Will.i.am: Corporate America’s hit machine
Will.i.am’s car is careening across the 405.
The cabin of his electric Tesla is eerily silent as the vehicle slides over three lanes of irate Los Angeles traffic. The rapper, whose given name is William Adams, is extremely late for a flight to Brazil. But that’s not why he’s speeding. He is trying to illustrate a point about time to market: “I want to be nimble,” he says. “Fast.” He gesticulates as he drives. The reporter notebook leaps from my lap onto the floor after one particularly abrupt lane-change.
Chances are you know Adams even if you are not a fan of his music. His group, The Black Eyed Peas, has sold some 60 million records and orchestrated the Super Bowl halftime show. Its songs regularly top pop charts. Adams’s music burrows so deeply into the mind’s soft tissue that even brief exposure is likely to leave you murmuring Peas lyrics. As a pop star, he’s beyond bombastic. But with some of the world’s biggest companies, he has cultivated an altogether different reputation. He has become a source of ideas and insight for the likes of Intel (INTC), Coca-Cola (KO), and Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) — a kind of one-man focus group, a futurist for hire. “Will is a visionary,” says Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent. “He offers an endless stream of creativity and possibility.”
To be sure, Adams is hardly the first celebrity businessperson. In recent years Ashton Kutcher has invested in Foursquare and Flipboard. Justin Timberlake co-owns Myspace. Even Kim Kardashian’s style site, ShoeDazzle, got $40 million in backing from Andreessen Horowitz. What makes Adams different is the role he plays: He’s neither pitchman nor conventional investor. He is a co-creator and sounding board. “I don’t think of Will as an endorser at all,” says Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist with Intel Labs. “I think of him as part of our conversation about what the future is. His input is invaluable.”
Adams, 37, is nominally Intel’s director of creative innovation. But that hasn’t involved appearing in television advertisements (or drawing a traditional salary). Adams’s job at the chipmaker — yes, he actually has a working badge for its Santa Clara, Calif., headquarters — is idea generator. He essentially holds an Intel fellowship to dream up long-term notions of what consumers might want 10, 20, 50 years from now. Intel futurist Brian David Johnson affectionately calls Adams “a real geek” and says they hash out ideas about once a month.
His arrangement with Coca-Cola is equally unconventional. In 2010, Bea Perez, then the company’s North American CMO, was summoned backstage before a Black Eyed Peas concert in Atlanta. “I was expecting a traditional endorsement deal proposal,” she says. Instead, Adams pitched a plan to have Coca-Cola goad fashion labels into making products with recycled material.
“I know you have the infrastructure — what you’re missing is customer involvement,” Adams told her and other Coke executives after poring over the company’s existing recycling programs online. He was speaking their language. He had even prepared his own presentation laying out his plan. And when Perez couldn’t help but ask, “How do you get paid from this?” Adams replied that he didn’t care, just wanted Coke to get more people to recycle. The beverage giant quickly signed on to the idea.
The result, dubbed Ekocycle, launched in October 2012. (The name, Adams’s idea, begins with “Coke” backward.) Akin to Product Red, which raises funds to fight HIV/AIDS, Ekocycle products aim to promote recycling. Certified items are made with at least 25% recycled plastic, much of which comes from Coke. Each product is branded and tagged with the number of bottles used inside. One popular pair of headphones, for example, contains three. Levi’s is selling Ekocycle 501 jeans and gadget-accessory maker Case-Mate sells an Ekocycle iPhone case at Apple Stores. Coke and Adams will divide the profits among their various charities.
“The idea is to create a commodity around sustainable goods,” explains Adams. It’s part of his attempt to flip the traditional relationship between artists and companies. “I’m just a dreamer, really,” he says of his role. “Sometimes that can turn into commerce and sometimes those [ideas] are wacky, obscure concepts that I geek off of.”
Adams’s recently launched digital camera, the i.am+ foto.sosho, is one example. In February of 2012, he was on a boat watching the swimsuit model Adriana Lima get photographed when he had an idea to give the iPhone a more powerful camera lens. He spoke with tech industry pals, funded it himself, and by December the product was on shelves. The $325 accessory, pictured on the cover of our January 14 issue, snaps onto the back of an iPhone, dramatically improving the quality of the built-in camera. An app co-designed by Adams adds photo-editing and sharing tools similar to Instagram. The gadget launched last month at Selfridges, the British department store chain.
The i.am+ is pricey, yes, but Adams has had success selling high-end electronics before. He was the third equity partner in the enormously successful Beats Electronics, co-founded by rapper Dr. Dre and music producer Jimmy Iovine. Adams has tirelessly promoted the products, inserting them into Black Eyed Peas videos and lyrics, though most consumers have no idea that he was closely involved in the company’s creation (he’s fine with that, and says he passed up an idea to have some of the headphones bear his name). The Beats logo, a lowercase letter b, is identical to the b from the original Black Eyed Peas logo used decades ago. Taiwanese giant HTC bought a majority stake in the venture for $309 million in 2011 (Beats bought back half of HTC’s investment in 2012 and now owns the controlling stake) and Adams used a portion of his proceeds as seed capital for the i.am+. Steve Stoute, a branding expert and former president of Interscope Records, argues that Adams is “expanding the footprint for how artists can engage with Fortune 500 companies.”
Adams credits Shawn Fanning, of all people, with kick-starting his love for tech. When Napster first came out, Adams says that “instead of hating on it,” he became friendly with Fanning, who advised the musician, “You should understand this world.” Soon, Adams created Dipdive, which he intended as a MySpace-like community to connect musicians with brands. Nowadays, it is basically defunct. Certainly the iPhone accessory, too, may fail. Faced with that possibility, Adams responds, “Well, then I’ve made something cool for myself to use.” Stoute believes that because the camera is his own creation, it brings Adams cred even if it doesn’t sell: “This is right for him. Sponsoring products is much different than creating a product. If Will was standing next to a camera that wasn’t his creation, he runs a risk.”
Adams grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles and became obsessed with music at a young age. He formed his first group, A.T.B.A.N. Klann (it stood for A Tribe Beyond a Nation), in high school and was signed to Ruthless Records by famed rapper Eazy-E. When their contract fell through and the band split up, he created the Black Eyed Peas. Eventually Adams got tired of playing tiny underground venues. And a 2001 Dr. Pepper commercial starring the Peas flipped a switch: “I was like, ‘Wait a second, I got paid all this money to do a song for 30 seconds, meanwhile we put out two albums that are two hours long, and this is more money than ever before … wait a minute. Oh, wow.’” That year, he retooled the band by bringing in female singer Fergie. Her explosive voice and feisty lyrics played off Adams’s highflying stage persona. By 2003 the band was a mass-market success. Its most recent tour generated $105.7 million in ticket sales.
Adams’s talent for self-promotion — appearing as a hologram on CNN on election night in 2008, broadcasting a song from the surface of Mars with NASA — can grate. “Not everything he spews is a brilliant idea,” admits longtime friend and video producer Ben Mor. “But every seventh is.” Indeed, Adams’s kinetic manner is easy to dismiss as dilettantism. But this perpetual enthusiasm is what businesspeople say they find valuable. “He is wired into the pulse of pop culture like few others in the world,” says Coke’s Kent.
Adams has also accumulated some unlikely fans. Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, believes Adams is “the real deal.” The two became friends after Adams e-mailed Kamen out of the blue in 2010. The pair is now working to develop a robotics-themed science center for youngsters in Los Angeles. “Will’s interest is real and his understanding is deep,” says Kamen. “If you have this mental model, this typical stereotype that people from the world of entertainment are superficial or that they don’t get it, he couldn’t be more different. Once you get to know him you realize he not only believes in technology, he wants to take fundamental technologies and put them together to create new products to meet real needs of real people. And I’m telling you, he’s going to do it.” Indeed, Adams doesn’t just want to come up with ideas and push them onto the real techies, he’s eager to do the coding himself, which is why he’ll be enrolling in computer science courses at CalArts in September.
Sitting in his Hollywood studio, Adams admits that music is no longer his top priority. He still loves touring, but “working with Intel, working with Coca-Cola — these are the things I always dreamt of.” After all, Adams explains, he’s trying to set himself up for the next 20 years of his life. “I don’t want to be on stage when I’m 57, talking about … ‘Let’s Get It Started,’” he says, referring to a popular Peas party anthem.
Then, slowly at first, Adams begins fidgeting. He is almost giddy as he starts laying out the possibilities for future endeavors: peer-to-peer philanthropy, microtransactions, 3-D printing, wearable technology. “Ekocycle and the plastic itself can be the cartridges of ink,” he says, talking faster and faster now. “And then you could print your jeans!” he exclaims. “That, to me, is the future.”
A shorter version of this story appeared in the January 14, 2013 issue of Fortune.
More from The 2013 Future Issue