Jimmy Iovine Tells The Story Behind The New Apple Music Ad (It Involves Oprah)

The Apple Music head on how the Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson, and Mary J. Blige ad ties into the brand’s overall marketing strategy.

As Jimmy Iovine explains it, the origins of that new Apple Music commercial everyone was talking about during the Emmys sound a bit like the start of a joke.


“Oprah came over to my house to watch the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight,” says Iovine. “I told her what I was thinking, about three women and a conversation. Oprah says, ‘Wow, you’re on to something. Get Ava [DuVernay] to direct it, she will translate this for you.’”

Because of course Jimmy Iovine and Oprah watch sports together. Okay, let’s back up a bit. The spot, directed by DuVernay (Selma) and created with agency Translation–headed up by longtime Iovine collaborator Steve Stoute–stars Scandal star Kerry Washington, Empire’s Taraji P. Henson, and Mary J. Blige, singing Puff Daddy, air-drumming to Phil Collins, and calling Apple Music’s playlist services the boyfriend mixtapes for the 21st century.

Iovine says that the brand had been searching for an idea that would help explain to people, and women in particular, how to make it easier to get music in their lives. “We’d been thinking about this for a while, and Steve Stoute called me up and said, ‘Why don’t you ever use Kerry Washington for Apple?’ and I said, that’s a great idea,” says Iovine.

He woke up the next morning with an idea of his own. “I want a conversation between three women about love, music, how to get music and how powerful it is in relationships,” says Iovine. Soon after, Oprah suggested getting DuVernay involved.

The morning after talking to Oprah, Iovine called Stoute. “I told him I wanted Ava, Kerry, Taraji, and Mary–I always wanted to use Mary J. Blige because she’s a great actress as well,” says Iovine. “Then I met with Ava and Mary at the same time, and Mary told a story about how when she was 15 years old, this guy she liked didn’t like her in the same way, and she went home and listened to a song over and over and over. I said, that’s the spot.”

Iovine credits the agency with doing an incredible job with the script and DuVernay with turning it all into magic. “It was really a joint effort and collaboration, and without any of those people, this campaign doesn’t happen.” There are two more ads also directed by DuVernay and starring Washington, Henson, and Blige set to launch in October.


Whether it’s three friends (who just happen to be famous) hanging out and listening to tunes, or the backstage life of The Weeknd, Iovine says Apple Music’s marketing aims to convey a very personal connection to music through its service.

“I feel that messaging needs to be personal, and we work on that all the time,” says Iovine. “It’s all about projecting emotion. That’s why I don’t like algorithmic playlists, they lack emotion. As far as I’m concerned, entertainment is only about emotion. Other people may sell something else, but we try to move in view of emotion. That’s what our advertising or messaging is and what we’re always going for.”

The problem with a lot of the current available music services, according to Iovine, is that they lack emotion, and that’s why the brand’s new ads focus so much on its playlists curated by humans. “The reason DJs get paid so much money is because they know when you’re bored before you do,” says Iovine. “When you put an album together, the sequencing of it is very important and based on a lot more than data. It’s also why Mary says in the ad about how long it took her to make a mixtape. Tech can do a lot of things, but it can’t do that yet. We use algorithms for a lot of useful things, but that emotion and curation is based on a lot of hard work.”

Mash up: Joel Arbaje for Fast Company; Source Photo Oprah: Flickr user Joe Crimmings; Apple: via Apple Keynotes, and Commericials

One of the most important marketing lessons Iovine learned was when Dr. Dre first played The Chronic for him 25 years ago. “He played it for me and I asked him, ‘Where are the fast songs?'” says Iovine. “And he said, ‘These are the fast songs.’ I said, ‘How can these be the fast songs? The tempo in the clubs right now is completely different–how are people going to dance to it?’ He said, ‘I’m going to show them how in the video.’

“I went to China with him 25 years later, and they were still dancing to his music like he showed them in that video. If you put something out there that has extraordinary, believable, honest emotion, people will respond. And that’s kind of what we do. I’ve always admired Apple’s advertising and the spirit of that company, so that’s what we’re trying to do. This service has to make people’s lives better, make them more interesting and fun. It can’t just be a service, it has to be of service. Apple is a company that is of service in people’s lives; they understand that, and that’s why I wanted to go there.”



About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.