Marketing expert Aaron Walton of Walton Isaacson lets us inside his brilliant mind

Photo courtesy of Aaron Walton
Photo courtesy of Aaron Walton

If the most brilliant figures in advertising and marketing are the topic of conversation, few deserve to be mentioned more than Aaron Walton. The Massachusetts native has become a major asset to virtually every company he’s been employed with, and for over 10 years, he’s been an instrumental part of building Walton Isaacson, the award-winning advertising agency he co-founded.

Walton began sharpening his eye for marketing to the Black community at the Pepsi-Cola Company, where he first served as a marketing executive. He held various positions and was finally promoted to entertainment marketing manager, where he used his pop culture and music expertise to head a marketing strategy for the company.

In 2006, some years after leaving Pepsi, Walton teamed up with fellow marketing professional Cory Isaacson and partnered with NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson to create Walton Isaacson. The agency offers full-service advertising and focuses on marketing sports, lifestyle, entertainment, experiential and branded content to American minorities. WI — which has headquarters in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Tokyo — has worked with several brands and companies such as Lexus, Verizon Wireless, McDonald’s, Dove and Samsung.

Walton has been recognized for his excellence throughout the years. In November 2015, he was named 2015 Advertising Executive of the Year by Marketing to African Americans with Excellence. He received the ADCOLOR® Advocate Award in 2011 and charted on Out magazine’s “100 Most Compelling People of 2010.”

Read the Q-and-A with Aaron Walton below to learn a thing or two about the advertising genius.

Describe your leadership style.

I would say that it’s a very original mix of the disciplined, buttoned-up classic managerial skills gained from my education at Babson College. I believe that my leadership style has been influenced by the experiences that I have had with blue-chip consumer brands disrupted by my unbridled passion for the arts, fashion and pop culture; disciplines that require non-traditional problem solving; and leaders who know that a good idea can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time.

In a few words, what is your mission statement?

My mission statement is to continuously evolve both as a leader and a human being to do work that matters to me and will matter to other people.

What three skill sets are critical for the future executive that you hire for your organization?

Beyond the tried and true notions of leadership, organizational skills and creativity, I would list:

Adaptability: the willingness to change course at a moment’s notice when the situation demands it, and the ability to recognize when “what you’ve done before” is not going to work anymore. It’s not enough to be talented and creative in the advertising business — you have to be able to collaborate well with others and to get behind a unified vision.

Tenacity: for me, this goes far beyond someone who answers all their email and gets things off their desk. They must be fearless and have the ability to anticipate roadblocks and solves them; who isn’t afraid to suggest that more work needs to be done or the existing work needs to be improved.

Angelic Trouble Makers: Bayard Rustin, the brilliant and courageous civil rights and gay rights leader once said, “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.” I really welcome people who come into my office and force me to rethink the way we do things. Our clients expect us to push the envelope as well.

Entrepreneurial spirit: we actively seek out people who think like entrepreneurs and may have had experience in running their own companies. Entrepreneurs are keenly aware that they have to go the extra mile for people, that they have to pitch in and do anything and everything at a moment’s notice, and that the business sinks or swims based on people’s experiences with them. They’re constantly coming up with new ideas and innovations to differentiate what they do from others.

How does having a college degree benefit you and your clients?

I credit getting my B.S. degree in business administration from Babson College as one of the reasons I have been able thrive in my industry. Babson was truly an institution that fueled my passion to become an entrepreneur. The professors challenged me in ways that help me better understand the nuances required to build a successful business. I was surrounded by students from around the world, whom helped me understand the critical need for any brand to tap into the cultural truths of their consumer target. I think the ultimate benefit that I received from Babson upon graduation was a sense of self-confidence and fearlessness required to build an organization.

How do you utilize technology to benefit your organization?

It’s been a game-changer, all over the map, as it should be. We have put technology in the hands of our staff for initiatives related to cross-office communication and global insight gathering. Our social media team is keeping their finger on the pulse of consumer trends via technology and our project management department is using technology to facilitate collaborative projects across multiple time zones for clients who can be anywhere in the world. Not to mention the technology behind the creative work we do, everything from special effects to on-screen work that has an immediate relationship to online work both for storytelling and tracking.

Finish these sentences:

Team work is important because …

… Everyone who wishes to do something extraordinary in the business world has to be good at collaborating with others and drawing on each other’s strengths.

The best way to recruit great talent is …

… To be clear about WHY your organization exists.

Speaking a second language is important because …

… It opens your heart and mind to other cultures and teaches you how to understand and relate to others who don’t exactly share your background and experience. When you don’t imagine that everyone is like you, you invariably work harder to communicate clearly and effectively with everyone.

What social media platforms do you engage in the most?

In order: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

What professional organizations do you support?

4 A’s, Marcus Graham Project, ICON MANN.

Describe your networking style.

One of the great things about my work is that I get to travel a great deal and meet people whose lives and perspectives are vastly different than mine. I think the best way to create important and long-lasting relationships is to do far more listening than talking. Ironically, my love for fashion, the theatre, pop culture and the arts has always been a key way of finding commonalities with people in the business world.

If you were giving a graduation speech to college students, what would the title of your speech be? Give us three reasons for that title.

That’s a tough question to answer for an advertising and marketing person, because I would really need to know exactly who the audience is and would tailor my speech to what is going on in their world on exactly that day. Beyond encouraging people to pursue their passions and to keep learning, I would tell them to take two minutes on graduation day to really thank their parents. What my parents did to get me there was nothing short of heroic, and years later, I see the lengths that my sister and friends go emotionally to get their kids to that place. Thanking their parents will be something that they will be proud of themselves for doing for the rest of their lives.

Name your two favorite vacation destinations to relax and recharge, and tell us why they are appealing.

Maui is a place that my husband Andrew and I escape to at least once every year because it’s overwhelmingly beautiful, utterly tranquil and allows us time away from commitments while reminding us of our commitment to each other.

Paris, where I’ve modeled for Rynshu during Paris Fashion Week twice a year for the last 4 years, recharges and re-informs my creative spirit, whether it’s the fashion, the art, the architecture, or the food.

What are you reading, and what are your two favorite books?

I just finished reading Start with Why by Simon Simek. Two of my favorite books are She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb and The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni.

Name three business leaders or political leaders who inspire you.

Barack Obama is such a universal answer that I’ll give you three more: Bayard Rustin — a pioneering force in the civil rights and gay rights movements — and Dr. Lena Edwards — one of America’s first African American female doctors who did tremendous things for her community. These are two people who we should be talking about more. In the business world, Roger Enrico, who gave me my start at Pepsico. He put me on the Michael Jackson “Bad” tour for the company that really launched my marketing career.

What are your favorite sports team and hobbies?

I am from Boston … go Celtics! Go Patriots! As far as my hobbies go, I am a voracious consumer of culture: highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow. I also love fashion and design.

What are two of your favorite quotes that motivate you?

“Everything will change. The only question is, growing up or decaying.” –Nikki Giovanni
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever.” –Mahatma Gandhi

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