How Jay-Z Met H.P.: Blame Hip Hop Branding Wizard Steve Stoute

Former record exec Steve Stoute and the case of the secret chewing-gum jingle.

Courtesy Getty Images

Over the summer, Steve Stoute, the CEO of the brand-marketing firm Translation, went to Wimbledon with his friend and business partner, the rapper Jay-Z, to cheer on Rafael Nadal during the Spaniard’s fourth-round battle with Juan Martín Del Potro. With the match tied in the third set, BBC cameras spotted them. “The man is still here,” said BBC tennis analyst Boris Becker in his heavy German accent. “The Jigga Man, that’s what they call him—Shawn Carter.”

Where most viewers saw a star-sighting. Mr. Stoute saw a “tanning moment.”

Mr. Stoute, in his recent book The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy (2011, Gotham Books), defined “tanning” as “the catalytic force majeure that went beyond musical boundaries and into the psyche of young America.” That’s a pretty thick slice of marketing-speak, but the gist of it is simple: hip-hop has radically changed culture and corporate America.

And Mr. Stoute has had a central role in the transformation.

“That wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago,” Mr. Stoute said of Becker’s acknowledgment of Jay-Z. “Prince William was there that day, and for Jay-Z to get recognized at that setting, yeah, it’s a tanning moment.”

Around the turn of the millennium, Mr. Stoute, then a successful record company executive, made a gutsy career change. He left his lofty position as president of urban music at Interscope/Geffen/A&M Records and dove into advertising and marketing. He is now the go-to guy for Fortune 500 companies chasing the youth and urban markets. Mr. Stoute paired Allen Iverson with the gritty rapper Jadakiss for a beloved Reebok commercial; he got Justin Timberlake to record a McDonald’s jingle; and he tapped Jay-Z for a Hewlett-Packard campaign. (Before Mr. Stoute’s involvement, HP had been circling Robert Redford and Drew Barrymore.)

Translation’s specialty is “collaborative strategic consulting,” but Mr. Stoute sees his role in somewhat simpler terms.

“I just try to tell the consumer truth,” he told The Observer.

It should be noted, however, that consumer truth isn’t always the same as gospel truth. That Justin Timberlake jingle, for instance, was originally released as a song. Only after the world was humming “I’m Lovin’ It” did McDonald’s introduce its new tagline, with JT as its spokesman.

It’s been an effective strategy. In November 2008, Mr. Stoute was inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Hall of Achievement. And according to Ad Age, Translation, which operates under its parent company Interpublic, pulled in $9 million in revenue in 2010.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Stoute was sitting on a couch in his Times Square corner office. Although he known as a bit of a dandy, on this occasion he was clad in gym clothes—a black V-neck T layered over a white V-neck, gray athletic shorts, black ankle socks and no shoes. The wall was plastered with photographs of Mr. Stoute with his many famous friends, and framed photos of icons such as Sidney Poitier and Muhammad Ali.

Mr. Stoute began the conversation with one of his favorite “tanning moments”: The story of how Jimmy Iovine landed a Rolling Stone cover for Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg in 1993. “That was Jimmy Iovine walking in and saying, ‘Jann, these guys are rock stars. They are Mick and Keith,’” Mr. Stoute said. “It takes a guy like Jimmy Iovine—he had so much rock ’n’ roll credibility from U2 and producing Patti Smith. Who else is gonna do that? Russell Simmons? They weren’t going to listen to him.”

Mr. Stoute would like to see more magazines adapt the way Rolling Stone did. “All those magazines are fucked up like that. Vogue is the same way. It’s all those people that come from the old school and believe that [hip-hop] wasn’t sustainable, so therefore they don’t want to buy into it and they push back on it. Vogue did the exact same thing. Anna Wintour now hangs out at Kanye’s shows and hangs out with Pharrell and hangs out with Puffy. She does all that shit now. Meanwhile, there is a lack of African-Americans who have graced that cover. Now, all of a sudden, it’s Beyoncé, it’s Rihanna. Now, she’s sitting with Nicki Minaj [at the Carolina Herrera Spring 2012 show].

“She’s tanning because she has to,” he continued. “She has to. She’s gonna put Blake Lively on the cover again?”

How Jay-Z Met H.P.: Blame Hip Hop Branding Wizard Steve Stoute