It’s 8 a.m., and Aaron Walton is being interviewed on a Zoom call in the lobby of the Edition hotel in Tokyo. He was in Japan to strut the runway for designer Rynshu, modeling his fall and winter collection.
Aaron Walton advocates for truth and change in advertising
That’s not typical for an agency CEO, but Walton isn’t your typical agency owner. Walton, who is hands-down one of the best-dressed executives in the business, sees fashion as an integral part of the creativity, individuality and culture for which he advocates every day.
“Fashion is about telling a story and who you are, how you express yourself, how you want the world to see you,” said 61-year-old Walton, who is Black and gay. “The second that I started doing that, things changed. I was like, ‘This is who I am. I'm not going to apologize for it. I'm going to own it.’”
Walton is a well-known voice for inclusion in advertising, honored by prestigious industry groups including AdColor and, later this year, the AAF Hall of Fame.
His agency is known for representing Lexus, for which it orchestrated the brand’s integration into the “Black Panther” franchise, along with campaigns for clients including McDonald’s, Amazon, PNC Bank and most recently American Airlines, for which it won agency-of-record status in 2022. (Walton, who has been flying with the carrier since his early days working in brand marketing at PepsiCo in the 1980s, has banked 13 million miles with American.)
“I have never not wanted to be in the advertising industry,” said Walton. When he founded his agency in 2005, he sought to fill a hole in the market.
“You get to a point where you're sitting back and you see some of the opportunities that the industry was missing. One of those for me was, ‘How do we really get an industry that has been predominantly dominated by white men to open up to all types of cultures?’ Not just Black and Hispanic and Asian and women, all types of diversity. That’s what I really wanted to make sure we stood for as an agency.”
His original business plan, titled “Creating the World’s Most Interesting Agency,” Walton said, was “not about the clients that we wanted to go after. It wasn't even about the revenue. It was about the types of people that I wanted to surround the agency with because I knew if we brought diverse people in, they would bring and create this environment where people could thrive and could bring their whole selves to work.”
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The shop was backed by NBA Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who, while on a flight with Walton, asked out of curiosity to see the business plan he was writing, and called to become part of it the next day.
While at Pepsi, Walton was intimately involved in its connections with popular music and toured with the legendary Michael Jackson when the King of Pop was Pepsi’s brand ambassador.
Walton still recalls his first day in that position watching Jackson rehearse, practicing one move—removing his fedora—over and over with different music and lighting cues. “I thought, ‘This is how you pay attention to the details. You pay attention to every single thing,’” said Walton.
What now worries Walton is that brands will stop paying attention. He said that marketers who “found religion” after the death of George Floyd may now cut back on their commitments to communities of color as the economy worsens. “It's incumbent upon all of us, every person that is touching this business, to keep holding these brands, these agencies accountable. Not just because it's the right thing to do for the agencies, but it's the right thing to do for the consumers.”
Added Walton: “My job is to tell [brands] the truth and to be frank with them about the downside of not doing it. I might not make a lot of friends, but I'm at the point in my career where it's about telling the truth and being honest, and guiding people to where I believe the future is.”