How did you get started in advertising? What's been your career road map?
The truth is, my interest in advertising traces back to my childhood, watching Bewitched as a kid. I was fascinated with the way Darrin found creative solutions for the agency’s clients.
I wound up attending Babson College, which is known for a focus on entrepreneurialism. Roger Enrico, President of PepsiCola North America, was a Babson alum. I was involved in student government at Babson and Enrico saw me speak at a Board of Trustees meeting. That connection led to landing my first job in marketing. I started my career at Pepsi in research and brand management. I really wanted to work for the legendary ad man, Alan Potash. He was known as the godfather of Pepsi’s most iconic campaigns (Pepsi Challenge, Pepsi Now, Choice of A New Generation). I had successfully lobbied to be moved to his department when a special assignment came up. My transfer to advertising was put on hold, and instead, I was asked to manage the company’s music marketing efforts. I represented Pepsi on tour with Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, David Bowie, and the Miami Sound Machine.
My role evolved beyond music, expanding to include celebrities and all things pop-culture—basically tying the brand in the social zeitgeist. In the end, I never did wind up working directly for Alan in the advertising department.
Eventually, I decided I wanted to go out on my own, so I started Aaron Walton Entertainment (AWE). Pepsi was my first client. My focus was on using music, celebrity and pop-culture to amplify brand messages and connect with consumers experientially. Clients also included AT&T, Taco Bell, Frito-Lay, Pizza Hut, Budweiser and others. Omnicom acquired AWE as part of their DAS division. Following my tenure at DAS, I decided I wanted to start a new agency, one that expanded beyond celebrity and played a role throughout the strategic and creative development of 360 campaigns. Which brings me to Walton Isaacson.
What has been an important, perhaps the most important, lesson you’ve learned in your career thus far?
Culture matters. Leaning into culture, and specifically leveraging diversity of experience, drives innovation. But buckle up, because drawing from many perspectives is messy—but it can also be magic. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is key.
What keeps you motivated? Do you have a personal motto?
I embrace the philosophy of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who said, “We need in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.” That applies to work, home – to virtually all aspects of life. And, what I love to see, what keeps me motivated, is my ability to work with young talent and shift their thinking from accepting the status quo to embracing respectful rebellion. Igniting sparks and setting minds on fire. When I can free a person up to think like an angelic troublemaker, then everything else falls into place – the work for clients soars, the personal and professional satisfaction of the team reaches new heights. I love identifying the person in the team who is ready to challenge themselves. My impact on them ultimately impacts others and we all grow.
What excites you most about this industry?
Telling stories that have not been told in ways that they have not been told. We are no longer an industry that does monologues, talking about ourselves to ourselves. We are in dialogue with people, we are collaborators, and the creative possibilities are infinite. Where is advertising is headed? What do the next five years look like? From a societal standpoint – whether brands accept it or not —cultural commitment will drive a brand’s success. That means awakening to the power of authenticity, being vulnerable, having values, prioritizing purpose. The more brands face the world the way they want the world to face them, the more successful they will be.
Photos: Don Lupo
What advice do you have for black advertising professionals who are beginning their careers?
You deserve a seat at the table and don’t let anyone or anything suggest otherwise. It may not be given to you, you may have to demand it, but you have earned it – not just because you’re Black, but because you’re great. And don’t be afraid to bring your cultural perspectives and, frankly, powers to the conversation. You understand the world in a way that many others don’t. You understand the good, the bad, and the ugly of human behavior. You have your finger on the pulse of the future. Don’t settle for the scraps and don’t feel obligated to teach others what it has taken you a lifetime to learn. The industry needs you and it must respect you.
I would also say this for LGBTQ, Latinos, Asians, Women across cultural segments – I would say it to any group for whom a career in this industry was not always a viable option and who still remain marginalized in many contexts.
Why did you decide to join the ThinkLA board?
I wanted to join ThinkLA because of the organization’s commitment to celebrating the creative power that fuels this town. L.A. has a deep bench of creatives across multiple agency models and industries, but they often go unrecognized or undervalued. L.A. is not always taken seriously and that impacts the way the industry here is viewed. But the creative talent in L.A. helps determine trends and communicates compelling stories through television, film, radio, digital content, advertising and events. There is amazing storytelling generated in L.A. and it’s essential that L.A. talent get recognized and honored for that. I am proud to be part of an organization like ThinkLA because of its mission to help amplify the work that comes out of this community – creativity lives in L.A.
Any closing thoughts?
Welcome to LA, King James!
Aaron Walton is a Founding Partner of Walton Isaacson, a full-service advertising agency founded in 2006 along with Cory Isaacson and Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Aaron currently serves on ThinkLA's Board of Directors.