On Sept. 30, it was announced that Harlem rapper ASAP Rocky would be taking on the role of creative director for experimental idea house MTVLabs. In partnership with Rocky's elusive design collective AWGE, MTVLabs will serve as the new “creative incubator” for the network and will produce original material to “develop branded content for advertisers in partnership with Viacom Velocity,” according to the company’s press release. The day of the announcement, he performed at MTV studios, debuting “Crazy Brazy,” the first single off of ASAP Mob’s upcoming mixtape, Cozy Tapes.
ASAP Rocky and his Mob are no strangers to teaming with brands to fund their ideas to fruition. In 2011, Rocky signed a $3 million dollar record deal with RCA, of which he allocated $1.7 for himself and the other $1.3 for his company, ASAP Worldwide. In January, he released a branded capsule collection with Guess, and later in the year, became the face of Dior Homme. Meanwhile, fashion school alum ASAP Ferg had a photo exhibit during Miami Beach’s Art Basel in 2015 and collaborated with Adidas on a sneaker. Rocky has proven that he and his team are not “just” rappers. But does this qualify him to act as creative director of this new brand at MTV? Or is this just another drummed up publicity stunt with a fat paycheck attached?
To be fair, global brands utilizing celebrities as creative directors is not a new concept. Back in January 2013, Blackberry enlisted Grammy-award winning singer, songwriter, and actress Alicia Keys in the role, in an attempt to combat Apple’s growing ubiquity; the duo parted ways a year later and Alicia used her iPhone the whole time. Before that, her husband Swizz Beats–himself a Grammy-award winning producer, rapper, painter, and all-around forward-thinker–held multiple executive positions with brands like Lotus, Monster, and Aston Martin, in addition to a stint as Reebok’s creative director in 2011. There’s no forgetting Justin Timberlake, who took the title for Bud Light Platinum in 2013, or Rihanna, who was named Puma’s creative director and global ambassador in 2014 and has continued to work with the company since, with much success.
Understanding the function of the catch-all title “creative director”—which shows up in nearly as many Instagram bios as "CEO" and "founder"—is key to predicting how a celebrity like Rocky will fare. There is a lot of grey area around a definitive job description. Traditionally, the role is the highest design position within an organization. One normally has an art or design background and rises through the ranks, usually starting as a designer, moving up to an art director role, and then graduating to creative director. However, nontraditional routes are becoming increasingly common.
James W. Mataitis Bailey is a freelance creative director who, throughout his career, has executed projects with brands like Nike, Vice, and 300 Entertainment, as well with artists like Rihanna, Drake, and Jay Z. But unlike the celebrities who have used name-recognition to advance in this field, Bailey followed the traditional path to the role. He spent his college years studying design and visual arts, and worked in different positions such as freelance designer and photography assistant, before he earned his title. “Recently, it can just be a background in understanding visual language,” he says of today’s list of qualifications.
Carlo Rivetti, creative director and chairman of men’s apparel brand Stone Island says he naturally landed the title while building a team. “I started making my job, and then my people told me that I was actually the creative director,” he laughs.
Both Bailey and Rivetti explain that having a “big picture” vision is integral to their respective positions. Additionally, one must know how to translate these ideas into each application, while being responsible for making all creative decisions for the client or brand. “A broad knowledge of the creative world, design, art, music and everything else included helps,” Bailey points out.
“I feel like the coach, and I do my best to improve the coexistence, to build a winning team,” says Rivetti. He oversees a squad of art directors, video producers, architects, and graphic designers, each with different visions, abilities, and talents. “This role changes from brand to brand and from people to people,” he adds.
In that way, ASAP Rocky’s partnership with MTVLabs has potential. There is a key difference that separates this appointment from other celebs in creative director roles: MTV is a media company, not a company pushing physical goods. Rocky has established himself among a class of artists whose careers developed parallel to the evolving online content landscape. And he's navigated that changing landscape quite well.
“MTV is a name we grew up with—everyone knows them as innovators and champions of building artists’ careers. I’m honored to have this opportunity and can't wait to show people what we have been working on,” Rocky said of the deal.
While both Rivetti and Bailey have taken significantly different paths to becoming creative directors than any famous person, they both believe that Rocky has a lot to offer MTVLabs and that utilizing celebrities in a visible role is a smart move for brands. “It’s a great evolution for artists who want to expand their creative fields and a way for companies to promote, creatively enrich, and diversify their brands, especially on focused projects,” Rivetti explains. It paints artists in a new light that gives them some creative legitimacy, and allows brands to benefit from some big-name heat.
Still, Bailey concedes, “There are cases in which an artist, who has a very specific skill set, will be so brilliant that they can surpass or live outside of any of these requirements to be an amazing creative director, but this is pretty rare.” In most cases, it's nothing more than a marketing move (which still has its merits). Time will tell whether Rocky will be the exception or the rule as he takes another step outside of his lane to build with MTV.