The Matchmakers Who Married Diddy and Burger King

Aaron Walton and Cory Isaacson Broker Entertainment Deals With an Eye on Commerce

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Who: Aaron Walton and Cory Isaacson, founders of the Los Angeles-based entertainment-marketing firm Walton Isaacson
Cory Isaacson (left) and Aaron Walton outlined their business plan inside a Chicago Starbucks.

Why you need to know them: Messrs. Walton and Isaacson seek out new ways to blend entertainment and commerce, having recently helped broker a marketing deal between rapper Diddy and Burger King. Their list of previous marketing marriages is long, steeped in music and sports and the brands that love them.

Credentials: Messrs. Walton and Isaacson have similar backgrounds in marrying brands and entertainment properties. Mr. Walton began his career at Pepsi-Cola in the brand-marketing group. He later formed an independent agency focused on securing talent and music-licensing opportunities for advertising, bartering deals between artists and blue-chip brands such as Cadillac and Frito-Lay. He's worked with Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Reba McEntire, Led Zeppelin and Enrique Iglesias.

Mr. Isaacson started as a sports agent, working with the National Basketball Association, the National Football League Players Association, and pro players such as Deion Sanders and Jim McMahon. He was then a managing partner at record label EMI, helping develop music campaigns, tour sponsorships and experiential initiatives for brands including Hanes Hosiery and Tina Turner, Burger King and the Backstreet Boys, and Anheuser-Busch Budweiser's True Music.

Why did you create this new company, Walton Isaacson? Mr. Isaacson: "We were actually sitting in a Starbucks in Chicago's Gold Coast and started to outline a business plan that we titled 'The Planet's Most Interesting Agency.' We started by saying wouldn't it be great if one, we created our own brands; two, we applied the same brand expertise to music artists; three, we created an environment that celebrates diversity both in our people and our disciplines; and four, we were highly profitable and loved what we do."

Mr. Walton: "We knew the game was changing for brands and for the entertainment industry. The old model wasn't working, and we wanted to create something that was going to address these changes."

You recently worked on the alliance between Diddy and Burger King. Talk about how that came about and some of the deal points. What will it look like as it unfolds? Mr. Isaacson: "Well, the partnership came together organically and began through a relationship between Russ [Klein, Burger King's president-global marketing, strategy and innovation] and Diddy. All the partners on the campaign want to break new ground and let the power of the respective 'kings' run its course through all different channels of media. ... BK is not afraid to let their fans get involved. Diddy affords the team many creative outlets because of his place in pop culture, and we plan to fully leverage it across the board."

How have sponsorship deals changed over the years, both for the artists and the marketers? Mr. Walton: "The checks from marketers are smaller because they can be. Brand power is now being fully understood by all members of the entertainment community. Artists and entertainers recognize brands can really make a difference in the artists' ability to sell CDs, concert tickets, downloads, etc. This means that the brands can ask for more and actually get it.

Mr. Isaacson: "Old-school traditional sponsorship went out with the Hula-Hoop. Years ago, I was in L.A. to do a deal and had $1 million for a high-profile artist. The manager looked at me and said, 'These types of deals are dead,' and turned down the money. He wanted media support for his artist and a single in their ads. He was ahead of his time."

At a time when so many artists work hand-in-hand with marketers, do you still find some that refuse? Is it possible to change their minds? Mr. Walton: "You're talking to the guy who put Led Zeppelin together with Cadillac, so if there is an artist out there that wouldn't take a corporate deal, I haven't met him or her. Most artists and their representatives have seen the huge impact that marketers can have on driving awareness for their brand or issue that is consistent with the brand or artist's image, and they are open to working together if the creative is right."

There's still a lot of debate over exactly what branded entertainment is. How do you define it? Mr. Walton: "We believe that it's when a brand's DNA inherently fits with the property's content and helps tell a story.

Mr. Isaacson: "That story can be told through many different formats -- TV, film or music. We let the idea choose the appropriate medium."

How do you measure success? Mr. Isaacson: "There's no silver bullet. Every marketer has different objectives, and savvy marketers are creating their own rules and an ROI [return-on-investment] model that measures branded-content initiatives."

Mr. Walton: "Yes, but at the end of the day, whatever we do should move product off the shelves."

What are the best examples of branded entertainment you've seen lately? Mr. Walton: "I think 'Project Runway' got it right. The integration of Tresemme styling products and the Macy's retail connection make sense. They help tell the story and provide value to the brand by showcasing the brand's attributes."

Mr. Isaacson: "Sting promoting his new album on ['Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip']."

And the worst? Mr. Walton: "You don't kick a brand when it's down. It's our job to help them figure out how to stay off this list."

What are some obstacles branded entertainment still faces? Mr. Walton: "I think there are two key issues for brands. The first is finding the right balance between the creative and the commerce, and the other is the timing, making sure that they can leverage the broadcast with an in-store program."

How do you address those? Mr. Isaacson: "It's really about having early access to both the brand strategic planning cycle and content development."

If music is so important to so many people, then why do you think the record industry is in such a slump? Mr. Walton: "The industry was late adopting new technology, and there seemed to be a bit of a creative slump, which we have now turned the corner on. Innovation can be challenging, but it doesn't mean that there isn't a pot of gold or multiplatinum at the end of the music rainbow."

Do you have a favorite band -- either a contemporary one or of all time? Mr. Walton: "That's easy. Stevie Wonder. 'Song's in the Key of Life' [is the] best album of all time. No debate. Right now, I can't stop listening to Panic at the Disco's album 'A Fever You Can't Sweat Out.' These guys are incredible."

Do you play any musical instruments? Mr. Isaacson: "The guitar ..."

Mr. Walton: "Ah, well, actually, I've heard him play. I'm not sure that you can categorize that as music."

What's the best live show or performance you've seen this year? Mr. Walton: "If I don't answer 'Toni Braxton Revealed' at the Las Vegas Flamingo, I'll have to fire myself as her manager and tell the press that I've left myself over creative differences. It's actually an amazing show. The response has been overwhelming."

What's on your TiVo? Mr. Walton: "Although TiVo and I share some wonderful memories and remain good friends, I've left TiVo for my Time Warner Cable DVR. That said, my list includes 'Heroes,' 'Studio 60,' 'Project Runway,' 'Weeds,' 'Entourage' and '30 Rock.'"

What do you do with your downtime? Mr. Isaacson: "I try to figure out why I don't have more downtime."
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