Avoiding the shit and finding the magic at SXSW17

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Day one at SXSW is always hugely busy and chaotic as 30,000 people descend on a city the size of Bristol while displaying the keenness of kids in a sweet shop.

As previously mentioned, it is so difficult to cut through the thousands of conferences, networking events and parties. Over the past few years, I have seen the benefit in rambling “off the beaten track” if you will, to discover the gems of insight into the media world there are to offer.

Brands and marketing: Attention is currency

Increasingly across different talks and tracks there is a consistent theme. It isn't new and it isn't unsurprising it is that attention is the new currency.

Gary Vaynerchuck in his Q&A repeatedly impressed on people the importance of attention - he called it the currency of the 21st century and the lens all brands should be using right now.

The big question is how do you get this attention?

Gary's answer is simple, use the most efficient and effective means, for him that is the most targeted, underrated and underpriced of all mediums: Facebook video and influencer marketing.

It is an approach that many brands ignore either through the challenge of creating the right content for the medium or through the perceived simplicity of the approach.

Be aware however, creativity is the differentiator in a world where 98% of brands don't have a real point of difference, brands must embrace it to stand out.

Technology: VR adoption is further away than you think

Interestingly Gary Vaynerchuck applies the same principles to VR in that whilst it is clearly mainstream, no one is using it very much (other than those who work in the industry). As such, he believes its adoption is further away than people think. However, Vaynerchuck did say VR is very hot for B2B right now, that will then unlock uses for consumers in the future.

This was very relevant as the lens through which we looked at 5 of the hottest start-ups in Austin. Whilst this is just Austin, you have to remember that it is a hotbed of tech development and investment (good intersection) with those presenting from all of over the World.

Many of the ideas were not new and often use cases that were not relevant to the service itself: from a distraction for kids to help medical procedures (Axon), to VR without a headset (Radix), to a physical place for experiencing VR without falling over (Omni). However perhaps the most interesting is Thrillbox which is essentially Nielsen for VR. It helps quantify ROI for VR in terms of focus and attention and exposure (how long people are exposed). I guess you can tell when industries are moving mainstream when measurement starts being discussed.

Culture: Encourage making

The maker culture has long been a track at SXSW, however it seems that this has now moved from a focus on new product design into how employees can be more fulfilled.

There are many companies creating spaces for making in the workplace - Airbnb, Nike, Pinterest and IBM spoke of just this in a panel.

Airbnb have created what they call the Common Studio - a place to get away from computers and experiment.

Nike have the Blue Ribbon studio, a space for designers including screen printing, foil stamping, a sewing studio, and technology integration with VR and robotic arm work.

IBM have a make lab, 400 square ft space intended for coffee / printers, including screen printing in an upstart space. Interestingly it has no official funding or sanctioning but has caught on hugely in the fi-orate giant to the point where this is considered an employee investment.


Work is changing. People want a different kind of work in the workspace, they need to live with errors and making appears to be great at keeping people happy and engaged.

It is great at helping cross functional teams work together at all levels, and not just designers or film makers. In essence you don't have to be a creative to be creative. All new people coming though the business have to spend time in the studio. Workshops unlock skills that everyone has and a few have even changed roles as a result.

The Challenges?

The challenges to creating this making workforce were highlighted as finding space, funding, culturally getting used to people not being at their desks and perceived to not be working. In IBM it is not funded, the people who use it chip in $10. All at the panel are working at proving business value.

So any business should consider by starting small and quickly, it could make it easier to align your making with company activity.

Wildcard: Be authentic

I thought I would start strong on this by not using a local but someone who has travelled to SXSW for a keynote, Cory Richards - a true inspiration.

Cory opened his heart and his immense photo library to show us his personal and literal journey that resulted in his reaching the summit of Everest without supplemental oxygen via trips around southern Africa, Myanmar and Nepal.

His heart rendering story that includes alcoholism, homelessness and a marriage break up was based on the principles of honesty - honesty in yourself and honesty to others - achieving this not only creates empathy but also connection

The digital connection was about ignoring the distraction of social media - whilst they documented their last trip up Everest on Snapchat (that started with 30 views and ended with over 100k) he was keen to impress that social means people compare their views and life to the curated views of others and that is never going to be healthy.

The key to life according to Cory? Be authentic!

See you on Day two.

Andrew Roberts is managing partner at Gravity Thinking.