The best 90 minutes at SXSW were tech-free

Work & Co private event at SXSW

Half a million people descended on Austin for SXSW, including a healthy contingent from what a friend called the 3 B’s: Bitcoin, Blockchain and Bros. Things that get this big also tend to get really bad. But for all the talk of the festival outgrowing itself, it was another development that grabbed my attention: people had an impulse to connect and collaborate with each other “in real life.”

Bumble was a good example. With 30 million users, it decided SXSW was a place to get personal. Thousands of attendees visited walked into a Bumble space where they tweaked profiles and go on their first five-minute date. They weren’t alone, either; several digital-native brands leaned on SXSW to connect with people IRL.

Work & Co embarked on a beta-experiment to approach an industry gathering a bit differently. Amidst the paneling and partying, we wondered what might happen if we carved out a space designed for off-the-record dialogue.

We landed on the topic many attendees have been quietly trying to solve for: How can the private sector harness the power digital to do something about Donald Trump?

There were just two rules: come ready to participate and share ideas that could turn into action. With anything in beta, you’re not sure what to expect. But the results caught us off guard — and underscored how surprisingly rare opportunities for human connection are today.

One KPI? No one touched their phone for 90 minutes.

Here’s what else we learned.

  1. The right combinations of people matter. We appointed three female leaders to guide us: Jenny Friedler, senior director of the Digital Product Lab at Planned Parenthood; Angela Carola, Managing Director of IADAS and the Webby Awards; and Rajni Jacques Fashion Director at Teen Vogue. They brought tough, thought-provoking questions. They asked: “Is the private sector doing enough?” And “Do we think there is there a silver lining to Trump?” After all, he’s mobilized so many of our companies, and us personally, to do more good.
  1. Diverse teams do yield better outcomes. Navel-gazing is the norm at industry conferences. To battle that “talking in a bubble mentality,” we cherry-picked a highly diverse group of people with diverse backgrounds, including retail and CPG brands, nonprofits, museums, media companies, educators and publishers. And their divergent viewpoints made for a stronger event.
  1. Allies are everywhere. We invited a couple of agencies that are competitors. We’ve discovered -- as has much of the private sector -- that some issues are so significant you have to drop competition and find solutions. It’s like what happened when we helped to get Pledge Parental Leave off the ground with like-minded companies to help extend the level of maternity and paternity benefits far beyond the industry standard. Or the number of companies that signed up for We Are Still In for the environment. Or what a group of execs at advertising agencies launched last week with TimesUp Advertising. It turns out that that initiative came forth when a few passionate female advertising leaders from competing agencies happened to be in the same room.
  1. Hard topics unite people. Having a dialogue is so important that people showed up 45 minutes early and ready to both speak and listen. As I said, the phones went away. For an hour and a half. A group of decidedly different people had a lot of the same feelings: exasperation, fear. They shared personal stories about children, spouses and how people grew up. There were a couple of tears, pleas for advice, even friction — all among strangers. And again, the entire time nobody took out their phones.
  1. People can — no, actually, want to — unplug. To be clear: I founded a company that designs and develops digital products — including several apps and mobile digital experiences. I’m a believer. But like most digitally native companies, we also feel a responsibility to have healthy relationships with products and balance those interactions with human, personal ones.

In the end, the roughly 40 people present agreed that the private sector has more power than ever to step in where the government is ineffectual, or damaging. From there, we didn't decide to create posters or an ad campaign about it. Instead, we tried to determine paths for lasting change.

We examined case studies for CEO activism and created a shortlist of brands taking a stand that we should all try and use as a model — including Airbnb, Lyft, and Patagonia. We also agreed that it was our responsibility to continually demonstrate that values and profit aren't mutually exclusive. That led to sharing ideas for how employees can be empowered and further help your brand be authentic, transparent and attract and retain the right talent base. We even discussed ways that we should deepen tech education in rural areas.

Regardless of the topic, it’s clear that people are eager to join forces in the face of hard challenges. They will — without a promise of swag or fancy Michelin star meal — come armed with great ideas, then take them back to their companies to operationalize.

Of course, an event based on honest dialogue will probably never feel as tweet-worthy as Westworld. But maybe it doesn’t need to be. We owe it to ourselves, and to the public, to use industry events, not for schilling, but for putting smart, inspired people in one place and focusing them on solutions.

Taking an informed hypothesis, testing it, then iterating on it and tweaking — this is a proven formula. So we’re going to be working on pinpointing more opportunities for genuine human connections over the next year.

While everyone’s still scratching their chins around the ROI of digital ads, at least the value on setting aside an hour at an industry conference to assemble smart, diverse execs and then focus them on some solution-finding — whether it’s about Trump or merely fixing banners — is still clear.

Gene Liebel is founding partner at Work & Co in Brooklyn

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