Killing it in the Age of Context

17332206-6421-4f66-9a70-3be34c6f87b1Last month, an artist called Kendrick Lamar (pictured) breathed new life into his business and turned the industry he operates in on its head.

Although young, Lamar isn’t a newbie. He was already part of hip hop’s new order with a couple of seminal tracks and numerous collaborations under his belt.

But with one verse, he did what Matisse did to Impressionism and Basquiat did to Contemporary art. It was fascinating to see how his verse blew up in August, to the point where his art is on the lips and in the minds of all his peers and hip-hop’s fans.

It’s still being discussed, dissected and analysed on outlets as diverse as Hot97, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Rolling Stone, USA Today and The Huff Post. Poignantly, it has already made it onto the stage and albums of other much bigger artists.

Now it’s easy to dismiss this as irrelevant bullshit. Hip hop ‘beef’. You probably don’t like or care about hip hop. Or if you do, maybe they’re just lyrics.

What I was reminded of when it dropped though is innovation economics – creating growth by driving innovation capacity through knowledge and technological externalities. Basically what we admire and love about Apple, Google, and Pixar et al.

As Andy Warhol said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

The fallout also made me think about what’s been missing from a lot of digital recently, and realise what the things that are exciting and inspiring me all have in common.

For almost a decade, we’ve been spoiled: X-Box, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Rockstar, Tumblr, Adobe, Soundcloud, geo-location, smartphones, etc..

Without the misdirection of a US election, a major global sporting event, emerging countries with stratospheric growth or a guy jumping from space, it’s clear the gravy train stopped somewhere in 2011.

The last two years’ SXSW, Cannes Lions, Tomorrow Awards, Apple keynote et al were all good; but it’s a challenge to look at them and point out real differences from the stories that emerged in 2011. Naturally, we’ve reached a plateau.

Despite already having decent career mapped out ahead of him, Lamar thought the same about his business. So he decided to channel the apathy, contextualize his insider knowledge and portray his excitement about the future in a different way.

Nothing shines as bright as innovation in impoverished times.

Alongside some of the big technology players, other organizations are also refusing to drink from the Kool-Aid. From Nike, Disney and Garmin to smaller, newer players like Fatigue Science, Tictail, The Fancy and App Annie.

What excites me in all these examples is that context and/or commerce are the drivers, not the support act. The Age of Context is here and we’re just at the beginning.

Therein lies the difficulty for marketers; how do you co-opt this new reality into existing businesses, products and services? Well, it’s certainly going to be harder than just setting up an Instagram account.

One suggestion is to start looking around and inside your business, and then re-engineer as necessary, no matter how painful. You’re the context. You’re on the inside. Adopt, live, understand and then find the commercial applications. Fashion has been surprisingly progressive at this to date.

Netflix + House of Cards is also a good example; they integrated (not fought) torrent behaviour, challenged the known norms and economics of TV production and revised their existing subscription business. But, lest we forget, it kind of began with this.

Textbook innovation economics.

The best part of Lamar’s particular application of the above? It wasn’t even his track.

Michael Aneto is head of planning at creative agency Perfect Fools. Follow the agency on Twitter @perfectfools. Perfect Fools is a member of the Global Society for Digital Marketing Innovators (SoDA).