Tea ladies and cruise-ship dancers: UK agency CEOs describe their first summer jobs

Summer jobs are often the first taste young people get of regular working life. Typically low paid and long shifts, from these humble beginnings leaders emerge.

These days the summer job is overlooked by the array of internships and career-building programs abroad on offer. And yet, evidence suggests menial jobs — be it waiting tables or pulling pints — build better future employees. Take your investment bank internship and shove it.

With that in mind, we asked some of the U.K.’s top agency executives about their first summer job and how it shaped their later careers. Full disclaimer: taking a cruise-ship dancer role will not necessarily fast-track you to a top agency position.

Guy Wieynk, CEO Europe, Publicis Worldwide: German-speaking windsurfing instructor.
As an 18 year-old student, Guy Wieynk needed some cash, and he was willing to tell the odd white lie to get the job of his dreams. Honing his negotiating skills early on, Wieynk persuaded a Swiss holiday company to let him run a watersports center in Spain. “The slight complication was that they wanted a German-speaking windsurf instructor,” he reveals. Undaunted, Wieynk ‘exaggerated’ the German fluency in order to grab a few blissful months of beach life. “Each week there was a fresh load of tourists all looking to party. The only downside was there were only 24 hours in each day.”

Bill Scott, CEO, Droga5 London: sous-chef assistant at Le Relais a Mougins.
When Bill Scott’s parents dined out at a posh restaurant in the south of France, little did he know that halfway through paying their bill they would enlist him into kitchen duty. After a month of smelling like garlic without much in the way of pay –Scott was remunerated purely through a share of tips, which he never saw as he was viewed as ‘Le Touriste’ —  his 16-hour days stuck in a 42 degrees celsius kitchen came to an end. But not before he learned some valuable lessons. “I learned teamwork like no other. There were no egos. Just whatever it took to get the job done without ever compromising on superlative output. I also learned how to take abuse when I fucked up.”

Annette King, CEO, Ogilvy & Mather Group UK: Swindon tea lady.
A summer holiday abroad with friends is enough of a driving force to kickstart a 16 year-old onto the career ladder. To save money for a holiday in Spain, Annette King went for a month-long job serving tea to workers at the Swindon branch of PHH AllStar (the company works in fleet management and fuel cards). “I had to do one round of the floor with my trolley in the morning and one in the afternoon. Everyone had their own favorite cups and preferences for how they liked their tea. Within a couple of days I knew everyone.” Taking the time to get to know people has stayed with King throughout her career, as has aiming to be respectful of people, regardless of what they do. Beyond unlimited tea and chocolate, she also made enough valuable contacts to return for her year’s work placement during her Business Studies degree.

Guy Sellers, CEO, Total Media: M25 construction worker, (Junction 13, Staines slip road). 
It’s not uncommon for younger siblings to follow in the footsteps of an older hero. When Guy Seller’s older brother blagged his way onto the construction site for a strip of the M25, there was only one real option available to Guy too. Before he knew it the 19 year-old was left in charge of the pile-driving equipment. While the pay rate was enviable, and with no fixed project-end date in sight, the constant loud explosions were not ideal. After a summer finessing some nerves of steel, it taught Sellers not to be too scared of things that go off in front of you, (some would question the value of this) and that young people can in fact handle big responsibilities.

Daniel Wilkinson, head of paid media, Jellyfish: cruise-ship dancer.
After dancing competitively since the age of five, Daniel Wilkinson took a punt at 18 and auditioned for a cruise ship position. It’s not hard to see the appeal for a teenager living away from home for the first time: new locations each day, free food and accommodation, and an “easy environment to party and spend money.” This latter point proved particularly true. “After about two months into my contract I was pulled aside and advised to slow down on my spending as my monthly bill was higher than my wages.” Even so, the experience opened his mind to new experiences, people and places at a young age. “There is an opportunity to learn something new about yourself, or others and increase your knowledge in every situation you find yourself in.”

Martin Harrison, head of strategy, Huge London: luxury suit salesman.
Like a lot of students, when Martin Harrison began studying philosophy at university, he needed a Saturday job for some extra cash, which he found at a local luxury suit shop. Needless to say, his employer wasn’t sold on what Harrison had chosen to read. “When I told him I was studying philosophy, he looked at me like I was mad and said ‘I’ll tell you what son, there’s only two ways to get ahead in this world; you make something or you sell something.’ It’s still one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever had.” With a commission package and some wealthy shoppers, Harrison learned a thing or two about the perception of value and the power of brands, which he deftly incorporated into some shrewd salesmanship. “You could spot a couple shopping for a wedding suit a mile away. Suggest the Armani jacket, then the woman will look at her future husband and imagine marrying him in an Armani suit. Sold.”

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