Aaron Walton on growing up gay and black in an unwelcoming industry

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Aaron Walton
Aaron Walton Credit: Max Sternlicht/Ad Age

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Aaron Walton can tell you stories.

When he was fresh out of college in 1983, Walton went to work on the brand side — Pepsi specifically. As it happens, Pepsi at the time was working with a singer by the name of Michael Jackson. Walton's job would ultimately take him around the world on tour with Jackson. He was also there when Jackson's hair famously caught fire during a pyrotechnic mishap at a commercial shoot.

Now, some 35 years after that first incredible gig, the co-founder of 14-year-old agency Walton Isaacson is not only still in the business of telling brand stories, he's at culture's cutting edge. It was Walton Isaacson client Lexus that teamed up with Marvel for the Black Panther ads that ran during this year's Super Bowl.

The agency also counts as clients McDonald's and, more recently, the New York Police Department, where the mandate is to help the department integrate its ranks — and communicate to a skeptical citizenry a willingness to evolve the department's culture.

"I'm a gay black man who has grown up in an industry that hasn't been particularly welcoming to people who don't look like you," Walton says on the latest episode of the Ad Lib podcast. "Part of what I have tried to do is spend a lot of time educating people about the LGBTQ community, about the black community, about Hispanics. It's just a passion of mine."

We discuss walking the walk when it comes to speaking to a multicultural audience — a practice many brands and agencies pay lip service to, but few execute quite as effectively. "People are not just buying your product or service any more. they're buying your culture or what you stand for," he says.

Which is why, he says, Pepsi was an exciting place to be in the 1980s, at the height of the cola wars. The brand then was more in sync with popular culture, broadly speaking, and youth culture specifically. Today, with more brands bringing agency capabilities in-house (Pepsi among them), they risk losing the script.

"When you're in-house sometimes you can get mired in the corporate-ness. The company line that can sometimes get in the way of the disruption and the things that need to move the needle forward," he says. "If companies are bringing the work in-house they have to be very very careful to make sure there is a level of independent thinking that may ruffle feathers, that may make you uncomfortable. Sometimes that chaos, that collision is where those bright sparks happen."

Listen to the full podcast for all of that and more — including how Walton got a side gig as a runway model.

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