Has ‘Innovate or die’ become ‘Innovate and die’?

Stylized red and blue picture of man wearing VR headset
(Credit: Getty Images)

As marketers, our obsession with innovation today has become so acute, we risk forgetting to interrogate whether certain innovation is actually that relevant or powerful.

Peter Drucker’s legendary maxim ‘Innovate or die’ has become so ingrained in the modern marketer’s mindset that to question it feels almost sacrilegious. In light of the technological revolution in the decades following Drucker’s words, it may appear downright perverse to question innovation’s critical role in business success.

But our obsession with innovation today has become so acute, we risk forgetting to interrogate whether a particular innovation is actually that relevant or powerful. The mad dash to embrace the new, if that new isn’t that great, may actually send us down a rabbit hole and blind us from untapped value that already exists.

Nowhere is this more visible today than in the industry’s collective hysteria around the ‘metaverse.’ Brands and agencies are falling over themselves to see who can shout loudest about this revolutionary innovation. But it may well be worth taking a second to step back and consider if this is innovation worth going all in on.

Meta, the would-be poster child of the metaverse, has seen its market cap drop by as much as half a trillion dollars since it stated its intention to go all in on this brave new world. The stock tumbled dramatically after Meta announced that its Reality Labs division lost a net $10 billion as it has endeavored to maintain its lead in the AR/VR space. 

There’s a cold, hard reason for this: AR/VR technologies simply haven’t proven their worth yet. As David Karpf astutely observed in Wired last year, ‘despite the many years, billions of dollars and year-long pandemic requiring at-home entertainment, the results thus far have been pretty lackluster. The headsets are spiffier and the games are more lucrative, but our minds nevertheless remain collectively un-blown.’ 

The metaverse is a hope, a dream, an aspiration. It’s not a compelling innovation yet — and so it is far, far away from having a meaningful impact on reality.

While marketers throw endless money and hours at this unrealized dream (just google ‘metaverse and agencies’), they’re ignoring and undervaluing a already huge, thriving, booming economy that already exists: gaming.

A big lesson from the gaming world is that the most high-tech innovations don’t always have the biggest impact and relevance in culture.

Take Among Us. When this low-fi, indie game was launched in 2018, it didn’t see huge success, peaking at 1,800 concurrent players in its first year. But thanks to a vibrant community of streamers in Korea and Brazil, the game started to gain traction before exploding into a global pop culture phenomenon during the 2020 lockdown. By September, Among Us had a staggering 60 million daily active players, most on iOS and Android.

A more recent example of a low-fi game taking over the world is Wordle. Launched just last year, Wordle exploded from having 90 players on November 1, 2021 to 300,000 on January 2, 2022 — and more than two million a week later. This simple game, created by one engineer in Brooklyn (Josh Wardle), was so socially contagious that the New York Times snapped it up as a key part of its subscriber strategy.

Both Among Us and Wordle succeeded because they fueled, and were fueled by, the rich ecosystem of content and community that exists around games today. This ‘multiverse’ of social posts, YouTube content, Twitch streams and Discord servers represent a maturing media landscape which is somehow still viewed by most marketers as niche. Investment in games-related marketing last year was around four times less than investment in newspaper advertising. The mind literally boggles. 

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the fundamentalist dogma of ‘Innovate or die’ if it’s leading us to follow Meta like lemmings off the proverbial cliff. This feels more like an ‘Innovate and die’ strategy. 

We’d do better to tap into the amazing value that the 2.7 billion gamers in the world represent. You don’t need to build a VR app to engage with them. You can reach them via an internet connection and a phone, or PC or console (sometimes all at the same time). 

As the adage says, a bird in the hand is worth two in the (meta) bush.  

Johnny Shaw is chief strategy officer at VCCP New York.

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