Birth of a Salesman

How brand whiz Steve Stoute made selling out almost … cool

Last 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, Stoute saw a “tanning moment.” 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 Stoute has had a central role in the transformation.

“That wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago,” 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, 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. 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 Stoute’s involvement, HP had been circling Robert Redford and Drew Barrymore.)

Translation’s specialty is “collaborative strategic consulting,” but 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, 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.

Recently, Stoute was sitting on a couch in his Times Square corner office. Although he is 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 Stoute with his many famous friends, and framed photos of icons such as Sidney Poitier and Muhammad Ali.

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 Dogg in 1993. “That was Jimmy Iovine walking in and saying, ‘Jann, these guys are rock stars. They are Mick and Keith,’” 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.”

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?”

Stoute, 41, was born in Queens Village, the son of Trinidadian immigrants. His father was a marine engineer; mom was a nurse. He spent his formative years grinding away at after-school jobs—he shoveled snow, erected tents at flea markets, delivered the New York Daily News and Newsday, sung Christmas carols and hawked fire extinguishers—but dreamed of being a professional football player. He was a starting running back at Holy Cross High School in Brooklyn, but began hunting for a backup plan after separating his shoulder. His father suggested becoming an auto mechanic. Stoute remembers his father’s reasoning: “It’s a craft that they can’t take away from you,” he said.

Instead, he bounced around five colleges and began working in real estate, signing homeowners up for mortgages—this was back in the early 1990s, well before the boom and eventual bust. He then left the mortgage market after realizing he could earn more in the music industry. It wasn’t about his love for the music, he said, unabashedly. “No, it was opportunity,” he said. “[Hip-hop] was blowing up. In ’91, ’92, the arrow was pointing in one direction.”

Through mutual acquaintances, Stoute hooked up with comedy rappers Kid N’ Play and quickly became the duo’s road manager. But his big break occurred in the mid-1990s, when he started managing the rapper Nas. Under Stoute’s guidance, the Queensbridge emcee adapted a more commercial, radio-friendly sound. The strategy worked. His 1996 album It Was Written was certified double platinum, but finding the right balance between art and commerce proved challenging. “Managing Nas taught me a lot about respecting artists,” Stoute said. “You got a crash course in that because you were dealing with a guy who, money didn’t matter to him. Nor did success. He could have been in The Cider House Rules—he didn’t want to do it.” Stoute shook his head. “Brands were calling—he didn’t show up for some shoots. Nas wrote songs on the Men in Black soundtrack. He could have wrote the whole album for Will Smith, but he didn’t want to show up to the studio to write records for Will Smith.”

Men in Black was a huge hit. The movie grossed $587 million worldwide and the soundtrack, which Stoute executive produced, was certified triple platinum. He was more impressed, however, by the success of a product placement—sales of Ray-Ban sunglasses shot up 500 percent after being promoted in the film.

By the late 1990s, with the advent of file sharing and MP3s about to turn the music industry on its head, Stoute decided to change careers. In 1999, he partnered with renowned adman Peter Arnell—best known for the iconic DKNY campaign—to form the marketing company PASS. (The company couldn’t obtain certification as a minority-owned business and in 2002 was sold to a Hispanic agency, Cultura; Stoute remained chairman until 2003.)

Stoute quickly adapted to this new world. “Steve Stoute has the best instincts creatively and strategically on pop culture, marketing and youth of anybody I’ve ever met,” Arnell told (Arnell’s own instincts were more questionable; he was the force behind the disastrous 2009 Tropicana orange juice redesign.)

“Steve is an open person,” former Reebok CEO Paul Fireman told The Observer. “He sees himself on a long journey on which he keeps meeting people and building strategic pieces along the way.”

“He’s curious about everything,” added Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter, a friend who wrote the foreword to Stoute’s book. “He’d ask about your clothes. He’d ask about what you’re doing. He set about making himself into something and, God knows, he did it.” Stoute has strong opinions on branding. He was offended, for example, by what he considered the ham-handedness of Kodak’s 2010 campaign featuring Rihanna and a slew of other musicians.

“Marketing? You call that marketing?” Stoute asked. “You’re trying to skip the entire process and just hire some celebrities to save your ass. That’s the epitome of ridiculous. Marketing? Kodak?” He was nearly shouting. The commercials, he said, didn’t convey the function of the product. “Can you imagine how stupid that is? What am I gonna do with a Kodak? It’s not a smartphone. If I don’t tell you why you need it, why would you buy it? Because Rihanna and Pitbull said so? Yeah, congratulations.”

The Kodak campaign was “of limited duration,” according to a company spokesperson. “Our data showed that it was effective in raising brand and product awareness among the target audience.”

He can be just as brutal with potential clients. Back when he first partnered with Reebok, he told Paul Fireman flatly that the company couldn’t compete with Nike by marketing their shoes as superior for athletes.

“I think most people, especially when they are interviewing, tend to not be as forthright as I would like,” Fireman said. “Most of them think that by telling you what you’re doing wrong they’re going to insult you. Steve pointed out our disconnect from the consumer. He is very blunt but not rude. You’re either going to accept it or you’re not. I thought it was refreshing.”

Stoute is most proud of having pioneered the practice of surreptitiously embedding marketing messages into the pop-cultural products. He followed up the successful McDonald’s-Timberlake switcheroo with a similar deal involving Wrigley’s and Chris Brown. After Brown’s song “Forever” became a hit, it was revealed that the familiar lyric “Double your pleasure” was no coincidence—the song was a gum jingle. Before radio stations, DJs or average listeners knew they were all offering free advertising time—and mind space—to a major corporation, the song was embedded in the culture.

Stoute was a bit perplexed by the anger the stunt engendered. “If you got upset because it was really a brand message intertwined with the song you loved, if that bothered you, shame on you for getting that emotional about something you loved anyway,” he said. “I didn’t understand that. Gawker and all those guys were writing stuff about me. Say anything you want, but it’s brilliant, it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s stunning. It’s so smart. You actually made a song and in the song, it said, ‘Double your pleasure/double your fun.’ And that worked. And then we came back with a commercial behind it and when it was revealed, it was a home run.”

Stoute then looked at his phone. It was almost 6 p.m. “I gotta get ready to get out of here,” he said. He had tickets that night for The Mountaintop with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.

“If you thought the song was sponsored by a brand,” he added, “you would not have been open-minded about how the song made you feel. All I did was remove that filter.”