by Bianca Phillips
”Success is the best revenge.”
Those are words to live by if you’re Ceil Walker, the charismatic CEO of Walker & Associates, a locally owned advertising, public relations, and marketing firm that represents clients as large as McDonald’s and NASA, and as homegrown as the Memphis Art Park and the Racine + Southern Dance Exchange.
“My mom has little plaques and coasters around the house that say, ‘Success is the best revenge.’ She’s always taught me to gracefully let things go and work as hard as you can to be successful, and the rest won’t matter someday,” says Cecilia Walker, Ceil’s daughter and the senior vice president of business development for the firm.
Ceil has followed her own advice and led the company to its 51st year in business. Walker & Associates also has the distinction of being the largest local ad firm run by a woman and the only such firm in Memphis that’s never merged with another firm or been acquired by a larger one.
But there was a time when Ceil had some doubters. Her husband Deloss Walker, who founded the company in 1965, passed away from a stroke in 1996, and Ceil, who was serving as president of the company at the time, took over as CEO.
“Well, all of a sudden these accounts were up for review, and all of the other agencies were like hawks circling; they were trying to steal my accounts,” Ceil says. “Clients would call and say, ‘So-and-so told me that you’re selling, or so-and-so told me that you’re closing.’ I’d say, ‘If I ever think of doing any of those things, I will call you personally.’ That’s just how my integrity is.”
Ceil was never considering closing. Slowly, she went back in and re-pitched those accounts that were up for review, and she succeeded in retaining them.
“Fortunately, we won. But were there sleepless nights? Absolutely. And tears? Yes, but I never went to a meeting after he died and shed a tear. I knew people would say that I was too weak and I wouldn’t make it,” Ceil says. “You can go home and cry all night long, but you never cry in front of anybody.”
Ceil moved to Memphis in 1977 to work on branding for the Memphis Rogues, a short-lived professional soccer team with the North American Soccer League. She’d previously been working in Tampa, Florida, with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Rogues’ owner Harry Mangurian Jr. wasn’t happy with the team’s branding, and he asked Ceil to interview Walker & Associates.
“That is how I met my husband. I tell my daughter all the time that you never know when you’re going to meet the man of your dreams,” Ceil says. “They hired Walker, and a couple years later, [Deloss and I] started dating.”
Although Deloss has been gone for a decade now, it’s clear that Ceil’s love has never wavered. She’s a master at turning questions about herself around as a chance to dote on Deloss.
“He was adoring and charismatic. He would treat the president of the United States and the shoe-shine boy the same way. That was just his nature,” says Ceil of her uber-successful husband, who was often called the “Kingmaker” for his success working on political campaigns for governors, senators, congressmen, and presidents.
A former Arkansas farm boy, Deloss made a name for himself in the ad world by establishing the most successful record in modern-day political consulting, a record he still holds 20 years after his death.
Deloss and Ceil eventually married, and he asked her if she’d be willing to come work for the company. In the early 1980s, the advertising world was male-dominated and “extremely cutthroat,” Ceil says, so her early days at the company were tough.
“He was 21 years older than I was, and I can recall guys mumbling under their breath, ‘Well, she’s just a trophy wife.’ And I’d just think, ‘Oh, check. I’m going to remember that,’” says Ceil.
But Deloss and Ceil made a great team, in both their personal and professional lives. At work, Deloss managed the political side of the business, and Ceil handled corporate clients. At home, they raised two children — Cecilia and Deloss Thomas — together.
Ceil certainly had something to prove, so she poured herself into her work. In 1989, McDonald’s contacted the agency about working with them, and Ceil got the idea to work undercover there to better understand the business before pitching advertising ideas.
“I learned so much I can’t even tell you,” Ceil says. “I scrubbed the floors. I made the fries. I grilled the burgers. They tried to get me to be a good cash register-ringer-upper, but that seemed too complex for me. I could hand the bags out of the window.”
Only Deloss and the owners of the Collierville McDonald’s location knew about Ceil’s undercover gig. She didn’t tell co-workers at either job or her children for fear of being busted. But one day, Ceil was spotted by a McDonald’s worker as she was getting into her Mercedes, and he knew something was up. The worker confronted Ceil, and she confessed but swore him to secrecy.
“I told him I was working undercover and to please not tell anybody. Well, he went and told everybody,” Ceil says, laughing as she recalls the moment. “And then the whole crew gave me a group hug.”
Ceil’s plan worked and she scored the McDonald’s account. To this day, Walker & Associates still has that account.
She and Deloss ran a successful operation out of their downtown offices in the Morgan Keegan building [now Raymond James] for years (the agency is now located in Clark Tower). That all changed on February 28, 1996.
“That night, he went to a presentation, and he came home and had a stroke. Cecilia was 7, and Deloss [Thomas] was 15. He lived about six weeks after that. It was so sad,” Ceil says.
The only way Ceil knew how to grieve was to get back to work, so she buried him on a Monday and was back to work on Tuesday.
“Otherwise, I wasn’t going to live. Survival for me was coming back to work. And it was survival for my children because they’re crying, so I can’t cry,” Ceil says. “I’d go home at night, and after I put them to bed I’d wail on the back porch.”
But Ceil pulled through and took the reins at the company. At that time, she’d already been president at Walker & Associates for six years.
“What worked for me was being persistent and dedicated and working so many hours and all the weekends,” Ceil says. “I don’t want my late husband to feel like I didn’t do the right thing.”
Walker & Associates continues to be a family affair these days. After attending boarding school and then college in other cities, Cecilia eventually came back and took on her position at the agency.
“I never thought I would come back to Memphis, but it ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made,” Cecilia says. “My mom and I have a wonderful dynamic, and it’s fun to work together. We don’t always agree, but having two different perspectives allows us to get the whole package to our clients.”
Deloss Thomas worked at the company for a brief time, but he’s a bit of what his sister describes as a “free spirit,” having lived in Australia, the Virgin Islands, and Ecuador.
“He’s grown out a beard. He’s very wanderlust,” Ceil adds.
But while Deloss Thomas has been exploring the globe, the mother-daughter team at Walker & Associates has been maintaining the family business, and just last year they led the company through a rebrand to take it into the modern age. They’ve amassed big-deal corporate accounts, like Coca-Cola and the State of Tennessee, and yet they still find time for nonprofit work with the Ronald McDonald House, CrimeStoppers, and various other charities.
“We have some clients who come to us and say they think they’re too small for us, and my response is no client is ever too small. Period,” Cecilia says. “Locally grown, internationally known. That’s always been mom’s mantra.”
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