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SXSW: The festival that's good for the soul of marketers

By Andrew Roberts

Gravity Thinking


The Drum Network article

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March 18, 2016 | 5 min read

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.

Gandhi’s quote sums up the last five days at SXSW. I left inspired, enlightened, enthused and educated, if slightly broken. It was time well spent, time that was good for the soul.

SXSW is called a festival rather than a conference precisely for the reason that you can make of it what you wish. Like the host city’s mantra “Keep Austin weird", there are no rules or preconceived routes to follow – you follow your own path and make of it what you want.

We spent five days doing precisely that, wandering, feeling our way through the many different experiences that were on offer. From keynotes to panels (OK less of them) to meet-ups and interactive installations, all designed to stretch the mind to start thinking of the many possibilities that tech has created.

And this openness is the beauty of the whole event.

There will be many articles on the details of the various talks, demos and take outs, indeed I am speaking at an event with The Drum Network on what we found ‘off the beaten track’ but my overriding feeling leaving Austin this morning was how the festival feeds the soul.

So how has Austin really got my mojo working?


Brits@SXSW Facebook and Whatsapp groups were quickly filled with over a hundred people and various meet ups were arranged and new contacts made that will be brought back to the UK. But more importantly serendipity seemed to live on every corner where people spontaneously speak to one another openly and without agenda.

The community

The tech community appears to have a different ethos to other careers - collaboration is at the heart of the culture alongside a desire to create the best of the best. Coupled with this is an element of thinking about how the work can genuinely change the World. This showed itself all over Austin from 3M's commitment to sustainability to IBM’s work using tech to help disabilities and age related illnesses to far smaller projects such as Techfugees who are bringing the considerable firepower of technology to the European refugee crisis.

Big Thinking

Big thinking sparks big ideas, whether it is experiencing the latest haptic, immersive VR or real life Iron Man AR, playing rock, paper scissors with Marvin the robot or even watching films about Mid West farmers and Eastern European retirees dreaming of sending their robots to the moon with the help of Google. The thinking inspires a host of other ideas from the simple to the complex that can be applied to our everyday work and personal life.

Look after your mind

Tech is advancing at such a fast and relentless pace we are entering new territories and we don't know how this will affect the human psyche. From the always-on world to the increasingly competitive work environment inevitably people’s minds will be affected. In short we need to look after ourselves and control our lives, not let our tech lives control us. Watching over 2,000 'meditate' with the help of Andy Piddicombe from Headspace was a particular highlight.

Fearless creativity

Being fearless is a consistent theme in the tech World and it was mentioned a lot and it showed itself in many guises - from the young, phenomenally intelligent 20 something’s working in government to the grads barely out of MIT solving big World issues and the entrepreneurs peddling their apps, inventions and products they all relentlessly follow Jobs’ edict to ‘have the courage to follow your heart and intuition’

I would like to think if Gandhi was alive he would be wandering the streets of Austin and taking in all that SXSW has to offer inspiring people in his words to "be the change you want to see in the world" and I would add "and the change you want to see in yourself..."

Andrew Roberts is managing partner at Gravity Thinking.

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