The fusion of celebrity and technology may be more than just PR

Will.i.am: a director at tech brand Intel
Will.i.am: a director at tech brand Intel

Intel's William James Adams doesn't appear to have a LinkedIn page, but if he had, it would be an unusual one.

From 1995 to the present, he has worked as a founding multi-instrumentalist and self-designated 'verbal criminal' for the Black Eyed Peas; and since January 2011, he has been Intel's director of creative innovation. That's quite a leap.

Stefani Germanotta of Polaroid is another. With scarcely two years of paid experience as a meat-clad, pop provocateur behind her, she found herself chief creative officer at Polaroid in January 2010. Make that into a dress and wear it at the MTV Video Music Awards.

After all, Adams and Germanotta, under their better-known monikers of Will.i.am and Lady Gaga, are super-networked pop stars and now part-time executive figureheads, embodying a dream alliance of freewheeling creativity and big-time corporate technology.

In a world that suddenly seems to be run by clever celebrities, Justin Timberlake is the latest to be ushered into a corner office. He has gone from portraying early Napster and Facebook staffer Sean Parker in The Social Network, to being the real thing: the creative brain of MySpace, which was acquired on 29 June by ad network Specific Media for $35m. Such celebrity executive appointments are easy enough to poke fun at, but underlying them is an undeniable truth: that technology and creativity, always close friends, are rampantly enthusiastic bed partners in the age of the social web.

Marketers, technology brands and the creative industries are candid about their mutual attraction, and last month's Cannes Lions festival represented a coming-together of adland's creatives and media technologists in just such a spirit. Google's Creative Sandbox provided a home on the beach for brainstorming ad types, while Facebook vice-president of global marketing solutions, Carolyn Everson, described the social media leader as a 'platform for creativity'.

Soon, it may not be obvious where the creativity ends and the technology starts, just as music, brands and advertising have blurred into one. Mel Exon, managing partner at Bartle Bogle Hegarty and BBH Labs, believes high-profile marriages of celebrity creativity and technology are not simply window dressing.

'Technology itself, from an artist's point of view, is genuinely fascinating, and it is helping them transform the way they express themselves,' says Exon. She suggests the traditional facelessness of technology companies and the arrival of earned media have rounded out the context for this development.

'If a brand can engage the services of an artist who has an enormous and identifiable fan network, they are going to profit from that,' she adds. 'And I think the idea that these pop stars are just there to endorse products the company has made is very Adland 1.0. If it's done well, if the artist is genuinely making a contribution to product development, that will show.'

Likewise, says Exon, if the artist isn't truly involved, that will show too.

Apple inspiration

Specific Media, for one, is utterly serious about its Timberlake gambit. Colin Petrie-Norris, managing director, international, does not deny that Timberlake has a useful profile among consumers and aspiring musicians, but he says the star will have a real creative role. As an example, he reveals the singer and his team are already considering American Idol-style competitions for MySpace's unsigned talent.

'We are, to our core, a technology company,' says Petrie-Norris. 'We are very good at what we do, but you can learn a lot faster and grow a lot quicker if you allow yourself to be guided by people who know about creativity. It is a natural evolution.'

While the social media step-change is facilitating the fusion of technology and creativity, and vice versa, the inspiration behind almost all of this has been Apple, which has elevated its technological products to creative essentials.

John Willshire, outgoing chief innovation officer at PHD Media and founder of consultancy Smithery, suggests brands who draft in rock stars tend to do it when they feel a need to compensate for their own charisma deficit.

'It's almost as if brands like Intel have said: "why are Apple so good? It's because they have got some rock stars there? Well, let's get some rock stars on board, then",' says Willshire. 'But from Steve Jobs downwards, you get the feeling Apple is rife with brilliant people, and you don't get that from Microsoft, and you don't get it from Intel.'

He adds: 'You can see why they do it. It's because they need to quickly borrow some equity that is cooler than theirs. They retro-fit culturally relevant heroes that people can look up to, but it's a quick fix. It smacks of "we need to do something".'

Certainly, some of the tech world's current crop of creative partnerships look more comfortable than others. After the deal with Microsoft to endorse Internet Explorer 9 last autumn, Gorillaz' cartoon bass-player Murdoc Niccals was purported to say: 'It's like a tube full of magic bursting out of the screen. It's like shoving your mind through a black hole and right slap-bang into the future.'

To which Windows consumer business group director Leila Martine added: 'Once the Gorillaz had seen the IE9 demo and began working with us, they were able to start bringing their incredible creative talents and apply that to bring this experience to life for them.'

The fact that Gorillaz' real-life anchor Damon Albarn promptly delivered an informal, yet far more resounding, endorsement of Apple's iPad by announcing he had just recorded an album on one, only confirmed that one cannot graft creativity onto technology where there is no obvious fit between the two.

At the same time, as cynical as young consumers are about many things, the alliance of brands and celebrities is not automatically one of them. In May, Lady Gaga crowd-sourced a video for her single The Edge Of Glory, and was open about the fact that it would double as an ad for Google Chrome.

Even outspoken singer-rapper Ben Drew, known as Plan B, while objecting to the "c***-sucking" required to get a song on the radio in the US, was happy to talk about his She Said hit for a two-minute HP cinema ad. The only dissenting voice was that of Private Eye. How very 1.0 of it.

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE - TECHNOLOGY TIE-UPS

If the appointment of Justin Timberlake as lead business strategist on Specific Media's planned reinvigoration of MySpace hasn't entirely reversed critical opinion of the music-based network's prospects, it must be said that it has offered a certain glimmer of hope.

Specific believes that is just the beginning of what the apparently fairly sharp Timberlake can bring.

'It certainly isn't a name-only deal,' says Specific managing director Colin Petrie-Norris. 'We talked to a lot of people before Justin, celebrities and media people and producers and record labels, but we didn't have to work very hard to convince him. What we want in this space is energy and ideas, and that's what creative people bring. I think it's a rather special combination.'

The terms of Timberlake's involvement are undisclosed, though he is referred to as a shareholder in the company and a public business plan is expected later this summer.

Will.i.am's deal with Intel was announced in January as a 'hands-on' collaboration in developing 'new technologies, music and tech advocacy', involving the star consulting with Intel engineers.

The rapper and producer's public involvement has so far extended to some interviews and an Intel conference keynote speech in which he talked about 'rocking with Intel' and riffed on the qualities of a chip.

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