Today we are very excited to bring to you, via the Babson Connection, top advertising executive, Aaron Walton, co-founder of one of the top independently owned ad agencies around, Walton-Isaacson. An industry veteran, Aaron has worked with top brands including Pepsi, Michael Jackson himself during his partnership with Pepsi, Avion Tequila, Dove, ESPN, Disney and more.
During his few free minutes, he granted us access into his exciting life and shared with us how he went from employee to owner of “The Most Interesting Ad Agency” around.
SOS: Tell us a little about yourself. (Hometown, Current City, Educational Background, Current Title)
AW: I was born in Boston (Roxbury) and moved to a small town named Billingham in Massachusetts. After high school, I enrolled at Babson college and actually worked on campus while taking summer classes to get an early start. Currently, as a Partner at Walton/Isaacson, I split my time between Los Angeles and New York, although we also have offices in Chicago and Miami.
SOS: What were your first few jobs out of college?
AW: Right after I graduated, I went to work at Pepsi. I began there in 1983 working for the US division right out of school as an analyst in the marketing department. After about 3 years, I switched departments and went to work on the Mountain Dew Brand. From there, I took a field position for Pepsi and switched from just working on one brand nationally to all brands regionally for the Western division. This allowed me to have more variety in my work and provided me with the opportunity to bridge my strengths in operations with my penchant for branding.
After a bit, I was summoned back to the Pepsi brand group to perform research and planning for their entertainment marketing division. I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to work with the legendary Michael Jackson during his first collaboration with the brand, as well as other big music and entertainment initiatives going on at the time.
Soon after, I was transferred to the West Coast offices during Pepsi’s second effort with MJ for his first solo tour, the Bad tour. I ended up falling in love with LA and stayed out there to build the entertainment marketing division of the company.
SOS: What first spurred your entrepreneurial itch and what was your transitional process like from employee to CEO?
AW: After 2 years in LA , I spoke with Pepsi about going out on my own and still working for them in the same capacity, as an entertainment marketing executive, but doing so as a consultant as opposed to an employee. I realized that as much as I loved Pepsi, I wanted to branch out and not only be able to work with other brands under the Pepsi umbrella, but brands outside of Pepsi as well.
Once I started my marketing/advertising company, Pepsi came on as my first client. I built the practice up over the next few years and sold it to Omnicom, a HUGE global communications holding company (They own some of the biggest communications companies in the world!)
Afterwards, I started a new agency with two other business partners, Corey Isaacson and Magic Johnson (yes…THE Magic Johnson). I had previously worked with Magic, booking him for a speaking engagement with Cadbury, and he liked my style of work and business plan for my new company enough to ask to come on as a third partner
SOS: What were your first few years like as an entrepreneur?
AW: It was certainly challenging starting out as a one man band. It was a bit smoother than others, as I started with a huge client, which helped increase my profile and attract other big brands like AT&T, as they’d reach out and request similar entertainment marketing initiatives
My challengers weren’t so much how will I pay the bills as they were how can I maintain the quality of my work with all these large projects? I ended up spending a lot of time finding like-minded team members who were just as passionate as I was about the work. This is still a challenge I face on an ongoing basis.
SOS: What did you learn from your corporate experience that helped you succeed with your own company?
AW: First, I learned how to tell precise stories. Story telling is a critical part of what we do in advertising and when you have a lot going on, you need to be able to tap into all the necessary disciplines to drive a business forward.
Many agencies focus on one specific thing, but being on the corporate side showed me it’s not one thing that propels your business forward so much as the connection of all the different disciplines coming together to create a great product. This is the 360 degrees approach Walton Isaacson takes with each client’s campaign.
SOS: What is your favorite part about being an entrepreneur?
AW: The idea of controlling your own destiny. The environment of working with clients is not 100% in your control as there are budget constraints, etc. But, I do like the freedom to choose what we want to work on, allowing us to focus on the projects that really speak to us.
SOS: What is the most challenging part?
AW: The weight of responsibility that I feel I have (in a way I didn’t when I was at a company) to all the members of my team. The obligation to deliver and continue to push the envelope creatively to inspire team members and also the financial responsibility that peoples’ families and livelihood is dependent on your vision and the company’s success.
SOS: What is a current day like for you?
AW: Oh my god (laughs). Every single day has been completely different because we have such a variety of clients with such different needs. I’m on the road about 70% of the time now, traveling from one client to another. When in LA, I get to the gym in the morning around 6 am, then go home for some quiet time and to go through emails. By 9 am, I go to the office and am in meetings all day until about 7, when I then go home to try and recharge my batteries and do a little more work. If not, I’m out at dinner with clients.
The fun element is that no matter what may be planned, there will always be a plot twist that forces you to adjust and meet the demands of the day, always keeping you on your toes.
As the company continues to grow and evolve, so do my responsibilities, as I spend more time training and developing others as opposed to doing all the work myself.
SOS: What do you know now that you wish you knew back when you first started out?
AW: One of the things that I think happens when you start in this industry is you become so eager to do what the client wants. What I know now is to stop and instead of rushing to the finish line, think it through and make sure that whatever we decide is really what is best for the client. I know make sure to take the necessary time to decide on the real best solutions, which may not always be the most apparent choices.
SOS: If you weren’t in advertising/marketing, what would you be doing?
AW: I’m a political junkie, but I don’t think I could ever run for office. I do love the idea of politics and the impact it has on our lives, so I can see myself doing something in this field.
I’d love to spend time volunteering and supporting some type of philanthropic organization. I love taking the skill sets I’ve developed as a marketer and applying it to a great cause and supporting someone in need; it’s extremely fulfilling.
I could also possibly see myself in theatre as I love the transformation and storytelling involved in the process.
SOS: What’s up next for you and Walton/Isaacson?
AW: There are so many really cool things we’re doing beyond the regular new business wins.
We are developing our own brands. We’ve developed Avion Tequila, which is doing really well in its market. We are developing a lot of content, producing and creating television shows and working on an idea for a Broadway show. Developing content where you have some equity in it and creating something from scratch as opposed to helping to develop an already established brand is a whole new exciting avenue that we are really enjoying.
We’d like to thank Aaron again for taking the time to speak with us and can’t wait to see what Walton-Isaacson produces next!