It's a typical day at Reebok's S. Carter Academy. Headmaster Jay-Z arrives at 9:15 sharp, walking through a glass catwalk and into the facility's pristine white hallway. He wears an immaculately tailored charcoal suit with a dashing purple tie, and his grey cashmere coat sways behind him as he strides through the compound.
Inside, footage of elite athletes passing, pivoting and dunking a basketball before the appraising eyes of blue-coated technicians is spliced with shots of the shoe in action. A Miss Moneypenny sound-alike shows Jay the "new S. Carter basketball shoe," while the green computer type above tags it the "Project S.C.B.B. Prototype." Jay looks on from behind a one-way window as a young player tests the shoe by dodging computer-generated white columns that shoot up from the court floor.
This is not the baggy jeans- and white sneaker-wearing Jay-Z of concert performances. This is a sober, secretive Jay-Z who attends hushed meetings in hallways and pumps his fists at technological achievement. In this 30-second commercial, which will run nationally beginning March 1, this Jay-Z is more secret agent man than swaggering hip-hop star. "He's kind of like the black James Bond or Will Smith in Men in Black, walking through the lab and being updated on the latest technology, having the latest weapons," describes Que Gaskins, vp of global marketing for lifestyle and entertainment for Reebok.
The portrayal is more apt this year than ever before. The Brooklyn-born rapper, born Shawn Carter, has dominated the airwaves since the late '90s, built Roc-A-Fella Records and launched the Roca Wear sportswear line. This year, he assumed his post as president and CEO of Def Jam Recordings. He is, in effect, the leader Reebok is counting on for the new line.
"It's all about holding a mirror up correctly to popular culture," says Peter Arnell, chairman of The Arnell Group in New York, which handles Reebok's lifestyle advertising. (mcgarrybowen in New York handles Reebok's sports and brand image ads.) For Reebok, which has carved out a brand positioning that melds "the rhythm of sports" with the beat of urban music, Jay-Z is a perfect fit. "We believe the athletes and artists hold the sound base," says Arnell.
The idea for the commercial was born nearly two years ago, when The Arnell Group pitched the concept to Reebok, Gaskins says. Young urban men, Arnell offered, wanted to be led by Jay-Z. Membership in his club would be an invitation to partake in his style, swagger and sensibility, says Brian Povinelli, vp of integrated marketing for Reebok.
Once Jay-Z agreed, he became an integral part of a process that involved dozens of cell phone calls and BlackBerry messages a day between Arnell, cd Marcus Glover, Reebok executives and Jay-Z's management. Rather than pitch the client and artist a series of storyboards based on a creative or strategic brief, the Arnell team met with them on a weekly basis at Jay-Z's Manhattan club, 40/40, to shoot pool and brainstorm, Glover says.
It was during the course of those meetings that the team developed the S. Carter Academy concept. "You can't just walk in off the street and be able to have the style and coolness that Jay-Z and the S. Carter collection have. You have to earn it. It's kind of like becoming an FBI agent and going through Quantico," Gaskins says.
The concept will be reflected online at scarteracademy.com, where visitors will be invited to join the academy, Povinelli says. Print will follow in Slam, ESPN and Access magazines.
To embody that training ground, The Arnell Group chose the futuristic-looking science building at State University of New York's Old Westbury campus, a structure built during the 1970s, as the location of the spot's production. "Buildings were built with much more of a nod to the future then," Glover says. "The architecture allowed for a unique combination of materials, light and structural originality."
Director Malik Sayeed helmed the 12-hour shoot, but Jay-Z reviewed every take "to make sure we had the tonality right," Glover says. The spot even gives a nod to Jay's favorite gadget by having an academy member ride through the background on a Segway.
While such hands-on involvement may be unusual, in Jay-Z's case it seemed appropriate, Glover explains. The agency set out to create "a portal of popular culture, of male youth," Arnell says. "The first stop you make when you go through that portal, you see Jay standing there."