Once, rock stars were content just to be, well, rock stars. But in a time of declining record sales and fickle consumers, it's not as easy for A-list musicians—pop stars, rappers, whoever—to live the rock-star lifestyle. That's why the likes of Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, and will.i.am are shrewdly diversifying and adding a new title to their résumés: creative director.
That's right, they all want to be like the people behind Apple's "Think Different" campaign and the J. Crew catalog (and personified by Mad Men's Don Draper). In her capacity as a creative director of Polaroid, Gaga appeared at last year's massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to show off a futuristic pair of sunglasses with a camera embedded inside, which she says she "helped" design. This January, Timberlake, who holds the same title at Callaway (yes, the golf company) and plays a similar role for the once-mighty social network Myspace (he's also a part owner), appeared at the same event to announce that the company was "ready to take television and entertainment to the next step" with its newest venture, Myspace TV. Erstwhile Spice Girl Victoria Beckham is a creative design executive at Range Rover. Music producer Swizz Beatz performs the same duties for Reebok. Will.i.am went one step further by becoming Intel's director of creative innovation; when his appointment was announced in January, he proudly brandished his corporate I.D., becoming possibly the first musician in history to get excited about a lanyard hanging from his neck.
This celebrity incursion doesn't sit well with old-school creative directors in the Draper mold. George Lois, famous for his influential sixties Esquire covers and for creating the "I Want My MTV" campaign, scoffs at the idea that any of these stars understand what an actual creative director does. "I thought the question was a gag," he responds when asked about the trend. "And when I realized the likes of Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga were being ordained celebrity creative directors, I gagged."
Will.i.am bristles at the notion that his "job" is mere window dressing, pointing out that he pays monthly visits to Intel's Silicon Valley headquarters for ideas meetings, in addition to representing the brand. And when he's there, he actually contributes. "I wanted to dream up concepts about how I wanted a computer to work," he explains. "When we have our think-tank sessions, I say, 'This is the behavior now, this is the culture now—so the chip should be like this.'"
It's unclear where these entertainers get their creative-director qualifications. After all, both Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas themselves have employed creative directors (as have Rihanna and Kanye West, among others) who manage everything from their clients' branding strategy to stage designs to wardrobes to music videos. So what do the stars actually bring to the job besides their names? Is "celebrity creative director" just a euphemism for "paid endorser"? Simon Doonan, the longtime creative director of Barneys, thinks so. "These roles are really more ambassadorial in function," he says. "They want to feel like they're doing something meaningful, so they want a more substantive title. In the old days, celebrities were happy to just go shopping. Now they would hate that people think they're just so superficial."
When asked what he thinks of his fellow celebs' creative-director gigs, will.i.am agrees: "Those are just different titles of endorsement. They're just endorsing a product." What he does, he quickly adds, is more meaningful. "I sit down with the code writers and engineers up at Intel. It's a little different."
Right—a celebrity-creative-director job is legit only in the mind of the star doing it. Lois, for his part, thinks they're all full of it. "Calling them that is an insult to real creative directors," he says. But the vanity title of the moment seems here to stay, so maybe the Loises and the Drapers should consider adopting a new one. "Rock star" seems to be available.