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Is SXSW worth the trip? A field guide for UK agencies

By Kate Fulford-Brown, Head of client & commercial



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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March 28, 2023 | 8 min read

Kate Fulford-Brown of 2LK reflects on the beauty and chaos of this year's SXSW and urges UK agencies to consider attending next year.

Timelapse shot of spinning ferris wheel

Don't overthink it: meetings at SXSW often happen by chance, and most people aren't in a 'buying' mindsest / Shahadat Rahman

Austin, Texas’s South by Southwest festival (SXSW): you’ve read the trends reports, watched the best sessions on demand, heard all about the film releases, and now you’re thinking you need to be there in person.

As a business whose specialty is creating extraordinary brand experiences for ambitious tech companies, we’re always hungry for innovation and tech inspiration, and provocation. The scale of SXSW is what makes it exciting, but also daunting. So, how did we go about it? And most of all, was it worth it?

Prepare, prepare, prepare…

Be prepared to rip up the schedule. Have no doubt: there is real value in doing pre-event legwork; familiarizing yourself with what’s on offer; spending time on the app; building a schedule; reading Austen magazine Do512 (insider tip); identifying who you want to meet and listen to; and setting up meetings.

However, when you arrive you’ll be bombarded (and seduced) by all the things you couldn’t have known about beforehand. Some guerrilla, some late to the party, some simply ‘off-grid’. Have a plan, but be prepared to deviate at the drop of a Stetson.

It’s a festival, not a conference

SXSW is a town takeover. A space made up of lots of different spaces, experiences and ambiances. It feels pretty casual. Often, meetings are serendipitous. They’re just as likely to happen at a crossroads or a bar as across a table. It’s all about chance.

If you think you’re going for business development only, think again. The quality of conversations may be high, but the immediacy of requirements is low; people tend to be in a learning (and inspiration) mindset, rather than a buying one. Make friends. Play the long game.

Embrace JOMO (joy of missing out)

You can’t do everything. Even with the busiest spreadsheet and all the energy of a Duracell bunny, there’s not enough time in the day.

Things you want to do and see will clash. Accept that some things will happen, and some won’t. If you see it in front of you, do it there and then. There’s a huge sense of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’.

Strength in numbers: join a trade mission

Upon arrival, it’s overwhelming, and even a bit of a sensory overload. It can be hard to orientate yourself. The beauty of being part of a trade mission is that it allows you to settle and navigate; it disciplines you and gives you an amazing platform.

Use this as a base to invite clients to, and fully utilize the infrastructure and support that come with being part of the community, both from a content and a morale perspective.

As part of the UK House inclusion, DBT did incredible work to line up clients and meetings, and to amplify our event presence. Likewise, for Advertising Association, AEG and the British Music Embassy to promote British creativity.

UK House is a celebration and explosion of UK talent; it puts you among an extraordinary peer set, people who are pushing the boundaries of what is possible. It acts as a salutary reminder of why you’re in this industry, and that brilliant creativity is a huge British export.

Challenge yourself

There are several ‘content tracks’ (e.g. medical, education, brand) at SXSW. The temptation is to stick to what you know and dive deeper into subject areas you have familiarity with.

But you should absolutely take the opportunity to jump into a NASA keynote, or listen to a panel debate on the use of psychedelics as alternative medicine.

Frivolous AF

Branded experiences aren’t intellectual or smart. There’s precious little insight-driven creativity or depth of story on offer. Entertainment rules and the vast majority of owned spaces are fast, fun and frivolous, so loosen up, get stuck in, and leave your ego at the door.

Unique future casting

No other gathering in the world future-casts quite this way, thanks to the eclectic alchemy of music, arts, science, tech, and business. Your experience of ‘what’s new and next’ could be brought to you by MIT one minute, Paramount the next, and L’Oreal straight after.

If a Roku brand experience in a lift with the Doctor (of Doctor Who) followed by web3 storytelling and some cannabis food pairing is your cup of tea, then SXSW is for you.

Is it worth it?

There is literally nowhere else in the world where you can find all of this in one place. It is a truly unique, full-on and hugely rewarding experience.

So, is it worth it? If by ‘worth it’ we mean supercharging and challenging your day-to-day approach with maverick and stretchy thinking, networking on a level you’ve never experienced before, access to truly transformative thinking and innovation across ‘all the verses’, then yes. It ticks all these boxes and many more.

But make no mistake, SXSW is a huge investment in time, money and resource to do it well. If you’re a small to medium-sized agency, your chances of squeezing every drop of benefit out of it increases exponentially if you’re able to be part of a trade mission like UK House. The platform, amplification and support system it provides will transform your ‘return on experience’ as well as leave you feeling full of pride.

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