Will.i.am Has Mastered the Art of the Continuous Campaign

The Black Eyed Peas Frontman Understand That Consumers Don't Switch on and off

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Will.i.am is my marketer of the year.

Sure, marketing begins with product, and we could certainly question the quality of the Black Eyed Peas' music. But here's what we know: Will.i.am, Fergie and MCs, Apl.de.ap and Taboo, deliver something people want. The Peas have been at the top of Billboard Hot 100 for 24 weeks as this goes to press -- by far the longest No. 1 run in the chart's 51-year history. What they do is hard to describe, so I'll borrow from Jody Rosen in Rolling Stone: "They have made a kind of spiritual practice of recording dumb songs -- a total aesthetic commitment that extends from their garish wardrobes to their United Colors of Benetton worldview."

But beyond the product -- and simultaneously inseparable from it -- is Will.i.am's understanding of today's social-marketing world. Most brands are still grappling like first-time makeout artists with the most fundamental shift of the last decade -- from marketer as message-pushing machine to marketer as creators of stuff consumers will actually pull toward them. But the Black Eyed Peas, having mastered that shift, are already showing an understanding of perhaps the second-most important change: from campaign to continuous conversation.

Consumers don't switch on and off, and products don't sell for two weeks and then disappear from retail channels, but most marketers still do the vast majority of their work in sporadic bursts, often going whole quarters, even years between one one-way push and the next. However, our lovely-lady-lump creators are doing it differently. Their 2009 album, "The END," was not only a nice sales gimmick -- playing off speculation about Fergie going entirely solo and thus essentially squishing the Peas -- but also a big idea. "The END" is supposed to stand for The Energy Never Dies and the idea is that it's a live, evolving, co-created piece of work.

"It's a diary ... of music that at any given time, depending on the inspiration, you can add to it," Wil.i.am told Billboard.com. "When it comes out, there'll be 12 songs on it, but the next day there could be 100 songs, 50 sketches, 1,000 blogs all (online) around 'The End,' so the energy really, truly never dies. I'm trying to break away from the concept of an album. What is an album when you put 12 songs on iTunes and people can pick at it like scabs? That's not an album. There is no album anymore."

Exactly. Then there's Will.i.am's understanding of collaboration. I recently read Seth Stevenson in Slate calling the Peas' "I Got A Feeling" ad for Target an abomination. The (rather nifty) headline: "Will.i.shill." Well, yes, he definitely shills. In fact if there's a living, breathing example of the fact that the alleged walls between most content and commerce are not just crumbling but gone, the Black Eyed Peas would be it.

And, regardless of how you feel about that from a cultural standpoint, what that ad -- and many of Black Eyed Peas videos and lyrics -- demonstrated in business terms, was a clear understanding of the potential of collaboration between content creators and brands. While most brands still treat branded entertainment as a chance to insert their name in a show in a way that'll challenge our TiVo skills, Will.i.am sees platforms, distribution, mutual benefit.

He also knows how to integrate the band into popular culture, and, again, simultaneously create culture. His Obama-boosting music video "Yes We Can," was not only lauded by some critics as the best commercial of the year, but it epitomized the way an individual -- especially one with lots of famous friends -- can make a mark. As he told the L.A. Times at the time: "It's not part of a campaign. There's no corporation behind it -- the record company couldn't get involved. I did it on my own." Most remarkably, he shot it, cut it and distributed it in 48 hours. (Exactly the kind of nimble, reactive, fast-turnaround approach so many brands need, but don't have.)

So, let's get this started: If Will.i.am is my Marketer of the Year, who is yours? Comment online, or e-mail me, and Ad Age will consider all suggestions as we come up with this year's shortlist -- and we'll let you choose the winner.

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