Aaron Walton doesn’t hold back from speaking about gaps in DEI, Black History Month, and corporate responsibility in creating more inclusiveness. It’s not often you have insight from a CEO that isn’t pretentious and vague.
We hope you enjoy this interview as much as we did.
Aaron Walton Q&A
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Aaron Walton: Ooh, it means a lot of different things to me. I think it means taking some time to recognize. Quite frankly, the incredible accomplishments that our culture has had in building our nation also means for me taking a step back and looking at what we’ve accomplished, and recognizing how much more we have done.
This is a great time for not just people of color to stop and acknowledge their contributions. I think it’s vital for everyone to recognize and honor the incredible work that so many people have done. We always hear about the kind of celebrities and political leaders who have put an enormous effort into moving our culture forward.
Many people don’t get that recognition; that doesn’t get that equally important spotlight. We must recognize them as well and understand that they’ve been part of the struggle, they’ve been on the front lines, they’ve been leaders, innovators, poets, artists that have not often had their moment to shine. This is an extraordinary moment for the world to stop and acknowledge those contributions.
What inspired you to start your company?
Aaron Walton: It’s interesting. What inspired me to start my company goes back to my childhood, when I was always fascinated with advertising. I was always passionate about it, and I always knew that this was what I wanted to do.
What I didn’t see was a lot of people who looked like me Who had very similar values that I had, and it was a little challenging because you often want to see those mentors, you want to see people who are like you, so certainly I didn’t see a lot of people of color.
I didn’t see a lot of gay men and women in the industry, and I thought to myself: well, I can’t complain about it. I have to do something about it. I have to make sure that other people understand and feel a sense of belonging in an industry that I loved and wanted to be a part of.
When we started the company almost 17 years ago, the first thing that we wanted to do was create an environment where we were facing the world the way we wanted the world to face us. That meant we have to be purposeful in the inclusivity of many different cultures, not just black or not just LGBTQI+ or not just Hispanic.
These cultures came together because I believed that if you brought people together having a different background and a different way of looking at the world, you would learn more.
When you learn more, you have more significant opportunities to be more innovative, to think about solutions that may not have been part of your existence and your world because you hadn’t looked at it through that lens. So, I needed to make sure that I created that space early on, and it’s proven to be a successful formula for us.
Because our clients and partners understand the value of those insights that we’re bringing, that unearth those moments of innovation that everyone wants to get, and the science proves it outright.
So, the science supports the fact that when you have a more diverse workforce, people work harder to martial resources to help the people on the opposite side of the table understand why they are so passionate about a particular point-of-view and a particular way of approaching a challenge.
Ultimately, the group’s intellect becomes stronger because more people are doing what they can to convince you that their point of view is the right point of view, and the group gets bigger.
We’re exposed to things that we weren’t exposed to before, which is a powerful tool to have. We know that companies that are more ethnically diverse are 34% more likely to outperform those companies that aren’t companies that are more gender diverse are equally expected to outperform their competitors.
So, in addition to being and feeling good about it, it has some genuine positive business implications, and it just makes a more enjoyable workspace.
So it was an initiative that came from a desire to see more diverse talent. Still, it also evolved into an area where people feel that they can bring their complete and whole selves to the office, not have to worry about codeswitching, and not worry about doing anything other than being who they are.
That relief, that sense of being able to own who you are, takes that away from the equation and allows you to work on the challenge at hand and not have to worry about conforming or doing something that doesn’t feel organic to your being in your essence.
What are some gaps in DEI that organizations need to pay attention to?
Aaron Walton: One of the significant gaps in the conversation is the “equity” part of the conversation, and I believe companies must recognize that it’s not enough to hire people of color. It’s not enough to hire members of the LGBT+ community. It would help if you gave them an equal seat at the table.
You have to make sure you provide them with the same resources, the same budget level, and the same level of importance. Otherwise, you’re just doing a casting. Otherwise, you’re just putting people at a table and saying we’ve done our job. That’s not where it ends. It’s where it begins.
Make sure that those voices have an equal opportunity to support the segments in the consumers that we’re so passionate about. So, I think the significant missing element or the element that needs some more focus in our industry is the equity part of the conversation.
It’s uncomfortable sometimes because people often want to avoid conflict. They want to avoid the uncomfortableness of the collisions, but those collisions are sometimes required for us to make the progress we need.
what should organizations do to be more inclusive?
Aaron Walton: Well, I think the first step is: you know you have to hold a mirror up to yourself and not be afraid to address what you see in the mirror. If you don’t see a diverse group of team members, then you have to ask yourself, “why”?
You have to be committed to dealing with the uncomfortable response that may come back and then be committed and transparent to make the required changes. From a business perspective, one can say there are positive, profitable reasons why you should have a more diverse workforce.
So clearly, the data support the notion that diversity is essential. The will has to be there to make these changes. It requires that you get uncomfortable with the potential approach you have used in the past or look at some of those blind spots that may have existed. Be prepared actually to make the course corrections to do that.
If you don’t have a diverse workforce and you’re not recruiting, that might be one of the reasons you’re not finding the talent. It’s not that the talent isn’t out there.
Talent is abundant. What you have to be willing to do is look in places where you usually haven’t looked and be honest about why you’re not looking in those places, and then start to make the adjustments. We do many audit work with clients to help them understand where they are in the diversity kind of effort.
We also do a lot of training with clients to understand that it’s not just about bringing in diverse talent. It’s also about nurturing diverse talent. It’s about retention. So, there’s not just one thing: there’s a lot of different things that have to go into really getting you to the point where you have a diverse workforce that will be working in your best interests, which they usually are.
When you have a group of people passionate about bringing in new ideas in part imbedded in us based on where we grew up, how we grew up, and how we were taught, which is driven by culture, economics, and many different things impacting who we are.
I tell people all the time: if you were a young black teenage boy and grew up in Malibu, California, and you are a young black teenage boy who grew up on the south side of Chicago, you would have different points of view on how the world work.
It didn’t mean that the white teenage boy growing up in Malibu, California, was better or worse. It’s just that he had a different perspective on the world and part of our job as marketers. As corporate leaders, part of our job is to recognize those differences and celebrate those differences, not minimize those differences and learn from them to make the organization more whole.
What is the one motivational quote that keeps you going as a CEO?
Aaron Walton: That’s an easy one for me. One of my favorite leaders is often considered the lost profit of the civil rights movement. He was so vital in helping Dr. Martin King Jr. understand the ways of resistance, and his name was Bayard Rustin. Bayard was a gay civil rights leader when just saying that you were gay was often dangerous, and unfortunately, it still is in many places of the world.
What he said was, quite frankly, the foundation for how I have approached the work that I do. And he said that every community needs a group of angelic problem makers.
I love that because it does talk to our business in terms of being able to challenge, push, and make things better for everybody, but doing it in a way that brings people along instead of weeping people out.
John Lewis used to talk about good trouble one, and I think that’s kind of what it is. What we refer to as angelic troublemakers at our agency are enlightened rebels. That’s how we’ve translated this into our industry in our work.
It brings insights unique to the segments that we are trying to target and to do that to capture the imagination that makes people stop and think differently about the brands that we represent and celebrate them because they’re celebrating the cultures that we represent. So long stories short, my favorite quote would be Bayard Rustin.
Thank you, Aaron. It was very nice having you.
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Learn More About Aaron Walton
Recognized as a trailblazer and thought leader, Aaron Walton’s focus on innovation and cultural engagement has transformed traditional marketing and advertising strategies.
As the CEO / co-founder of Walton Isaacson (WI), a full-service advertising agency, with offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, and New York, Aaron’s focus is squarely on identifying unseen opportunities rooted in cultural insights and connections, transforming the definition of the agency model by prioritizing diversity of thinking and encouraging strategic solutions that defy tradition.
Founded in partnership with famed NBA superstar and entrepreneurial legend, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the agency has built inventive and dynamic business relationships with brands and organizations such as Lexus, McDonald’s, Bristol Myers Squibb, JP Morgan Chase, and Spalding. Walton began his career as a marketing executive with PepsiCo before starting his own company, Aaron Walton Entertainment (AWE), which he sold in 2002 to Omnicom Group’s DAS division.
In late 2020, after three years on Think LA’s Board of Directors, Walton was elected Co-president of the prestigious nonprofit advertising trade association. He is a member of the Ad Age Diversity Council, the AIMM Catalyst Committee, and the San Francisco Symphony Advisory Council. He serves on the boards of Tectonic Theater Project, Young Audiences New York, and the Alonzo King Ballet.
A recipient of Babson College’s Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award, Aaron also was recognized by the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s) as one of the 100 People Who Make Advertising Great and is a member of the Ebony Magazine Power 100 list.
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