MTV Enlists A$AP Rocky to Devise Concepts for Viewers, Advertisers (EXCLUSIVE)

Brian Steinberg

Programming executives at MTV have introduced the world to everything from the battling housemates of “The Real World” to the squabbling cartoon figures Beavis and Butthead. Now rapper and entrepreneur A$AP Rocky says he wants to work with the Viacom outlet in harmony to produce new kinds of memorable content.

“I think we need to get people more in tune with vignettes, video clips,” the musician said in an interview. “That’s really going to be my strong suit.”

MTV has signed A$AP Rocky to a two-year deal under which he will devise original concepts, experiment with programming and various pieces of MTV intellectual property, and develop content for advertisers. He and his company, AWGE, will form a venture called MTV Labs, billed as a “creative incubator” unit. The partnership is a “pick up fee deal” that “is like a contract for a specific number of projects that are developed by him over a period of time,” said Niels Schuurmans, executive vice president and chief creative officer of Viacom Velocity, an in-house unit that helps develop concepts for advertisers.

“The end game is to, through this authentic voice, deepen our relationship with the audience,” said Schuurmans, in an interview. “We really want to work with him on the creation of franchises that could end up being hit franchises for MTV and hit franchises for our sponsors.”

By doing so, MTV is offering a twist on a favored technique in the media industry. As consumer attention is rapidly diverted and splintered by the whirl of social media and a growing coterie of content,  every magazine, TV network and digital outlet is working to impress consumers by serving as a sort of “filter” or “curator” of material. The more relevant the media outlet’s taste and perspective, the deeper the ties it fosters with potential readers, customers or fans. Forming alliances with taste-makers can further those ends.

The idea is at the root of a host of new and emerging ventures. OWN, the cable network owned by Discovery Communications and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, airs programming tied to the TV host’s sensibilities. Madison Avenue has its own version of the concept: Omnicom’s large DDB agency has its large Spike DDB agency, founded by director Spike Lee, that works with clients including Pepsi and Chevrolet.

MTV is being strategic in its approach. A$AP Rocky’s ideas and efforts won’t constitute the entirely of its content, but represent just one of its offerings.  “It seems to me that if the celebrity curator is one ‘channel’ on a network, it can be very successful, especially if that celebrity has cultural, musical or creative heft,” said Brian Sheehan, a professor of advertising at Syracuse University. “If the celebrity is the core curator for a brand, it can be dangerous, because the brand is defaulting its core responsibility to curate its own content.”

A$AP Rocky expressed a strong interest in developing concepts for emerging video formats. “I feel like we live in a day and age where Snapchat, Instagram, the internet and all the 15-to-30-second video clips are running the world, and that’s all that matters,” he said. “It’s time to start exploring the minds of the young, the kids that come from backgrounds like me. If you put your mind to it, you can come up with some unorthodox methods to figure this s—t out.”

The alliance could help MTV stand out as it seeks to turn its fortunes around. The network has suffered ratings declines for several cycles, owing to the fact that the audience it courts – millennial consumers – rapidly flocks to new types of video streaming that do not get counted by traditional measures upon which advertisers rely. MTV’s viewership among people between 12 and 34 has slumped by a double-digit percentages for weeks, according to Michael Nathanson, an independent media-industry analyst. Viacom installed a new president, Sean Atkins, at the unit last year and he has vowed to restore MTV’s connections with music and popular culture. Viacom’s corporate direction, meanwhile, is in flux. After a bruising corporate battle for control of the company’s direction, its controlling shareholder, National Amusements Inc., has directed its board to consider a merger with CBS Corp., which NAI also controls.

Securing A$AP Rocky’s expertise will tie MTV to a rising star who is making waves in popular culture. The musician has won acclaim for a handful of albums released over the last several years and dabbled in the world of fashion, working with marketers including Guess and Christian Dior. He has also tapped into the world of film and content, often creating his own videos. “It’s cool to be fashionably wise today and have your own style,” the rapper said. But a product or institution “has to have cultural value to me, nostalgic value to me” to win his interest.

MTV executives had taken notice of the musician’s work, and admired his ability to bridge the worlds of music, video and fashion, said Schuurmans, the Viacom executive. After following Rocky on Instagram, Schuurmans noticed he had made multiple references to legacy MTV properties, such as “House of Style” and “Yo! MTV Raps.” A decision was made to reach out. “We want to give him this open canvas to create,” he said, and identify possibilities. MTV might consult with A$AP Rocky after an advertiser describes a particular type of content it’s seeking, or work with the celebrity to turn an idea into a programming concept.

“He won’t be put into any box,” said Schuurmans. “He’s a disruptor.” MTV will count on his talents to help shake things up.


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