The Translation Agency’s Steve Stoute helped kick-off Billboard and Adweek’s inaugural Music & Advertising conference Thursday with the first keynote interview. Stout – whose played a role in bringing together artists and brands like Justin Timberlake with McDonald’s, Beyonce with Samsung Electronics, and Jay-Z with Reebok and Hewlett-Packard – discussed the perfect strategy for linking bands and brands, managing the risks brands inherit when working with artists and much more. Below, an edited version of this morning’s keynote.
When did you first have the idea that branding was your path and it was time to leave the traditional music company and pursue this?
With Will Smith. Will Smith had been dropped from Jive Records. They thought that he was not a viable piece of talent before “Men In Black” and we signed him to Sony. When [“Big Willie Style”] sold 10 million copies, we didn’t know and no one paid attention, but I was absolutely focused on how many of those [Ray Ban] glasses we were selling. The Ray Ban glasses moving a lot of units was the first thing that made me go “Ok, this is something really serious. This is like, ‘We sold 10 million albums, they sold 14 million glasses. The glasses don’t need first-class airline tickets (laughter). The glasses don’t talk back, entourage, the whole thing. If I’m not addicted to the luxury of having this big job, I’d much rather sell the glasses.’ It was just that kind of thinking that led me to that premise.
What was one of the first branding partnerships you worked on?
In 2001, shortly after 9/11, we signed Enrique Iglesias to Interscope, and he had a song called “Hero.” At the same time, Chrysler was launching a truck called the Jeep Liberty. And the Jeep Liberty, the first spot naturally was a Jeep going up the side of the Statue of Liberty. That’s the automobile business. (laughs) A unique idea. I put the music behind the ad and sent it in. We loved it. The client loved it. We wanted Jeep to take this so we didn’t want the publishing to become the hang up. We called [EMI Music Publishing chairman] Marty Bandier, we said, ‘Marty, give us six months. Waive the publishing for six months. If you invest six months of the publishing, then Chrysler will spend 10 million dollars in media. And if you believe that the 10 million in media works, you’re gonna sell more albums and you’re gonna make the money back for waiving the six months of the publishing.’
That may make sense now but that made zero sense when this first came up as a dialogue like, ‘Invest the publishing rights? What are you talking about?’ But it made perfect sense to me. Anyhow, we put that commercial and song together, we launched it in Monday Night Football and that’s how we broke ‘Hero.’
I just want to get some perspective from you on some of these deals that you have put together. What makes a good marriage in this field and what makes a bad marriage?
First of all, what I don’t like is because I come from the record business and because I work with advertisers, when I first got into bridging this gap, it wasn’t about trying to be a talent agent like ‘I’m going to sign you to this company for a deal.’ I don’t have those kinds of relationships. It’s important that everybody gets this because it’s really changed the landscape, and it’s very important that we understand the essence about why these relationships work. But it’s just not hooking up talent and a brand. It’s about understanding the shared values. And the shared values between what the artist has, if you look at the artist as a brand, and you look at the company as what it is – a brand – and figure out what is the commonality that the consumer believes so they’re proximity is natural and it doesn’t make it feel like it’s forced.
You talked about sunglasses not necessarily having an entourage and talking back. Obviously, for the brand, there can be some risk with working with something as unpredictable as an artist.
I had three of those. I couldn’t believe I had three of those. It’s so weird how they happen. I’m sitting home at my house one day watching the Super Bowl, and just like everybody else I see Justin Timberlake. pull Janet Jackson‘s bra. And I’m watching it going “OH! yadda yadda yadda” and I’m not even thinking, ‘Yo. I just signed this guy to McDonald’s.’ So, now I gotta go on damage control IMMEDIATELY.
Fast forward. I’m at the BET Awards, and I hear some rumblings that T.I. just got arrested. I just signed him to GM! But I’m in the moment because I’m a fan and I don’t even realize it. And then naturally, the situation with Chris Brown. So these are like loud, big things that I had to jump in front of in the company. My guys from Translation are here, and they’ve been brilliant at knowing how to jump in front of this. You know how McDonald’s feels on Monday morning when there’s parents writing about ‘You have Justin Timberlake? We’ve been buying from you for generations. Get out of here.’ And this guy’s saying he had no idea. It was a malfunction.
So what do you do with the rebound? Chris Brown, for example, I know he’s recording again. He’s gonna make a go of rehabilitating his career. Are you gonna play a role in that? Can a brand play a role in that?
No. It was a relationship between Wrigley’s and Chris Brown to create the song ‘Forever,’ which I think is one of the best integrations period, if you ask me. To create a song that didn’t exist called ‘Forever’ and find the nuance that Doublemint had, which was ‘Double your pleasure, double your fun.’ Spend the money to make the song. Do you know how hard it is to convince a packaged good company that you’re gonna make a song in February, release it and you’re not gonna actually say that that song is your song for six months. Suppose that song isn’t a hit. Do you know the gamble spending the money to hire the talent, make the song, make the video, shoot the video, do all of that, release it in February, and we’re telling Wrigley’s, ‘Don’t worry. The record’s gonna go. And when the record goes and we do the reveal, it’s going to be amazing and the world is going to lose their mind.’ And they say, ‘Ok, let’s do it.’ And six months later, Pharrell is No. 1 in four countries and we dropped the campaign. That is the best version of integration I’ve seen when the record company is subsidized by Wrigley’s company to pay for the video, pay for the song and the song goes all the way.
When you have an artist like T.I. or Chris Brown, who have had these kinds of bumps in their career, to say the least, are they done to brands? Does Chris just have to go away and if he’s able to restart his career?
I don’t know. It becomes much more risky obviously. I was asked this question before, and you start bringing up examples like Kobe Bryant. We don’t even remember what this man went through anymore. We don’t even think about it. I use this example, and some people don’t get it, but Vanessa Williams. Whoever knows the Vanessa Williams tragedy when she had the naked pictures and to know that she’s selling products for Procter & Gamble, which would never sign somebody who was in Playboy magazine and market her to moms and kids. You can do it. There’s a natural healing process and there’s a bunch of other magic that happens to make you that fortunate but you can never count somebody out when there’s celebrity involved.
Tell me about some other upcoming Translation partnerships.
That was a good lead-in. We just signed Lady GaGa, and we’re treating her like a brand. We’re treating her exactly like we treat Samsung, like we treat Target. We’re treating her exactly the same way, building her brand story, finding the right partnerships, etc. So we’re turning the model around differently. We always represent the brands, but now we’re actually going to represent the artist as brand, which is new and exciting for the company. I know everybody in here is excited. I know Ms. Brooke is excited over there. The company is excited to work with such a great talent.