Will.I.Am Is With the Brands -- and Damn Proud of It

Q&A: Musician Embraces 'Corporate' Image as He Jumps From Endorsements to Creative Work With Marketers

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Sure, the Black Eyed Peas' Super Bowl halftime show wasn't the most universally beloved in recent memory. But frontman Will.I.Am is just as proud of the ads that bookended his first half-time show as the performance itself.

A pair of commercials for SalesForce.com featured animated versions of the Black Eyed Peas, the Baby Peas, promoting the business website's social-media enterprise tool. Will.I.Am wrote, directed and recorded voiceover for the spots on behalf of his ad agency, Dipdive, almost entirely remotely while he was on the road finishing the Black Eyed Peas' fall 2010 tour and getting ready for Super Bowl rehearsals. He wrote the script on his BlackBerry, recorded audio on cloud-based websites and composed the spots' musical jingle on his laptop.

"What's interesting is that Chiat/Day, Y&R, all those cats are working on commercials for months. I went on tour for two months, rehearsed for Super Bowl, did music for Super Bowl and all that stuff, and I still produced these spots," Will.I.Am told Ad Age.

It's because of his technology-enhanced work output that Will.I.Am is upping his work with brands this year -- particularly Intel, where he recently joined the payroll as the company's director of creative innovation. The position was designed to give Will.I.Am an opportunity to help develop and provide input on original products and software for Intel, much different from the traditional endorsement work he and his band has done in the past.

Will.I.Am is Intel's director of creative innovation.
Will.I.Am is Intel's director of creative innovation. Credit: Intel/Bob Riha, Jr.
In fact, the last thing Intel's Johan Jervoe, the company's VP-creative marketing, wanted was another spokesperson. "I don't want him to be the promo man. This is not meant for him to say, 'Here's the latest and greatest product from Intel and go buy it,'" Mr. Jervoe said. "There's an overlapping creativity, understanding, desire and expertise that be brings with him. While he may go out and talk about some of the products we'll be coming up with, it was clear to both of us that he needed to be an employee and at the center of these products' creation."

Will.I.Am and his bandmates have been in high demand among brands ever since the Black Eyed Peas' "Hey Mama" became the first song licensed for Apple and TBWA/Chiat/Day's now-infamous silhouette ads for the iPod in 2003. An assortment of commercial, endorsement and tour-sponsorship deals with brands like Pepsi, Target , Honda, BlackBerry, Coors, Bacardi, Levi's and Verizon prompted The Wall Street Journal to dub the Peas "the most corporate band in America" in the headline of a February 2010 article. Ad Age spoke with Will.I.Am about his new gig at Intel, his new music-video platform Will.I.Apps, and his AutoTune philosophy from his home in Los Angeles.

Ad Age: What can we expect from your new role as director of creative innovation at Intel. Do you want to compete with Apple?

Will.I.Am.: This is about making product. If Apple's a technology company in the music industry, why can't somebody in the music industry make technology? This is about creating hardware with software. We're not trying to compete with Apple, we're trying to complement it. The whole premise of this relationship and why Intel is excited about it is because it's a great time to be doing that.

Ad Age: How does that sync up with your plans for Will.I.Apps, which is intended to make music video-viewing a 360-degree experience?

Will.I.Am.: To me, music is a very social experience and we need to find the next level of that experience. Kids today aren't listening to music audio-only. They're picking up a CD and looking at the lyric sheet and wondering why the pictures aren't moving around. Who wants to do that? It's like Bam Bam Flintstone hanging with the dinosaurs vs. Elroy Jetson who's flying around space. If I'm a kid, I wanna be kicking it with Elroy.

Will.I Apps is going to be a platform that changes how we release music, even how we write songs. Because now that you know you're going to be filming the music video in a 360 environment, it changes the song. So if I say 'Turn to the left,' the song has to be connected to the algorithm so when the user looks at it, if he or she doesn't turn to the left the song doesn't continue.

Ad Age: So it's an augmented-reality approach to music videos?

Will.I.Am.: It is, but the song has to change. You can't do augmented reality after the fact. It's like QWERTY on a keyboard. The reason these letters are the way they are is because when you had a typewriter back in the day they figured out which letters were designed to slow you down as you typed. And we still use it today. So we're bringing technology to the songwriting. The technology is beyond pause, rewind and fast-forward. So while we're still writing music as opposed to just pausing, fast-forwarding and rewinding it, there are so many dimensions and layers you can construct your content with.

Ad Age: You're on the road constantly, doing work for the Black Eyed Peas, work for brands, producing songs for Usher, Nicki Minaj and now Britney Spears. What's your daily device use?

Will.I.Am.: I use my phone, I have an iPad and a BlackBerry and my laptop and my desktop. To make music, I use my desktop with the super maxed-out [Intel] chips in it. And I use my BlackBerry to do all my social and business stuff. And I use my iPad more than I use my laptop. That's what I used on the Britney joint, actually. There's a bass app, a drum app. You have to make sure it's a layered sound, and the iPad helps me do that.

Ad Age: You're also working with Dean Kamen, who helped invent the Segway, on the FIRST Robotics convention in St. Louis this spring. How did that partnership come about?

Will.I.Am.: Dean Kamen's one of my heroes, and I went to the kickoff with him in New Hampshire in January. I wanted to meet him for awhile because I'm fascinated by the type of creativity he has with inventing things. So I called him on the phone and we he told me about first. He said, "I'm in 15,000 schools teaching engineering and robotics. And every year in April they have a robotics competition." And I'm like how come I've never heard about this? But a lot of these kids probably don't do good in school. They're probably getting bad grades and stuff. A lot of these kids from 9 to 18 they're dedicated to science, math and engineering. Why is it that no one goes and entertains them? Why don't we turn this into a show? ... How come we can't play your halftime show? He liked the idea, so now I'm producing their competition and turning it into a show. We're filming it in April, but we're sure when we'll air it on television. It would be awesome to air in September for back-to-school.

The Black Eyed Peas appeared in a Super Bowl ad for SalesForce.com.
The Black Eyed Peas appeared in a Super Bowl ad for SalesForce.com.
Ad Age: You seem to embrace your "most corporate band in America" status with the Black Eyed Peas. Why is your work with brands important to you as an artist?

Will.I.Am.: To me it's about which bands participate in brands. Some brands go hand in hand with the "edge," but when it comes to broad, all sides of the spectrum, that would be the Peas. We cover all frequencies. Our roles are there but it's not distorted. There's no distortion in our message; it's clear.

Ad Age: One could take that literally on your new album "The Beginning." I noticed there's less AutoTune on the vocals. Was that a conscious effort on your part?

That's not true. It's just that the technology got so good you can't tell [laughs]. ... I'm not the best singer in the world, but I got lots of ideas in my head. And I don't want to wait around for a singer to come sing it. So I want to do AutoTune. Give me that shit because I need to get this out my mind!

Will.I.Am.: It's like a chef. Do you cook everything, or do you put in the microwave? Do you microwave everything, or do you microwave some things? I'll microwave something and -- boom! Are you tripping on the chef when he puts something in the microwave? No. You guys are just nitpicking everything and not understanding why it's done. So that's my point of view on why we use that stuff. I know people who put Tabasco on everything or put Tabasco on cereal. Because that's what they like.

Ad Age: So putting Tabasco on something is like AutoTuning food?

Will.I.Am.: Exactly! Or padded bras. What you wearing a padded bra for? Because it enhances it. That's AutoTuning boobs [laughs].

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