Translation Advertising: Where Shop Meets Hip-Hop

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Photograph by Michael Schmelling for TIME

Street cred Stoute knows how to reach young shoppers

Steve Stoute, the marketing force behind boutique advertising shop Translation, has made a living by pretty much ignoring the barriers Madison Avenue has traditionally drawn around demographics and ethnicity.

Ten years ago, Stoute left the music business — just before it tanked — and jumped into advertising and marketing. He saw an opportunity to navigate the gap that existed between corporate America and the lucrative youth market, an estimated $1.2 trillion sector that companies are eager to tap into but frequently miss the mark reaching. "Brands don't often speak to young people in a way that is representative of them," says Stoute. "What I do is contemporize a brand." But, he says, "I don't take the brand away from what it stands for. I don't change who they are in order to appeal to the next generation."

As a result, Stoute has emerged as the hip-but-safe guy for large companies like Hewlett-Packard, Target and Samsung looking to grab a piece of the youth demographic. Leveraging his background in entertainment, Stoute has accumulated an impressive lineup of deals, most recently State Farm, Wrigley and the sports and entertainment division of McDonald's. His work for McD's includes the company's Super Bowl ad, which featured hoop gods LeBron James and Dwight Howard in a restyled version of the can-you-top-this-shot classic from 1993.

It was Stoute who in 2003 helped steer Justin Timberlake to McDonald's for its "I'm Lovin' It" campaign with a rather unorthodox approach: instead of McDonald's simply licensing an existing Timberlake song, Timberlake recorded an original "I'm Lovin' It" tune. The song got heavy airplay prior to the campaign's debut, and by the time the ad, also featuring Timberlake, aired, the public already had a relationship with the song.

It's a strategy deployed by Bollywood filmmakers to create a musical connection with audiences before a movie is launched. To date, the "I'm Lovin' It" campaign remains one of the longest-running in McDonald's history. And it was Stoute who put pop singer Gwen Stefani together with Hewlett-Packard in a successful 2005 campaign to promote the company's Photosmart R607 camera. Says James Edmund Datri, CEO of the American Advertising Federation: "He blew apart the old model of the celebrity pitch, replacing it with a model that draws on celebrity, music, entertainment and culture to speak with audiences, not at them."

Stoute sees no reason Samsung shouldn't connect with fashion shows rather than with sports to sell high-definition televisions. Or that a sneaker company like Reebok shouldn't make a shoe endorsed by a rap star — which it did with Jay-Z in 2003. He recognized that younger consumers were fusing music, fashion and culture in their brand choices, and the Internet only intensified that lifestyle.

Stoute's ability to engage consumers with his clients' messages was on full display when Mary J. Blige debuted her new perfume, My Life, on the Home Shopping Network July 31 to record-breaking sales. The fragrance sold 60,000 units in six hours. According to the network, it also drove 20% of new customers to HSN. While the numbers were remarkable, so was the fact that buyers hadn't even had a chance to sample the fragrance. Rather, Stoute had gotten Blige to create a series of online video vignettes so customers could connect with her. He calls the perfume "Mary's life encapsulated in a product." The marketing came down to the power of storytelling, says Stoute. "I put Mary on air and let her speak her story, her life, her journey and showed footage of her being part of the process of making the fragrance. It was a grand slam."

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