Skip to content

Walton Isaacson uses cultural awareness to reap profits for clients


One of the most successful television shows in recent years, the period drama “Mad Men” was alternately criticized for its accuracy and it’s exclusion of ethnic minorities in its depiction of the advertising industry of the 1960s. This superficial portrayal of Blacks as stock figures reflected the mindset of a period as one anonymous communications media veteran put it, “…before we’d entered their (White folks) conscience.” Female characters on the show, while numerous were none-the-least marginalized reflecting the pre-feminist sensibility of the era.

Fast forward to the end of the century and beyond, and the population shift has forced purveyors of goods and services to reassess their marketing approach. Among those who’ve recognized and adjusted to addressing this rapidly changing demographic is the Walton Isaacson (WI) advertising agency.

Founded in 2005, this upstart company has succeeded in a transitional period because it embraces the shift in society’s ethnic/racial makeup by acknowledging previously overlooked communities, and making the effort to understand their behaviors, interests, and motivations.

In spite of its success, WI remains miniscule compared to the giants of the industry. Currently it has five offices in the United States and Japan, while behemoths like Saatchi and Saatchi or J. Walter Thompson boast 140 locations and 200 offices respectively, world wide.

Paradoxically, the size discrepancy works to WI’s advantage, as founder/chief executive Aaron Walton elaborates.

“The size of the agency isn’t as important as the ultimate work that it produces,” he says.

“That is particularly true in this age of technology, entrepreneurialism and customization. Big can mean slow, bureaucratic, and impersonal. It’s hard for giant structures to be nimble but that’s what’s required for exploration and innovation.”

Key to the company’s success is educating their client base about shifting customer tastes and demographics, and the possibility of lost revenues. The process is highlighted by the realization that antipathy or ignorance can mean an erosion of their profit margin.

“Wait a minute, my share is getting smaller, not bigger,” Walton says of this “aha moment.”

Walton’s personal journey began in the Boston enclave of Roxbury (which produced Senator Edward Brooke, R&B singer Bobby Brown, Nation of Islam activists Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X, and disco music queen Donna Summer). In spite of that city’s perception as a bastion of liberalism, “the reality is that there were real pockets of segregation,” Walton recalls which stirred the future adman’s awareness of intolerance. The family’s move to a better neighborhood sparked a petition (unsuccessful) by prospective neighbors to prevent his parents from purchasing their house.

His childhood viewing provided professional inspiration from an unlikely source— the long-running ABC sitcom, “Bewitched,” (1964-1972), in which protagonist Darrin Stephens’ vocation as a Madison Avenue adman provided the impetus for his career path.

Upon graduating from Babson College, he secured a position with PepsiCo, and fell under the sway of legendary executive Roger Enrico during the height of what became known as the “Cola Wars” of the 1980s. During a series of ad campaigns between Pepsi and its archrival Coca-Cola, Walton excelled by developing the marketing strategy between Michael Jackson and Enrico’s “New Generation” youth campaign, which contrasted with Coke’s stodgy image.

The possibility of media as a tool to change perceptions was impressed upon him, and he parlayed that knowledge into his own company, Aaron Walton Entertainment, continuing his coupling of show business celebrities and corporate brands. In short order, he sold this successful enterprise to the media services corporation, Omnicom Group, staying on as president of a complex of market agencies under the Omnicom banner.

With Walton at Omnicom was a bright marketing wiz, Cory Isaacson, who made his name merging pop culture with product promotion. Success not-with-standing, both budding entrepreneurs realized a void was present in the industry.

“We looked at what was going on in the industry and realized it was not sustainable,” Walton recalls, meaning that certain groups’ needs were not being met.

Filling that need meant creating an atypical ad agency merging the concepts of brand building, cultural awareness, and empathy for diversity to meet the challenges of a new millennium.

In his 2009 book “32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business,” retired L.A. Laker superstar Magic Johnson recalls Walton sharing the business model he’d shaped with Isaacson, on a private jet they shared en route to a speaking obligation. In short order, Walton Isaacson was launched with the NBA Hall of Famer as an investor, and was an immediate success via innovative marketing for Lexus, McDonald’s, and Wells Fargo among others, and the creation of Avión tequila (abetted by a tie-in to the “Entourage” HBO hit series), recouping Johnson’s initial outlay in a mere 18 months (as promised in their business plan).

“Even if they’d been rookies fresh out of business school, their passion and sense of purpose would have captured my attention,” Johnson remembers. That these upstarts were seasoned professionals with proven track records, with a list of clients before they’d even “hung out their (business) shingle” made endorsing them an “no-brainer” for Johnson (who initially wanted to hire Walton for his own business enterprise.

Since their inception, WI has garnered a host industry accolades including Black Enterprise Magazine’s Ad Agency of the year for 2014, and Ebony Magazine’s “2013 POWER 100” list. The co-founders have made a point of assembling a diverse staff from dissimilar backgrounds and ethnicities, to embrace the diverse cultures that are a staple of millennium marketing.

In the interim, Walton has personally earned recognition as one of the leading executives in the industry and “gives back” through his participation in the Marcus Graham Project, a consortium which prepares minorities for entry into the marketing and media industry. Walton is guided by the need in society for “angelic troublemakers” as verbalized by the social activist Bayard Rustin in his commitment to change the world for the better in the business community and life in general.

Among Walton’s proudest creations is a rebuttal to presidential candidate Donald Trump’s offensive rhetoric about Mexicans titled “Turn Ignorance Around” ( Another campaign involved the launch of “Verses and Flow” a variety show coupling the genres of spoken word and Hip Hop with the promotion of the Lexus luxury automobile brand, making it the number one choice for Black consumers.

“It’s easy just to surround yourself with people who are very similar to you,” he says, summing up his managemental philosophy. “It’s more work to surround yourself with people with different points of view that are going to challenge you,” he continued.

“But ultimately when they challenge you, the work becomes better.”

Alas, the legacy of the unenlightened era portrayed in “Mad Men” still lingers. Burger King was condemned for a 2012 ad using the Queen of hip hop soul, Mary J. Blige, to promote a chicken snack wrap, resurrecting the link between Blacks and fried chicken. More recently, J. Walter Thompson CEO Gustavo Martinez was forced to resign behind jokes equating Blacks as rapists surfaced.

Nothing drives social (or historical) progress more readily than economic necessity, and as demonstrated by Walton Isaacson, the push for equality may well be achieved by appealing to man’s urge for the dollar sign rather than “the better angels of his nature.”