It’s hard to say how many millions of people have seen John McGinnis’s work but it’s a safe bet the number would rival the population of a large country. As a managing creative director at Apple, McGinnis helps run the teams that design staples of our culture: Apple Music, Apple TV, Apple Podcasts, Apple News.
Three years into the job — he started a few days before the pandemic — McGinnis feels like he is beginning to find his groove. And a musical euphemism is appropriate. A guitarist since he was in elementary school, McGinnis played bass for the indie rock band The Jealous Sound in the early 2000s. (The group’s debut album Kill Them with Kindness made Spin magazine’s list of top albums of 2003.) When the band broke up, McGinnis looked elsewhere, but his love of music still runs deep. “It’s just a part of how my brain works,” he says. “It informs a lot of the way I work, how I think about creating with people. Making music together.”
An Atlanta native, he first arrived in California as an undergraduate at UCLA, then stayed in Los Angeles, first for his music, and later in a series of jobs connected to the entertainment business. His year at Stanford GSB in the MSX program pushed him in a new direction as an entrepreneur and executive.
Music was important to you from an early age. When did you get your first instrument?
I started taking guitar lessons in fourth grade. I wanted a guitar so badly and my parents bought me a $25 Sears model, like that old story. One day my dad came home and said, “Go clean your room.” I started cleaning up the room and he’s like, “No, your Mom wanted you to start with the bed.” I pull back the covers and there’s a Sears guitar. I played in bands in seventh grade all the way through high school, in college and after college.
You came to UCLA as an English major. Was there some moment of inspiration that influenced you to pursue a particular direction?
There sure was. My band broke up. I had worked a lot of weird little jobs to support some sort of musical endeavor, but nothing permanent. A friend who knew I needed something called me. He was an intern at a small music video production company. They were looking for someone to be a directors’ rep. I said, “Yes, I want to be a directors’ rep. What is a directors’ rep?”
So how did it go?
I was terrified. I remember the phone rang my first day and I didn’t want to answer it. My job was to sell our directors to record labels who were looking for someone to do music videos for them. I started to build relationships, and it helped that I had a deep understanding of the music business. I had the cultural expertise to talk about music with people who work in the music business, and the tricky balance of art and commerce, so I just think it worked. I learned how how to sell without coming off as a salesperson.
Then you spent seven years at a visual effects company, ColourMovie. What did you learn there that helped you later?
They were a small, growing company — a husband-and-wife team — and I was executive producer. That’s probably the place where I learned the most because there were so few of us and we all wore a lot of different hats. You sell the work, you find all the clients, you do the project management, make the coffee, buy the pizza, set up the server, all of that. What I learned was how to leave a breadcrumb trail of decisions so when a client changes their mind, you can always point back to this place where we made a decision that we all believed in. That insight has carried through all the way to my present work. If you have a foundational sense of why you’re doing something and can remove as much of the subjectivity as possible in creative work, which is very hard, then you can get there without being derailed by someone’s random opinion.
And it was at your next stop, the entertainment branding agency Troika, where you moved into a management role.
By that time, I had a son and my daughter was a baby; I wanted to move on and try something new. Instead of just managing projects, I managed a team of producers. These projects were way bigger than anything I had ever produced, so I was learning from the people I was managing. I had never really had a mentor or manager who had produced anything at this scale, so my approach was to try to be the person that I would want to have as a manager. Be supportive and be in their corner. Push them but understand what they’re going through.
You were essentially self-taught up to that point. How did your year at Stanford GSB equip you for your later roles?
I wanted to learn entrepreneurship, to really understand strategic frameworks and how venture capital investment works. And I wanted to double down on my communication skills, to see if I could supercharge that for a business environment. I had always been in a position where I had to convince people to do something. A lot of success relies on persuasion.
Those soft skills must have been useful when you started at Apple just as companies were going remote because of the pandemic.
Yes, I started there five days before the pandemic. I spent a week in Cupertino and met my boss and the leadership on his team, then sat in a room in my house for 2½ years getting to know my coworkers and managing people and hiring people who I’d never met in person.
You don’t fit the typical profile for an executive in a design studio. What do you think has enabled you to be so successful despite not having come from a traditional creative background?
The organizational structure at Apple is built around functions and functional expertise. So I kind of stand out as an odd duck. I work with some of the best designers in the world, and they’re not going to ask me for tactical design feedback. Therefore, most of the time, my input is asking the right questions. “Is that the right thing for the customer? Is this strategically sound? Do we need to do all of this right now, or can we stage it over time?” Maybe the fact that I grew up in music and I have this sort of artistic background makes it easier for creatives to trust me. And the culture here promotes dialogue. It’s a company filled with experts, so they want you to debate. They want you to come with an idea and then have someone challenge that idea from their perspective and their expertise. I like that a lot.
You wrote a self-help manual a few years ago about setting boundaries for your kids. What would you say to parents who are trying to manage their kids’ digital lives?
First, everybody needs to do what’s right for them and their family, especially in regards to technology. We try to ground everything in our values as a family. Part of that is don’t behave on the internet differently than you would behave in real life with other people. There is an obvious benefit to giving your kids a phone — it makes it easy to contact them and to communicate. But we know that these phones are also a pathway into manipulation. [Having those conversations] is a good way to help children understand boundaries, how to put something away, how to turn something off. It’s very difficult for them to self-regulate at this age; their brains are not wired for it.
As you look back on this journey, what are you grateful for and proudest of?
I’m grateful for the support that I get from my wife and kids, number one. I put them through a lot of change. What I’m proud of are these kids that we are raising in this environment that we’re trying to create to help them understand and navigate the world. And all this experience that I have, hoping somehow to translate that into some stories that I can tell them that might spark some curiosity inside of them, that might excite them to try something new, to think bigger than themselves.
Photos by Cara Robbins