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SXSW Critical Mass

Big ideas in small packages: insights & implications from SXSW 2013

By Roger Gagnon

March 15, 2013 | 4 min read

This year's Interactive element of SXSW has finished for another year over in Austin. Roger Gagnon, vice president of insight and planning at digital agency Critical Mass' London office looks back on his experience of the festival and offers insight into what he gained from attending.

One of my favorite things about Austin is the Food Trucks. Right up there with Portland and LA, Austin has some of the best in the country. Step off the beaten path – away from Iron Works, Stubbs and Frank – and you’ll find yourself knee deep in the long tail of foodie culture. Many who spend time in Austin this year will go home thinking differently about food, with their stories of small, amazing meals served up in parking lots at 2:00 AM and some guy named "Russell" who's "about to blow up" to tide them over until next year. And given this year’s content, some of them might leave SXSW 2013 thinking differently about what they should be spending their time on this year, too.

Here’s what I mean: It’s hard to argue the fact that the Food Truck movement has had a disruptive and fragmenting influence on eating out in America. With virtually no overhead, the ability to drive to source locally, and almost zero-dollars spent on promotions, Food trucks are allowing hundreds of small, inspiring entrepreneurs – people with real talent – to not just compete, but win against the big boys. And that’s what SXSW 2013 was all about: how to be small, and win.

At this year’s festival we saw a return to celebrating small entrepreneurs, lots of small disruptive technologies, and we heard lots of talk of smaller bets, over shorter time periods, This year belonged to LEAP. To MakerBot. To Rockets. This year belonged to the Makers of small, awesome things. At a time when agencies and clients are struggling to wrap their arms around a fragmented media landscape, this shift to small – at least at face value – doesn’t do us any favors. Small means more touchpoints to consider. Small means more custom points of integration. So if you believe that SXSW is a microcosm of the interactive media landscape more broadly (as I do), then you will leave the Great State of Texas both deeply inspired and slightly terrified by small.

Here’s what inspires me: We’re at the upswing of the Natural User Interface inflection point. LEAP is ready for prime time. It’s beautiful, it works, and it’s under a hundred dollars. And I remain convinced that 3D printing at scale will be possible within the next 3-to-5 years. Oh – And Elon Musk is sending humans to Mars. And his biggest client is NASA. No big deal.But here’s what terrifies me: connecting all of this new small stuff. Making cohesive, elegant, and beautiful customer experiences that work – and keeping it simple. That’s going to be a bear.

In the next three years, my prediction is that agencies that don’t have people capable of making software and hardware, that can integrate the many small pieces of nerd porn I saw this week will find it tough to compete. And with so much new value on the horizon, agencies that fail to adapt, and don't ask themselves how their marketing, advertising and technology can play a more useful and productive role in people’s everyday lives will be not be successful. Relegated like so many TGI Fridays-Chili's-Applebees-Ruby Tuesday in a wonderful world where the Kim Chi Fries Burrito from ChiLantro exists. Perfectly.

So I’m leaving Texas with two simple lessons: hire more nerds, and make many, small, extraordinary things. I’m also leaving with an invitation to break stuff, and shake stuff up at home, and a reminder that if I’m not scared, I’m not pushing hard enough. What are you leaving SXSW with?

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