Don't tell marketers about SXSW


By Marc Curtis, Head of Labs

March 9, 2016 | 5 min read

Those of us lucky enough to work in a big agency all know the form. Every year a small delegation of creatives and account people will be sent to Cannes. They will make out like it's a massive pain.

Sure, they'll admit that the weather is nice, and that the party yachts are impressive, but ultimately they're really busy on and are seriously considering not going this year.

We techies nod sagely, all the time thinking – 'I'll go. I want to be the one who tweets about a couple shagging on the red carpet at 3am. I want to come back and complain that the pink champagne was slightly warm. I want to cross a line with an industry colleague and have some weird unspoken power over them because of something that happened on one of those party boats. Me.'

South by Southwest (SXSW) is our Cannes.

When I mean 'our', I'm talking about all the techies, nerds, geeks, innovators and engineers. We're not natural sharpie carriers, and our notepads have lines in them - but we want to celebrate technical innovation and creativity just as much as the Cannes crowd. And SXSW is our annual pilgrimage.

So I’m going to carry on pretending like being sent by my agency isn’t the highlight of my year. I will complain about the long flight (carefully not mentioning the amazing amount of movies planes have on them now), moan about how Texas is not really set up for vegetarians (actually Austin is of course the hippy centre of Texas) and I will ensure people know just how hard I intend to work when I get there.

The last bit is true. It is hard work. Not in the conventional sense. It's not a steel mill. However, if you go with the intention of absorbing as much knowledge and opinion as possible, SXSW has more than you'll ever be able to retain.

Last year I had to run laps around Austin to get a seat in the back to back talks I wanted to attend. Some were excellent, some were less excellent. To get the best out of the week, you need to be part marathon runner and part TED junky. It's worth it though, I came back with a clutch of thought pieces written, and nothing short of an epiphany with regards to the marketing industry and the role technical innovation can play in it.

There's a problem though. It seems that SXSW has made it on to the radar of the wider marketing community. One of the complaints about last year's festival was how many marketing agencies used their speaking slots to publicise their services. This is a classic marketing ploy: find a new channel, then ruin it for everybody else.

SXSW seem to have reacted swiftly to the criticism by reducing the number of agencies talking at the event and focusing on providing good content (or at least the promise of it). Certainly, browsing the schedule reveals some fascinating subjects being covered, from 'Aerial cars: the future of urban transport' to 'The singularity and the question of God' and pretty much everything in between.

If Mobile World Congress is anything to go by, virtual reality (VR) will feature heavily as a theme, although rather than focusing on demonstrating cool technology I'm hoping that some of the many speakers will be unpicking some of the deeper issues around it. Such as; when the dust settles (if it ever does), what will we actually be using VR for? Is VR the destination or is it an interim step towards high-end AR?

But anyone going will soon find out that there is subject matter to interest almost everybody. Last year I went expecting a single theme to come out of the festival, but was initially disappointed and then pleasantly surprised when I realised that it was never going to be as neat as that. This year I am opening myself to the reality that you really can't plan for the kind of stuff SXSW will put in your head.

Even though McDonald’s now seem to feel like they need a 'lounge' area (hopefully a little more developed that the weird incongruous Ronald Selfie Statue from last year) it still feels authentically for the weirdos, not for the suits. Last year I ended up playing table football with Soren Bowie, the Cracked YouTube celebrity, and eating tacos from a trailer park next to the General Electric BBQ research centre before dashing to a talk about emotional robots.

So here's my plan for this year. Run to as many talks and events as I can, find a proper vegetarian BBQ restaurant to spend my evenings, meet at least one internet celebrity and tell anyone at my agency who asks how utterly boring and SXSW is and how I wish I could go to Cannes instead.

Please marketing, don't ruin this for me.

Marc Curtis is head of labs at TMW Unlimited


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