There’s “The Work” And There’s Work, The Latter Fuels The Former

People who work in advertising often held very different jobs before entering the business. Some drove a cab, others sold bonds on Wall Street. There are as many migration stories as there are ad people. Sometimes, the early experience informs one’s ad career, other times people are just happy to have an ad career.
Best selling author John Grisham also has a migration story (from lawyer to novelist). Writing in The New York Times, Grisham talks about a special criminal case that compelled him to write.

Writing was not a childhood dream of mine. I do not recall longing to write as a student. I wasn’t sure how to start…One night I wrote “Chapter One” at the top of the first page of a legal pad; the novel, “A Time to Kill,” was finished three years later.
The book didn’t sell, and I stuck with my day job, defending criminals, preparing wills and deeds and contracts. Still, something about writing made me spend large hours of my free time at my desk.

Grisham also recounts how he worked on a construction crew and in retail before making his way to law school. It got me thinking about my own path to where I am today. Like Grisham I never imagined I’d become an ad guy. A writer, yes. I did imagine that.
When I was 15 my step-dad gave me my first real job. He took me to the dairy plant where he was the head guy and immediately had the crew there show me what the lowest guy on the totem pole does for work. I painted cinder block walls, donned a parka and stacked cases of ice cream in the freezer and I loaded semi-truck after semi-truck full of milk. A few years later, I ran a milk route during the summer months. I had to show up at work at 2:00 am and deliver milk, cottage cheese, sour cream and every other dairy product imaginable to homes, retailers, restaurants and institutions. I was yelled at by chefs for messing up their order and by a home owner mad that I’d been delivering milk to the wrong house all summer. Once, I made a special delivery to the state mental institution and when I left the kitchen area, I got caught on a locked floor. When I buzzed the nurse to be let out, she didn’t believe that I was the milkman. What can I say, it was a tough job, all the way around.
Between the two milk gigs I worked as a cook at Holly Farms Fried Chicken in Lexington, NC and after we moved to Philly, I spent my summer after high school graduation selling Chipwich ice cream sandwiches from a cart I pushed each morning from South Street to my spot across from the Liberty Bell. During college I worked as a house painter; I helped Armstong World Industries sort through their asbestos lawsuits, I worked at a factory that made big industrial batteries (until I realized they had to draw blood every month in order to detect any unsafe lead levels). I also worked as a dishwasher, a doorman and a bartender at three different establishments.
When I got out of college, I sold t-shirts at Grateful Dead concerts but not enough of them to pay my way from city to city. So I started interviewing for journalism jobs in the Philadelphia area, before finding what looked like an interesting opening in the development department of a non-profit environmental advocacy group in Washington, DC. Some friends from school were trying to get me to move to Steamboat Springs that first fall out of school, but I held on in DC for two years before moving to San Francisco, where I was a temp for a few days before getting an offer from Conservatree Paper Company, a for-profit recycled paper merchant.
Eventually, the call of the mountains and an alternative (to the office) lifestyle did lead me to Utah, where I skied the resorts up Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood Canyons and went camping in the desert a lot. My buddy Craig got me a job as a picker/packer in the Black Diamond warehouse. And my mortgage selling buddy Dave hooked me up with a well paying lead generation job. When I moved to Portland in 1994 I had a tough time finding work, so I signed up with a temp agency and proceeded to engage in the most humbling of all work experiences I’ve had to date.
Of course, it was in 1994 in Portland when I first heard about Wieden + Kennedy and began the journey I’ve been on ever since. Up until that point in time, the idea of working in advertising was repulsive to me. It took Wieden, and Janet Champ’s work for Nike in particular, to show me once and for all that advertising doesn’t have to be bad.
I realize this is a long-winded ME ME ME piece. But, hopefully it’s not really about me. It’s about learning how to work, and developing an appreciation for just how hard some people must work to make their livings. I’ve been a fry cook, a warehouse worker, a bartender, a temp and a telemarketer. All the while I knew I wasn’t stuck in those jobs, so that changes things somewhat; however, I do know what it’s like to sweat for one’s dinner. I believe that’s helpful to me when I work on a client’s projects now. It reminds me that the communications my colleagues and I make must also be down-to-earth, value-priced and hard working.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.