Alicia Keys, Global Creative Director for BlackBerry

Should BlackBerry Lay Off Creative Director Alicia Keys?

The struggling smartphone-maker lost nearly $1 billion last quarter, as it announced plans to shed 40% of its workforce. Could Alicia Keys be one of the 4,500 employees laid off?

BlackBerry, the struggling smartphone-maker, recently reported a nearly $1 billion quarterly loss and announced that it would be shedding 40% of its workforce as it explores a possible sale of the company. That means roughly 4,500 employees are now at risk of losing their jobs—but don’t worry about its most famous one, whose weighty title remains secure: "I can confirm that Alicia [Keys] is still working with BlackBerry in her role of creative director," a BlackBerry spokesperson says.

In January, BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins appointed the R&B superstar to her new role at the company. Keys promised that her work for BlackBerry would amount to more than just a traditional celebrity endorsement; Heins insisted that Keys was actually "hired for a job." But BlackBerry, like its embrace of apps and touch-screen devices, was following rather than leading: It was replicating what many tech giants have done in recent years, framing celebrity spokespeople as executives actually bringing their creativity energy to the company’s core. In 2010, Lady Gaga was named a creative director at Polaroid; Will.i.am was appointed Intel's director of creative innovation in 2011; and only last week, Lenovo "hired" Ashton Kutcher—the lovable doofus on That '70s Show turned angel investor—as an "engineer."

You could imagine the appeal in a boardroom meeting: For the same reasons consumers pay attention to songs Alicia Keys sings or sings on, they’ll pay attention to BlackBerry more because she's contributed to its output too. And even if consumers don’t believe the celebrity is doing an actual job, it’s not like the positioning can do harm, right?

But now that BlackBerry is actually laying off thousands of employees—some of whom are actually responsible for the tasks that Keys has claimed to oversee—the company seems to find itself in a trap of its own making.

Keys once described her role this way: "It's a big job...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." But if Keys was actually hired to do this job, should she also be at risk of getting laid off—or at least having her contract cut short—in an unprecedented time of poor performance? In an age of fake celebrity hiring, does a company have any obligation toward carrying out a real celebrity firing?

For now, despite the hard times, BlackBerry is sticking with its creative director. "As an advocate for BlackBerry, Alicia Keys has helped drive engagement with BlackBerry through her vast network," the BlackBerry spokesperson explains. "With her creative direction, our Keep Moving Project delivered a reach of over 40 million visits. Alicia has also advocated for females in STEM and fostered our BlackBerry Scholars Program."

It sounds like honest work: Generally promoting the brand through media, charitable, and social initiatives is what Keys and all her celebrity executive peers really do when they work for brands, whether it's Gwen Stefani at HP or Leonardo DiCaprio at Mobli.

But it's not fair to artificially inflate their responsibilities. Creative directors, for example, not only have a wide variety of skills pertinent to the company but are responsible for fully comprehending huge ideas and then managing and motivating large teams to execute on those ideas. They get the glory, but they also shoulder blame. Representatives for Keys declined to detail her specific accomplishments. But in the wake of BlackBerry's struggles it's just as fair to question her duties as it is to question whether Kutcher is going to be working on Node.js as an engineer at Lenovo.

As it proceeds with its layoffs, BlackBerry’s relationship with Keys will be worth watching—not for what it says about celebrity endorsements, but for what it says about how celebrity jobs affect the morale of people who actually must show up at the office every day. As designers, developers, and yes, even creative directors are worried about losing their jobs at BlackBerry, is the stable relationship with a different level of creative director going to be seen an insult to the 4,500 employees BlackBerry is actually about to can?

"Commenting on org structure is out of my sphere," the BlackBerry spokesperson said, when asked whether Keys could be one of the thousands let go. (Reps for Keys declined to comment.)

We're not trying to pick on Keys here; it's obviously not her fault that BlackBerry poorly bungled its lead in the mobile market. She just made a bad bet on a sinking brand—it was arguably a fool's errand for her to think she could bear any real weight in turning the company around at this late point.

But if she and BlackBerry want to act as if she's really a creative director—and thus really working with carriers, app designers, developers, and retailers, as she and Thorsten Heins boasted—then Keys can't simply claim credit for her role went it's in her favor, and deny responsibility when it's not.

That, for Heins and average workers at least, is usually a fireable offense.

[Ed. Note: An earlier version of this story was edited to clarify several facts.]

[Image: AP Photo | John Raoux]

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  • roadrosen

    i like the piece. it's nice attempt to rebuild a brand. blackberry should go back to it's core values: solid, traditional, sturdy, no frills. as for ashton, before you bash him s a dope - you might want to look into his credentials in social media. he's got creed and serious chops in social media circles.

  • Thianar

    LOL Should you lay her off?? YEAH!!!! and tell your friends at Lenovo computer to save their money by firing Ashton RIGHT now!!

  • Tommy Clark

    this company is a joke they had a bad play in the game since 2009 . Another lay off is going to happen and expect to see again companies like 5spot.ca stepping in to help them .. ridiculous !

  • therationalist13

    "...and deny responsibility when it's not." when has she ever said the failure of the company was not her fault?! Yes. Blackberry is crumbling, but hiring Alicia Keys was the risk they were willing to take if it meant turning the company around positively. Without all the extra jargon, at the end of the day, Alicia's job was to simply promote Blackberry as effectively as she could. Which, without a doubt, she has done through her highly acclaimed world-wide tour, establishing a scholar program, and the "Keep Moving Projects." We can't possibly sit here and blame Alicia, but I can't argue with you when it comes to question whether or not her job should be more secured than the next guy who goes to the office everyday. But, if I was Alicia I'd ask myself, "why the hell am I still with this company in the first place?!" Her commitment/loyalty can't be questioned. Ultimately, why target her when she has done no wrong? I think the author was simply trying to seek attention that is not necessary. Kind of childish ya think?

  • sonya

    They used her to promote BlackBerry, so she did her job. The product itself is what has failed with or without her advertisement of it the outcome would more than likely be the same. She tried and if people are losing their jobs, I don't see how she could have anything to do with that. Don't you think that would have happened regardless of Alicia Keys status with the company?

  • Steve Kravitz

    "Keys can't simply claim credit for her role went it's in her favor, and deny responsibility when it's not."

    Why not? That's what CEOs do.

  • JMB

    I agree with Austin. Alicia Keys is not a pioneer in cellular technology, nor can she provide the insight to righting the ship at Blackberry. Her "star" power is little equity at at time when the bubble is about to burst. Too bad, this used to be the premier business/life product.

  • jeffzx9r

    I began my relationship with (ultimately) Blackberry back in the days of the first Treo 90 smartphones. They blazed a trail back then. I very recently got a Blackberry 9930, and still think it's a rock solid business tool phone. Blackberry polarizes people; you either love them or hate them, and that's OK. They remind me of my old Land Rover in many ways: designed to be a user-friendly, bare bones, slow, work-horse tool. Unfortunately, the consumer population (like me) who appreciates "less-is-more" is shrinking rapidly. I would much prefer Blackberry scale-down to accommodate their core supporters, than delude themselves by trying to compete with the Android-Apple crowd....and kamikaze into bankruptcy. Alicia Keys? Who is she; I don't care. Blackberry, PLEASE play to your strengths and not to the "latest and greatest" crowd.

  • Jason Hindley

    I'd argue that the 'less is more' demographic are Apple users. In fact, 'less is more' is at the core of the Apple ethos.