Today, BlackBerry unveiled its latest operating system along with two new products. But the company also announced a major new hire for the technology giant: singer, songwriter, and activist Alicia Keys will be joining BlackBerry as its global creative director.
Silicon Valley has long had a close relationship with Hollywood, from Justin Bieber investing in Series A rounds to Dr. Dre producing his own branded headphones. But only recently have we seen a wave of celebrities being given actual (if not official sounding) titles at startups. We've seen Lady Gaga being named creative director at Polaroid; Trent Reznor appointed chief creative officer of Beats; and Kim Kardashian adopted as chief stylist of ShoeDazzle. Normally, according to knowledgable sources I've spoken with, these titles would be considered honorary, a method for creating buzz around a particular product or startup. But more recently we've seen companies stress that these are actual positions within the company, especially with Gaga and Reznor. If these are actually real jobs, then what will these celebrities do? As BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins asked Alicia Keys Wednesday, "You were hired for a job, so tell us, what are you going to do for us?"
"It's a big job," said Keys, who is tellingly an iPhone user, according to her Twitter and Instagram feeds. "I'm going to work closely with the app designers, developers, content creators, the retailers, the carriers to really explore the platform and create ideas for its future."
Indeed, that is quite the big job. It's also not likely a real job—not even Steve Jobs could deal with developers, designers, content creators, retailers, and carriers all at once, and I doubt Keys will be striking international carrier agreements with Vodafone, Airtel, China Mobile, and Verizon anytime soon.
If past celebrity involvement in the corporate world is any indication, Keys' title is honorary at best, mainly because we've learned the potential negative impact celebrities can have when put in actual high-level positions.
"The problem is most of the higher-level celebrities do not know or understand good design," one top industry source once told me. "They kind of know what they think is cool or looks cool, but it doesn't necessarily translate into good products. Another thing dealing with musicians is that in the music industry, you can change a recording until the last second it's published. You really can't do that on a product. So the problem I constantly run into is people wanting to go fuck around with this stuff late in the process, which is just catastrophic on a development schedule. It's a real problem if you put someone in a position where they can wield power over decisions, yet they have no clue."
And there are other complications, according to this same source.
"Celebrities are not used to hearing, 'No.' They don't understand it and you end up getting red-lighted. Then all of a sudden, you spend months fighting some stupid battle you could've avoided. They see themselves as qualified to make these developmental decisions, and it can be really devastating if they somehow manage to get themselves in a position [of power]."
No doubt, Keys will help bring much need buzz to BlackBerry, and I wouldn't be surprised if she's the face of a new advertising campaign. I also believe the work she'll do with other entertainers along with her powerful network of women entrepreneurs could have a positive impact on the struggling smartphone maker. She'll be a great brand advocate.
But it's not likely a real "job." And if she ends up working with actual developers and big-name carriers, I'll be surprised.
As Keys said to Heins at the event's end, "I'll see you in the office."
"Monday at 8:00," Heins responded.
Then they both laughed.