Jay-Z and HP, Beyonce and Samsung: Meet the Man Who Pairs Celebs With Brands

PHOTO: Nas, Steve Stoute and Jay-Z attend Nas 38th birthday, Sept. 14, 2011 in New York City.PlayJerritt Clark/Getty Images
WATCH Making Hip-Hop Stars into Status Symbols

It's no secret: Star power sells.

Whether it's Justin Timberlake loving fast food, Beyonce on her cell phone or Lebron James and insurance -- big stars mean big bucks for corporations.

But in today's media-saturated world, matching a celebrity to a brand is a fine art. The Michelangelo of that art is Steve Stoute, 40, a former music executive and manager who runs an advertising agency that specializes in pairing celebrities with advertisers.

Witness the parade of A-list celebs who turned out for a recent party in his honor. There was Jay-Z -- the party's host -- whom Stoute paired with Hewlett-Packard. There were Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, Serena Williams and Sean "Diddy" Combs.

If you haven't heard of Stoute, you've seen his influence. Thanks to him and what he calls the "tanning of America" -- the title of his recently published book -- hip-hop stars are now mass-culture status symbols and style arbiters, curators of cool who can sell products to consumers of all backgrounds.

The book title describes the embrace of hip-hop and its black culture by whites. Stoute noticed it in the mid-1990s, soon after it began to take hold. He saw all the white faces at hip-hop concerts and the almost-colorblind impact urban music stars were having on the coveted youth market.

"It was an amazing thing to see," Stoute said in an interview with "Nightline." "Why are they dyeing their hair like J Lo? Why are they dressing like Sean "P Diddy" Combs? Because they wanted the brand."

When the movie "Men in Black" came out, in 1997, Will Smith's character said, "I make these look good," referring to his Ray-Ban Predator 2 sunglasses. The sunglasses became hugely popular.

"Everyone thought it was a phenomenon: 'I can't believe this,' and, 'What a coincidence,'" Stoute said.

Stoute's reaction was, "If they think that is a coincidence, wait until I get into that business, because I know I can make product here too. If you put the product in close proximity with something that is driving pop culture in a way that people believe it, you can sell a lot of product."

So at 34, he gambled on his future, setting out to help corporate America learn the influential language of hip-hop. He founded an ad agency with the fitting name, Translation.

A big break came when McDonald's hired him to make its new "I'm Lovin' It" campaign and slogan stick in pop culture.

"I went to Justin Timberlake, and I thought that he'd be great because he was one of the great artists of the music business," Stoute said. "Black girls, white girls, Latino girls and men, as well, looked at him -- and no one looked at color."

The campaign became one of McDonald's longest-running ads.

Wrigley hired Stoute to update the image of Doublemint gum.

"The only thing I remembered about Doublemint growing up was [that] it had, 'Double your pleasure, double your fun,'" Stoute said. "And I was like, 'Wow, those aren't real words. How can we make those real words?'"

"So I created a song called 'Forever,'" he said, "gave it to this young artist called Chris Brown and 'Forever' went on to become number one in 12 countries around the world."

Five months later, it was revealed to have originated as a song for Doublemint.

Now, six years later, the kid from Queens is a wealthy ad man whose insights and connections have landed him in the hottest social and professional circles. He attracts people not normally seen together: athletes, music moguls and CEOs of big corporations.

'Why Would Tiger Woods Be Driving a Buick?'

Celebrities have helped sell goods and services for decades, but, Stoute said, consumers are wise to the superficial, inauthentic sales pitch.

"It used to be, 'We'll give you $5 million to hold a product like this," Stoute said. "But if you hold it like this, we'll give you $10 [million].' That doesn't work; that's not real.

"If you don't believe the artist uses the product, and they're just there to pick up a check," the pitch is not believable, Stoute said. "I always refer to Tiger Woods and Buick. That is a very clear example of somebody who makes a lot of money every year. Why would that person be driving a Buick? Why? Why would you believe that?"

The new breed of celebrity pitchman, according to Stoute, is "real" -- and that very realness is more valuable than an easy payday.

"The real guys aren't just going to take a check," he said. "The real artists won't just work with anyone. ... They have too much credibility."

Sean "Diddy" Combs -- who knows a few things about mixing hip-hop with pop culture and business -- said, "[Stoute] was the one that for us was the dealmaker. We all need that dealmaker, the guy that brings the two worlds together. He didn't just make the deal, he helped to empower hip hop. He didn't sell out."

Suddenly, Justin Bieber was performing with Usher, and Linkin Park and Jay-Z were onstage together -- all playing to an audience of young people of all colors.

"Hip-hop created a culture," Stoute said. "And the culture that it created brought everybody together. ... Didn't make a difference if you were African American, Caucasian -- you understood the notion of coming from something and wanting something. That aspiration of what that is was what hip-hop culture stood for, for this generation."

Stoute went even further, arguing that this diverse hip-hop culture had "done more for racial relations than anything since Martin Luther King."

Arianna Huffington, a friend of Stoute's, agreed hip-hop's musical melting pot had helped, but said it's not the whole picture.

"It is a split-screen world," Huffington said. "I don't think we can be ignorant of the other realities that are going on. Over 40 percent of African-American young people being out of work. We cannot pretend that hip-hop will make that go away. We cannot pretend that having disproportionate amount of African American men in jail is going to disappear. But it's also something we can celebrate in the coming together of these two worlds, while at the same time we bring a greater sense of urgency at the resegregation of America."

Watch the full story on "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 p.m./10:35 p.m. CT.

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