Home » Trailblazing CEO and Advertising Executive Aaron Walton

Trailblazing CEO and Advertising Executive Aaron Walton

by Lawrence Ferber

The work we get to do for the LGBTQ+ consumer segment is based on deep consumer insights and strategic alignment between this audience and whatever brand we’re working on.

Photo by Kal Yee

Recently inducted into the American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame, Aaron Walton is an openly gay, Black trailblazer and CEO, and co-founder of the 18-year-old firm Walton Isaacson (basketball legend and HIV activist Earvin “Magic” Johnson is a partner).

Walton has headed up wildly successful, award-winning campaigns for iconic brands including American Airlines, Spalding, Lexus (including a partnership with Marvel that incorporated the movie Black Panther) Pepsi, Amazon, and McDonald’s. He has worked with A-list talent, including Whitney Houston, David Bowie, and Michael Jackson, and helped diversify his clients’ marketing strategies to include LGBTQ+, Hispanic, Black, and women).

 

Raised in Massachusetts, Walton was one of just two African-American students in his graduating class at Babson College (he was a Management/Organizational Behavior and Communications double-major). He first entered the advertising space via a brand management position at PepsiCo for Pepsi and Mountain Dew, then formed a namesake company, Aaron Walton Entertainment (AWE), selling it in 2002 to Omnicom Group’s DAS division. 2005 saw the founding of Walton Isaacson with Cory Isaacson and Magic Johnson, and in the years since he’s been recognized for efforts to bring diversity and inclusion to the advertising world by ADCOLOR, Advertising Age, Black Enterprise, Inc., Ebony, OUT, ThinkLA, and the Hispanic Public Relations Association, while serving on advisory boards for organizations including HRC, GLAAD, Ad Council, and Ad Age Diversity Council.

 

Walton chronicles personal life and business highlights, including plenty of celebrity friends and encounters, on his Instagram account, @walton_aaron. He took some time out of his jetsetting schedule to discuss his career, how he’s handled homophobia, championing diversity with some big name queer and POC talent, and, of course, travel.

 

Aaron Walton at American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame induction with parents Homer and Pat Walton and sister Valerie Walton (Photo courtesy of Walton Isaacson)

 

How does today’s ad and marketing industry compare to when you first joined it? You’ve certainly done a lot to bring about change and diversity within it.

On many fronts it’s a whole new world, on others it seems like certain things don’t change. It was very common for multicultural segments to be stereotyped or ignored completely, and the LGBTQ+ audience was particularly marginalized in creative work, but also inside of agency and client environments. There is absolutely more of an interest in diverse audiences today, but there’s still a long way to go when it comes to equitable budgeting and effective DEI initiatives that go deep and create change.

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in marketing and advertising?

Aside from being a Bewitched fan as a child [Samantha’s husband Darrin was an ad exec], I was fortunate to attend Babson College and pursue my entrepreneurial passions. Entrepreneurialism is Babson’s focus. That led to my career at Pepsi, where I was exposed to the best marketers and advertising people in the world. Literally!

 

Photo by Kal Yee

What was the best thing to come out of starting at PepsiCo during the early 80s?

 Many great things. Most people aren’t aware, but I started my career as a research analyst. I loved that role, I enjoyed reviewing the research and understanding how to interpret the data. It’s a form of storytelling that’s critical for any brand’s success. It’s something I still lean on today. During the 80’s, Pepsi and Coke were going at it head-to-head: that period is often referred to as the “Cola Wars.” I was fortunate to have two marketing icons serve as my mentors, Roger Enrico and Alan Potash. They transformed how consumers connected with brands, and particularly soft drinks, and my role evolved from research to brand management on the Mountain Dew and Pepsi brands. It was an amazing time when Pepsi was tapping into the Zeitgeist of pop culture, and I was tapped to help lead that effort. I had the opportunity to work with some of the most influential artists in the entertainment industry: Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Ringo Star, David Bowie, Janet Jackson, Gloria Estefan, Britney Spears, Macy Gray, Faith Hill, Boys II Men, Marlon Brando, Shaq, Michael J Fox, Busta Rhymes, Ricky Martin, Lionel Richie, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Danny DeVito…the list goes on! I was sitting at the intersection between the brand and artists, helping to create innovative content that captured the imagination of our consumers and reinforced brand love.

 

You put Whitney Houston and AT&T together for a campaign. How was that experience, and who are a few celebrities topping your “want” to work with list today?

Bringing Whitney together with AT&T was a magical experience. She was at the peak of her career. Her voice was like none other. It was the perfect marriage of a celebrity talent and brand strategy. Her pure, clear voice embodied the emotion associated with long distance calling and technology AT&T was using for enhanced voice quality. The deal came together within a two-week window: it didn’t drag out because both parties saw the value in working together. A perfect fit. Today, my “want” list is full of inspiring people from a variety of artistic genres, from music and performing to fashion and architecture. Some examples include Bruce Springsteen, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Ariana DeBose, Annie Liebowitz, Lily Tomlin, Oprah, Rihanna, Beyonce, and more. They’re all great storytellers. For me it starts there.

 

What did you want to do differently with AWE, the company you created after leaving PepsiCo?

 It was founded in 1988 and I started it to expand what I had developed at Pepsi: a strategic approach to branded entertainment, celebrity sponsorships, and experiential work. AWE gave me an opportunity to continue working with Pepsi [they became a client] and expand to additional clients and companies.

 

How did Walton Isaacson come about in 2005, and again, what did you want to do differently with this new company and a high profile partner like Magic Johnson?

WI came about because it had become clear that large holding companies and even independent ad agencies were not solving client/brand problems in ways that were flexible, agile, and far-ranging. Ad agencies had a limited set of services, and were slow and bureaucratic. What was keeping clients up at night were issues that needed what we used to call “the navy seals of marketing,” a team that could go in with the right tools and strategies and provide fresh insights and make things happen. We were also conscious that multicultural audiences and the LGBTQ+ community weren’t a priority [to other agencies], in spite of their growing numbers and importance. We wanted to change that paradigm. We wanted to face the world the way the world faced us and be representative, as well as nimble and diverse in our skill sets. Magic Johnson believed in what we were doing then and he believes in it today: he’s a tremendous source of inspiration on all levels, especially in his business acumen. I’ve learned a lot from him.

 

What is the gayest campaign pitch, failed or successful, you’ve presented to a client?

 The work we get to do for the LGBTQ+ consumer segment is based on deep consumer insights and strategic alignment between this audience and whatever brand we’re working on. So we’ve pitched some powerful work and have a lot of success stories as a result of our team’s understanding of the client needs and the consumer needs. I remember the early days of LGBTQ+ marketing, when clients would only approve something very subtle like a pride flag in the background or an HRC pin on someone’s shirt. Fast forward, we’ve featured trans actors and created content with drag queens. We’re proud to have LGBTQ+ work for Lexus and McDonald’s to name a few. We’ve tied work in with OutLoud sports, formerly the Varsity Gay League, because sports is a space that helps push back on stereotyping. We don’t hold back on our LGBTQ+ work, but we also don’t go over the top in ways that stereotype the community.

 

 

What are a few WI campaigns that you’re proudest of so far?

 A few highlights include two Lexus campaigns. The first is Black Panther. We were able to bring Lexus and Marvel together in an innovative partnership that not only placed a vehicle into the movie, but that gave us an opportunity to connect strategic themes of importance to the film and the brand. The social media success in response broke all related records for the brand. Another I’ll always be proud of is the Lexus IS campaign that featured Afro-Latina Trans actress MJ Rodriguez [of Pose]. We made history with this casting decision, but it’s important to underscore that our choice was grounded in the strategic alignment between MJ’s values and priorities and the identity of the Lexus IS, which was all about style and making a statement by being excellent. A final example is a spot we did during the pandemic for the Association of National Advertisers’ Alliance of Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing. It was called “See All,” named for the DEI movement the Alliance was focused on in the face of inequities in front of and behind the camera in advertising and entertainment industry projects. “See All” featured Lin-Manuel Miranda, Billy Porter, Daniel Dae Kim, Isis King, Nicole Scherzinger and other top talent, all of whom joined in to advocate for progress in casting and more equitable hiring across diverse segments.

 

Have you ever walked out of the room because potential clients were so homophobic or racist you couldn’t abide by it?

 I’m not one to walk out of a room. There’s more to be gained by planting myself and standing my ground. First, I rely on data and objective ways of supporting a business conversation about marketing to diverse communities. As a marketer, that’s why I’m in the room, to address business opportunities. That said, there have been people in the room who can’t hear a solid argument because their personal views are so filled with stereotypes, inaccuracies, and hate. I’ve certainly turned down business when those behaviors made their presence known. But in the room, I’m all about educating or confronting naysayers with a powerful perspective based on facts, not fear.

 

What’s the biggest plus to working with a travel-related client?

 Travel is one of the most culturally specific experiences in the ways it touches every part of the globe. Travel-related accounts require a global lens that celebrates our differences while underscoring how very connected we all are. I spend more time traveling than being in one place, so it’s also exciting to know that me and my team can have an impact on the travel industry and experience. It’s such an important category, and always exciting to learn more about how travel is evolving and being a part of that evolution.

 

What do you like most about working with American Airlines?

 My team and I are really loving working with the team that’s there. They’re so smart and they’re still all about learning, they’re always interested in expanding their knowledge and perspectives. They’re open to exploring and discovering new ways of connecting with consumers. Even before we were brought on board, from our first interactions, we were impressed by their passion for innovation and drive to connect with consumers in ways that resonate with authenticity. Personally, as a constant traveler, I love American. I’ve flown the airline since my first days at Pepsi, early in my career, so they’re like family, and all about constant improvement and particularly focused on customer service. As a traveler, I can see that translate into results.

 

Although you haven’t yet worked with any tourism boards, which destinations would you most love to? Let’s manifest!

 Tokyo. I love the city. I love Japan. I love the culture. Their respect for tradition is mixed with an openness to modernity and newness. It’s quite powerful and creative. Talk about innovation! They really understand how to draw from existing values and apply them to something brand new.

 

Where do you want to travel but haven’t been yet?

 I look forward to going to Africa. Among many things I would love to see, I definitely want to witness the Great Migration.

 

Finally, can you share a few bits of advice for LGBTQ+ and POC readers who might want to join the advertising and marketing business?

 Join. Don’t let anyone stand in your way of exploring this industry. That said, and I would tell this to anyone, make sure you join a company that has a positive cultural fit for your values and priorities. Sometimes people are so excited to just get their foot in the door, they don’t realize they have a right to interview the company and have a strong understanding of how their LGBTQ+ identity will be honored and respected.

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