealing the post.
  • It made me realise that sitting around dreaming up ideas for brands was definitely a more appealing career choice.


Got any more? Let us know and we’ll add them to the piece (robin.hicks@mumbrella.asia).


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