Despite asking for a moment to savor the latest Dr. Dre-produced "hot-ass joint" from Mary J. Blige, veteran music executive turned brand-marketing specialist Steve Stoute, 34, professes not to miss the record industry.
"I've changed the record and advertising business into the same thing," he laughs. "I believe the push started through my friendship with [Interscope Geffen A&M President] Jimmy Iovine, who allowed me to bring these opportunities to the label. It made me realize there's more grass out there.
"What satisfied me creatively was giving the world an opportunity to hear something I was working on. I have a chance for people to see it, hear it, touch it and buy it. I want to find ways to add sex appeal, star power and urgency to the advertising business. Companies are opening up their minds, willing to be sexier by appealing to their target consumer. That shows they're open to change."
Mr. Stoute says he first realized the potential of urban culture to sell products to the mainstream with the tie-in between Ray-Ban sunglasses and Will Smith for the movie "Men in Black." It also marked his introduction to Peter Arnell, the legendary advertising guru who was his partner in PASS, with a roster that included DaimlerChrysler, Reebok, Jose Cuervo and McDonald's.
"I learned that all the pizzazz surrounding branded entertainment, rock stars and new ways to speak to the consumer must be grounded in conventional wisdom," Mr. Stoute says of his time with Mr. Arnell. "I realized selling a record album was similar to selling a product. I realized that Eminem, Jay-Z and J. Lo were brands just like Coca-Cola, Gillette and Chrysler. The only difference is one talks and one doesn't ... And one doesn't need to fly first-class. In the end, it's all about [return on investment]."
Mr. Stoute launched his own brand marketing company, Translation, in November 2003. As chairman-chief creative officer, Mr. Stoute is considered one of the leading brokers, linking musicians with blue-chip marketers. Last year, he reunited with former colleagues Doug Morris and Mr. Iovine when Universal Music Group acquired a 20% interest in Translation.
Mr. Stoute's most recent success was the pairing of Hewlett-Packard's HP Photosmart R607 Harajuku Lovers digital camera and pop star Gwen Stefani, who designed the product's exterior.
The camera is prominently featured in the video for the chart-topping single, "Hollaback Girl," from her debut solo album.
The effect is all part of what Mr. Stoute calls creating the "proximity" between artist and product that makes for a successful brand marketing experience. Of the 3,000 available, 879 were sold in the first five days, and the rest sold out shortly after.
"As a performer, it's all about how close you get to that brand and how close that brand gets to you," he says, pointing to examples like Jay-Z's S. Carter Collection line of sneakers for Reebok (which has rung up a reported $100 million in sales for the company) or U2's iPod promotion.
HE'S `LOVIN' IT'
Among his other successes was lining up Justin Timberlake to record a single, "I'm Lovin' It," for a McDonald's commercial that was also promoted via radio spots.
Mr. Stoute also has matched artists including Beyonce, Shakira, Sheryl Crow, Enrique Iglesias and Thalia to products such as Tommy Hilfiger, Pepsi, Reebok, Jeep and Kmart. Before Translation, Mr. Stoute was exec VP at Interscope Geffen A&M Records and president of urban music at Sony Music Entertainment.
Mr. Stoute's latest venture is Carol's Daughter, a retailer of beauty-care products founded by Lisa Price. Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith are major investors in the project, along with Tommy Mottola and his wife Thalia, Jay-Z and Mr. Iovine. "This represents one of the models for the new advertising business," he says. "When you begin to get involved in creating the product itself, that's where it goes from endorsements to producing something with a shelf life of its own and the opportunity to pay dividends over time. Owning a piece of that is just an inevitable way for advertising to evolve and expand."
While masterminding promotions with online music distributors Sony Connect and McDonald's for free downloads, Mr. Stoute insists that the record industry can still thrive in an era when music is often used as a loss leader designed to bring people into the tent to sell other products.
"We're going through a period in music where it's valued less than it used to be," he says. "But maybe the business just overpriced itself.
"MTV is worth more than the rest of the record labels combined, and they did that by airing free videos. The Internet is leveling the playing field. The sharing of music has brought people closer together. Music is still as powerful as it's ever been. Just look at how it's affecting corporate culture."
Mr. Stoute insists that there's no magic formula for what he does in bringing artist and product together.
"There's no template," he says. "It has to be fluid, liquid and take shape. Each artist, each song, each client, each initiative has its own unique circumstance with a different set of rules. One size doesn't fit all. I'm having a great time. This is turning into a robust company that can provide and bring new value and innovative thinking to the marketplace."
For now, that even beats hearing the latest "hot-ass joint."
* June 2003: Jay-Z launches the S. Carter Collection by RBK. It's an instant best seller
* Feb. 2005: Reebok launches "I Am What I Am" ads with Jay-Z and NBA celebrities
* June 2005: Reebok says sales, earnings up 11% per share; survey finds unaided recall of brand to be 40%