Fast Chat: Steve Stoute

With his new book, 'The Tanning of America,' the ad and music industry veteran explains how hip-hop changed both games

How did hip-hop specifically rewrite the rules as you see them?

We’re not talking about a song. We’re talking about a way of life. Videos are like minimovies, how to rap to a girl, what car to drive, what clothes to wear, what outfits to wear, how to be cool. All these things are taking part in, and being transmitted to, your kids at home watching Yo! MTV Raps and everything else. You’re a part of the hip-hop generation. I don’t look at you as a white kid and put you in this box, and the same thing with a black kid.

Is that the “tanning” of America?

I never wanted Translation to be a “black” agency. I wanted it to be an agency that did great work that appealed to young adults. I knew that young adults didn’t see color or through segmentation, which is what the industry has set up. And I think that’s the issue pressing the advertising industry: How do we speak to the millennial that has this very tan mental complexion?

Who is the audience for this book? The CEOs who are resisting this tanning phenomenon?

I want those CEOs to read the book. I think the core audiences for the book are college students and young executives in marketing and finance.

A generation ago a rock star aligning himself with a brand would’ve been seen as selling out. That’s no longer at play?

No, not at all.

Can you point to an ad campaign that most embodies this movement?

The work that we did for State Farm. The commercial with two Caucasians and an African American sitting in a room, and the guy yells out, “Can I get a hot tub?” That is work that speaks to this cross-cultural phenomenon that’s taking place. I think that hip-hop has played a very big role in being a catalyst to cause that.

It’s almost like advertising as social force for good.

I think advertising could be that. Instead, what it does do is try to keep things in the boxes that are neat and tidy, that don’t spill over and allow for this to happen.

Is there a common danger or cliche that should be avoided by advertisers who want to appeal to this tan America?

Yeah, it’s just visiting the topic. Thinking you have it, but doing it just to check the box. But it requires a full-blown understanding of young America, and you have to make that investment.

Give an example of someone who just checks the box.

This Kodak campaign is the poster child for how to do it wrong. They take Rihanna, Trey Songz, Pitbull, and Drake and give them cameras to take pictures with. I mean, come on, get out of here. Like they’re friends?

If you were going to pitch Kodak, then, what would you say to them?

If I’m Kodak, I want to be in the memories business. That’s the business they should be in—the emotional attachment to memories. They had that, and they completely lost that. And now they are trying to jump into pop culture? Let’s put cameras in the hands of famous people and call it Kodak? Blackberry and iPhone have more credentials in photography than Kodak today. That’s a shame, but that’s the truth.

So, how does one stay aware in a way that is relevant and not phony?

Avoid New Jersey and Long Island. Stay in Manhattan. [Laughs.] A big part of it is to constantly remain culturally curious. You must be elastic in marketing. I think Mickey Drexler is one of the greatest marketers of all time, and he’s in his 60s. But he’s culturally curious.

Is there a dream marriage between a brand and celebrity or song?

I used to think about this all the time. I would have loved to do something with Angelina Jolie and lipstick. Anything around Angelina Jolie and her lips. I’ve actually been off the celebrity thing because they’re so abused that it doesn’t look honest anymore. The only person I want to be in business with is Jay-Z because he’s the only one who does things that make sense for the most part.

What’s next if that’s over?

I think going back to core strategy, brand personality, and finding authentic connection that (a) registers with young adults and (b) doesn’t make us look like we’re trying too hard to capture their attention. We live in a world right now where there is a two-way conversation constantly. You can’t push the message down anymore.

Do you have kids?

This is what I learned through my 6-year-old: Dora [the Explorer] completely put Mickey Mouse out of business. I mean completely. Mickey Mouse is basically a logo at this point. He’s not even on the radar.