Yes, The Black Eyed Peas frontman is an international pop star. But he has also become a trusted source for some of the world’s biggest brands. Meet corporate America’s consigliere of cool.
FORTUNE — Will.i.am’s car is careening across the 405. The cabin of his electric Tesla is eerily silent as the vehicle slides over three lanes of irate Los Angeles traffic. The rapper, whose given name is William Adams, is extremely late for a flight to Brazil. But that’s not why he’s speeding. He is trying to illustrate a point about time to market: “I want to be nimble,” he says. “Fast.”
Chances are you know Adams even if you are not a fan of his music. His group, The Black Eyed Peas, has sold some 60 million records and orchestrated the Super Bowl halftime show. Its songs regularly top pop charts. Adams’s music burrows so deeply into the mind’s soft tissue that even brief exposure is likely to leave you murmuring Peas lyrics. As a pop star, he’s beyond bombastic. But with some of the world’s biggest companies, he has cultivated an altogether different reputation. He has become a source of ideas and insight for the likes of Intel (INTC), Coca-Cola (KO), and Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) — a kind of one-man focus group, a futurist for hire. “Will is a visionary,” says Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent. “He offers an endless stream of creativity and possibility.”
To be sure, Adams is hardly the first celebrity businessperson. In recent years Ashton Kutcherhas invested in Foursquare and Flipboard. Justin Timberlake co-owns Myspace. Even Kim Kardashian’s style site, ShoeDazzle, got $40 million in backing from Andreessen Horowitz. What makes Adams different is the role he plays: He’s neither pitchman nor conventional investor. He is a co-creator and sounding board. “I don’t think of Will as an endorser at all,” says Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist with Intel Labs. “I think of him as part of our conversation about what the future is. His input is invaluable.”
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