How Iain Walker’s music career shaped his destiny in the promo world.
Iain Walker, president of Toronto, Canada-based SVS Marketing, fell in love with making music as a teenager when he started playing the bass guitar. “I began playing with a garage band almost immediately,” he says. “And we were awful.”
But the passion for music remained, so much so that Walker eventually earned a degree in recording engineering. His music career eventually morphed into a side gig (his band is called The Misprints), but it allowed him to get a taste of being an entrepreneur and it led him to his first job in the industry—and all the way to heading up the full-service promotional agency.
SVS Marketing was created in 2009 when Stincor Specialties and Van-Smith Marketing joined forces, combining more than 60 years of promotional products experience. The company specializes in loyalty and incentive-based programs as well as branded merchandise.
Walker also currently serves as treasurer and chair-elect for the Promotional Products Professionals of Canada Board of Directors.
When he’s not at work, Walker hangs out in Mississauga, Ontario with his wife, Wanda, and their two children—Andrew, who is in his fourth (and, Walker hopes, final) year of university and Megan, a second-year university student—and their Labradoodle, Sunny. Music is still a large part of Walker’s life, especially since Andrew shares his father’s passion for creating music. “We have a growing recording studio in our basement so he is able to get his notions saved,” Walker says.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
I still enjoy playing bass in an active rock band. We [Walker’s band back in the 1980s] were a pretty good southern rock outfit that moonlighted as a Tom Petty cover band to pay the recording bills. My highest high was probably touring in Los Angeles in the ’80s. Unfortunately, there were a couple of kids competing with us. They recently got back together to tour—Guns N’ … hmmmm. Guns N’ something. Can’t remember. Let’s just say our timing was a bit off. These days we gig for charities we believe are important, like cancer research and children in need.
I’m also part of a hopeless group of Toronto Maple Leaf season ticket holders (the Cubs have given us renewed hope!) and I’m also a pretty big Toronto Blue Jays fan and season ticket holder. When I’m home I enjoy cooking and sampling new wines from around the world.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Every day is different, for one. Not many industries offer that. Not knowing exactly how my day is going to play out is exciting (usually). The creative aspects of what we do are invigorating and I love the people I work with. We stress the importance of teamwork in our mission statement. It fosters a great environment for empowered co-workers to strive for personal success.
What was your first job, and what lessons did you learn?
I was on the road a lot, producing live sound right out of school. We had a lot of fun, but very long days (and nights) taught me that hard work and commitment lead to success. It also stirred a sense of independence and started to help me understand how to take control of my destiny.
What was your first job in promotional products and how did it come about?
My first job in the industry was assembling boxes for a calendar company. This was my best friend’s (and bandmate’s) family business. Box-making jobs are highly regarded by broke musicians everywhere. My supervisors thought I may have been slightly overqualified when I kept showing up on time and, of course, [based on] the quality of my box making. This led to a promotion to the phone room telemarking promotional products to small businesses all over North America, faithfully promising delivery in four to six weeks. As far as learning, I am still learning and making mistakes, sharing thoughts and ideas and treating people with respect. I’ve been at it for over 30 years now in one form or another.
Who or what has had the greatest influence on your career and why?
That’s a tough one. I kind of fell into this industry, as most do, but I have been very fortunate to have had many positive role models and influences to help me throughout my career. I’ve always seen myself as an entrepreneur, though, and this industry has allowed me to be immersed in creative environments while allowing me to take control of my destiny.
What motivates you in business and in life?
My family, especially my kids. I want them to have every opportunity to succeed at whatever makes them happy. That means I need to succeed, and offer myself up as a positive, cheerful, low-stress role model for them.
What is your greatest professional accomplishment?
I don’t know that I can narrow this down to one thing. I’m so proud of being at the helm of two wonderful, successful, growing companies [Walker also heads Sharper Marketing, a supplier of logoed hard goods to college and university bookstores in Canada.] So many little and big accomplishments (and mistakes) have gotten me this far. I guess my greatest accomplishment will be when I have built a legacy for my family and employees, and I can put my feet up and call it a day. Retirement will offer an opportunity to immerse myself in everything, including music. I’m never going to stop playing!
What advice would you give to an industry newcomer?
There aren’t many industries that offer unlimited opportunity. There are no traditional restrictions or glass ceilings here. You have unlimited earning potential. Period. Just work hard, define what you would like to accomplish and go get it!
Photo: Battle of the Bands
Cutline: Iain Walker (second from right on the bass guitar) with his band The Misprints as they battle The Midnight Soul Patrol at the 2016 Promotional Products Professionals of Canada’s (PPPC) national conference.