Finding a Band to Dance With Your Brand Is a Fine Art

Aaron Walton Has Made a Career of Hooking up Hipness and Marketers

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

If you think the advertising world has been slammed by a hurricane of change, try hanging out with some music moguls for a while. Better yet, hang out with Aaron Walton, founding partner of Beverly Hills' Walton/Isaacson, as he hangs out with them. He's been mixing up both worlds since 1985, when he was Pepsi's liaison to a guy named Michael Jackson.

"[Pepsi CEO] Roger Enrico got it. He understood the value and impact not only that entertainment properties could bring to Pepsi but that Pepsi could bring to the entertainment properties," Walton said on a recent trip to New York.

After flying through Bergdorf's men's store looking for the latest spring thing (gray flannel trousers cut into shorts? Alas, yes), Walton explained his job: hipster matchmaker.

He goes around figuring out what the next look, sound and band are going to be. Then he tries to hitch all that hipness to a brand. With the right match, the brand becomes cool and the band becomes big(ger).

Of course, if the match stinks, the brand looks pathetic and the band craven. So to help in this delicate process, Walton meets with the record studios' business strategists.

"I get goosebumps from this video!" shouted Lori Lambert, head of strategic alliances at Universal Motown Republic, as we walked in. She was trying to be heard over the throbbing, not-quite-finished Nelly video she had cranked up for Walton: "Party People," featuring Fergie. "It's going to be a smash!"

While Walton builds brands through bands, Lambert is his mirror image. The music industry is in a shambles, so the money has to come from someplace else: advertising.

"What I do a lot of the day is I sit around with my team, and we brainstorm: We have this song; what would it work for?" said Lambert. "Is it sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll? So we call the liquor companies or energy drinks or Trojan -- someone who's going to benefit from rubbing up against it."

"Did you hear yourself?" said Walton, laughing.

"Thanks for making me look like a jackass," she replied.

Even a short time ago, bands might have recoiled at the idea of corporate sponsorship. Now, it's the fast track. "One recent example was Shiny Toy Guns and the Motorola Razr," said Lambert. An international spot with a Toy Guns soundtrack showed a sexy couple using their Razrs as switchblades. Not only did Razr get a bump, said Lambert, "we saw digital sales and ringtone sales skyrocket too."

Bands love being in tech ads, she said. Fashion sponsorships work well for hip-hop acts. And everyone wants to be the background music for a TV show or promo.

"Natasha Bedingfield's single 'Pocket Full of Sunshine' is being used for every promo for all the new ABC shows," said Lee Stimmel, senior veep of marketing over at Epic Records, where Walton dropped in next. Viewers Google "ABC promo song," find Bedingfield and buy her music.

So what's next? Stimmel is lining up a college frat tour for the new group White Tie Affair, to be sponsored by Playboy. Walton, who works with Axe, lights up. "It's one thing to go to a brand and say 'Here's a band we like' as opposed to 'This makes sense,'" he said. For Axe, this band might make sense.

"Also, there's a single on the album called 'Mr. Right,'" said Stimmel.

Now Walton's grinning. Maybe Axe and Playboy show you how to be Mr. Right! Maybe Axe offers tickets on the web and does a big point-of-purchase display with the band: Buy Axe, get a free download, or something like that.

And that's how it works these days. It's all mixed up. But it's still advertising.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Aaron Walton as Aaron Isaacson. Mr. Walton's agency is Walton/Isaacson.
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