The Marketing Genius of Jimmy Iovine

I've been thinking a lot this week (as I'm sure a lot of people have) about the Apple acquisition of Beats. When you begin to read between the lines on this one, it really does start to look like this acquisition was less about the Beats brand itself (both the Streaming service and the Headphones), and more about the acquisitions of the individuals driving it.

Specifically I'm not talking about acquisition of the perceived cool of Dre (although considering his record, it definitely is a big factor), but more about the quieter 'behind the scenes' cool of Jimmy Iovine.

Over the years Iovine has shown himself to be one of the smartest and most savvy music execs in the business. The main point I want to make is Iovine has also proven himself to be a marketing genius, which is why Apple have decided to bring him into the fold so aggressively.

To get a better understanding of Iovine, I wanted to refer back to a few stories outlined by Steve Stoute in his book "The Tanning of America; How Hip Hop Created a Culture that Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy".

To set the stage, this story begins in mid-1992 at Interscope records. Two guys named Marion and Andre - otherwise knows as Suge Knight and Dr. Dre - were looking for distribution for their label Death Row Records and the album The Chronic, featuring vocals by Cordozar Calvin Broadus (now Snoop Dogg).

Iovine famously had an old pair of much worn speakers hooked up to his office sound system that he strongly believed were the only trusted means of judging a new artist. This definitely was prophetic of his future Beats endeavour - even at this stage Jimmy was obsessed with sound quality as critical to judging music.

Rap at this stage was hugely underground. Iovine did have experience with rap artists, but these were record releases from Latin rapper Rico Suave and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch - in other words danceable, soft hip-hop grooves that didn't represent the true emerging culture. Rap itself just didn't gel with Interscope's focus on leading-edge music - that is until Dre hit play on the stereo.

From the book:

"Now he was listening to Snoop and Dre through his speakers and everything changed for him. All of a sudden Jimmy f**king got it. As soon as 'Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang' finished, he blurted out, "Holy s**t!" He admitted that he had heard Snoop before now but he was coming at the sound with a clean slate, with Dr. Dre's production, and after listening to the whole album it all came together so powerfully that he immediately said, "Let's do this!"

In his own personal tanning turning point, Jimmy finally had a cultural construct for what he was hearing. Describing the feeling to me, he later said, "It hit me then that I knew what it was." He felt that it was what the Rolling Stones had been when they arrived on the scene, what Guns N' Roses had been, what the Godfather and Goodfellas as movies had been when they hit a nerve with the public - "plus a little Shaft thrown in," he said. From then on, he compared Snoop and Dre to Keith and Mick as well as to Axl and Slash. To Jimmy Iovine, who knew nothing about the history of hip-hop or the culture it had bred or even the Main Street economy it was already beginning to support, this was no different from the most raucous, rabble-rousing rock 'n' roll from past eras - guys (or gals) telling gangster stories."

Everyone at Interscope warned Jimmy from signing Death Row. They thought the baggage from previous deals and the difficulty getting the album to play on television or radio would be a nightmare, but Iovine had a gut feel that he refused to not follow.

Iovine wrote a hung check, treating them the same as the big rockstars of the day (they did have a finished record after all). He then also gave Dre a huge amount of cash to direct the video for 'G' Thang, on par with the money given to bands like Guns N' Roses. Again an unheard of big bet for the time.

The next goal was to get the video on MTV. Remember, at this time, rap didn't even get played on the channel. The story goes like this:

"Jimmy then suggested that he (Jimmy Krim, head of MTV programming) put Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg on in between Nirvana, Guns N' Roses, and Madonna. Translation? He wanted his video day-parted early. Rick Krim would have laughed him out of his office if Jimmy had not added, "I'll tell you what. Do it. And if it doesn't work, if I'm wrong about this, I'll never come in here asking you to play another Interscope record."

Without calling it as much, this was a go-for-broke strategy known in marketing campaign terms as total disruption. The approach breaks all the rules of branding, authenticity, and consumer preferences. When introducing a new or reinvented brand, it is the kind of tactic that will make you or break you. Kamikaze marketing!"

Through unrelenting persistence, Krim eventually put the videos on MTV in prime time. And it worked. The track became the third most requested song of the year. But the next big challenge emerged - radio just wouldn't play it. This was pure politics - radio was supposed to lead and make the hits, and MTV was supposed to follow.

Iovine then did one of the most genius marketing moves I have come across. From the book:

"What he did was, again, not what anyone in those days would have done in a million years. Jimmy went to his head of promotion and and said, "Make me a radio spot that plays the hook for one minute". He didn't want any voice-over, any talking, just one minute of 'G' Thang. Then he gave the department a list of fifty radio stations, starting with the top tier in leading markets, like New York's dominant Z100 and L.A.'s KISS FM, and instructed his people to buy enough airtime to run the on-minute spot on each station ten times a day. For real."

The simple logic here was to get people to hear the song no matter what. And when they did, they jumped on the phone and requested it from the radio stations. By March 1993, it was number two on the Billboard Hot 100, and by November 1993 it was triple platinum.

The third part of the story was the final genius move in the lead up to the release of Snoop's solo record Doggystyle in late '93 (also produced by Dre). Jimmy called up Jann Wenner, the publisher and co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine. Again, at this time rap did not appear on Rolling Stone's radar at all - it was a rock mag. From the book:

"With no preamble, Jimmy told Jann he had to put Dre and Snoop on the cover of the magazine. As the Iovine-reconstructed story goes, Jann Wenner's response was something along the lines of "Are you out of your f**cking mind? Then Jann, the rock 'n' roll journalism icon, explained more calmly, "We're not a hip-hop magazine."

Jimmy: "Hip-hop? This ain't hip-hop. This is Exile on Main Street, it's the Godfather! This is huge!

Jann Wenner: "Whatever this is, this is not my customers."

There was a tiny opportunity left open that Iovine immediately capitalised on. Wenner said if they showed him an idea for the cover, he would take a look, and maybe think about it. 

When he heard from Iovine that he would be on the cover of Rolling Stone, Snoop thought he was crazy. He wanted the cover of the Source, that was what got you street cred. Iovine sweet talked him, promising that it was the right idea, and they gave their cover idea. Through persistence, Wenner came around.

From the book:

"In September 1993, Snoop and Dre appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone and, sure enough, it completed the grand slam that being day-parted early on MTV had begun. Even before the November release of Doggystyle - which would debut at number one on Billboard's list of the two hundred top-selling albums - Snoop went to see Jimmy to tell him about the strangest thing that was happening. All of a sudden, wherever he was, whenever he walked down the street, white kids were coming up to him, saying his name, "Snoop Dogg!" in greeting, as if they were connected, like they knew him. Snoop was like, "What the f**k is that?""        

All the predictions about the challenges that The Chronic (and Doggystyle) would face did come true, except for one small fact. Iovine never gave up, and followed his gut all the way. The results were the perceived ceiling on how far a rap album could go got blown off for good. Through daring, dreaming and doing, Iovine was responsible for laying the groundwork for hip-hop to be the culturally leading phenomenon it is today, influencing pretty much every corner of the globe.

Apple are a company that believe strongly in marketing, however this is baked into ever part of their organisation. With Steve Jobs gone, they are now building a powerhouse team from a diverse range of industries to fill his legacy, and for this reason Jimmy Iovine makes perfect sense.

Here is a guy who understands the role of the artist and talent, has huge contacts in the music world (a core part of Apple revenue), and has bridged into tech. More importantly, Iovine embodies the tenacious spirit of Jobs, following his gut and looking at crafty ways to market products - a slam dunk for the Apple team.

It will be extremely interesting to see how Iovine will help influence the development of new products at Apple, but more importantly how his marketing focus will rub off on what they create in the future.

As a bonus, take a look at the Re/Code interview with Iovine and Eddy Cue for further insights.