News & Views

SXSW Interactive / Creative Marketing's Critical Mass

by Nick Parish

As they have for the last 13 years, some of the brightest minds in the disciplines surrounding the Internet have convened in Austin, Texas for five days of panels, parties, and progress in digital culture.

Contagious's North American Editor Nick Parish made his third trip South to soak in the stimulating conversation and sample more than his fair share of fine BBQ. Here's his take on a few key themes emerging during his time in Austin.

Dropping the Knowledge Bomb

As ever, a trip to Austin for SXSW Interactive is a trip where you're in close proximity to some of the smartest, savviest, most inspiring people on the planet. And that's just the ever-kind Austinites. But there are world-beating geniuses on the stages and in the halls, too, some shy and reticent and others slick and polished, cutting through PowerPoint decks while throwing off internet memes.   

It's tough to rein in all the things you could soak up down here in the Austin Convention Center alone. Companies send entire teams. Author and voice-in-the-wilderness Jaron Lanier played a Laotian flute and talked about the dignity of disconnecting. Legendary videoblogger Ze Frank gave a hilarious presentation, smart alecked with the crowd and gave insight into his successes and failures and boundless creativity. Twitter announced its new @everywhere service for publishers and media outlets. Panels covered topics like social search, augmented reality, neuroscience in marketing, the future of books and magazines, privacy and many, many more stimulating topics.

But there's a trick to catching up on all the panels, and you don't have to be anywhere near Austin - just flick through the Twitter backchannel. You'll find a lot of the best bits, and quips on the presenters and links to more of their work.  

Take a few minutes (when you're done reading this!) and comb through the Schedule. Click on a panel title that interests you, then click 'View Event Details'. Clicking on the panel-specific tag below the description will take you to all the insights people kicked out to the wider Twitter web.

You won't be able to mull over the opinions over a plate of brisket, but the brain jolts will send you into interesting new places.

A Digi Cannes?

More than a few attendees from the advertising world compared the event this year to Cannes, probably because more ad folks than ever before seem to have made the trip. A truer cross-section of the business was represented, from digital creatives to big agency  heads to forward-thinking clients to production company execs. Even reps were out in force this year, with ad folks packing panels like How Does an Advertising Pro Adapt to New Communication Techniques? and arriving with minds open to the online world.  

The large, crowded parties are a commonality, though down here they're sponsored by companies like Tumblr and Gowalla and Mozilla rather than big communications networks. The exceptions to the massive fests were often quite enjoyable as well, like Boxee's afternoon barbeque. The media center software asked its fans to help it find somewhere in Austin to park its RV; a young family with the house in Austin's South Congress area gladly offered up space for a keg party in addition to space for the Boxee crew. The Barbarian Group threw another of its annual parties, this time joining forces with StumbleUpon for a space-themed bash complete with space surf rock group Man or Astroman?.

Big-up Yourself

And it's not enough just to send a big group these days; figuring out how to make the most of a presence and spread the knowledge among friends and colleagues is a big issue for every company. Several sites are aggregating data from company delegations, like TBWA's Feltron Annual Report dashboard, and Made By Many's homepage takeover.

GSD&M Idea City, an agency situated just a short drive down the road from the festivities, has a team of SXSurrogates attending panels and taking copious notes so you don't have to.   

Meanwhile, sponsors are trying to do their best to mesmerise the geeks. Sobe has a major presence around the festival, and digital company Firstborn built them a piece of software that allows you to place a fairly convincing fake tattoo on a photo of you and send it home to mom.

General Motors
 is a main sponsor, and is letting people test drive its vehicles, view the new Chevy Volt's electric guts and deploying useful-yet-heavyhanded Chevy Volt Charging Stations.

Miller Light's VP of Brand Marketing heard pitches from wannabe ad creators in a game show style officiated by Digitas CCO Mark Beeching.  

Power Panelgoing  

With dozens of options at every juncture, part of the trip is always feeling spoilt for choice, which makes catch-up strategies like the Twitter backchannel and collaborative blogs a great idea. Choosing what to take in can become an elaborate affair.    

Former Wieden + Kennedy interactive producer and co-founder of app startup Gorlochs Marcelino Alvarez has rules like 'Do not attend any panel with an absolutist title, e.g., "Everything you know about design is wrong."'

Katy Lindemann, a senior strategist at Naked Communications in London, used an exploratory spirit to choose panels. "Today I only went to things I didn't know anything about and it was great," she said.   

Despite the elaborate vetting process, duds slip through more frequently than you'd imagine, or people tweak panel titles to game the system. The main convention center's layout has made location-based mobile services exceedingly useful in finding your friends and figuring out which talks are going smoothly and which are painfully awkward.

The Advertising-Startup Divide

As advertising's finest continue elevating their knowledge and experimentation in the spaces SXSW traditionally has inhabited, there are increasing questions over the community's role at the event.

Many chafed at panels that explored topics ad wizards have knowledge of, but not access to present on.

The festival has exploded, and 'Twitter and other social networks are a huge part of that growth', Interactive Event Director Hugh Forrest said at the beginning of Evan Williams of Twitter's Monday keynote. More than 13,000 attendees and 400 members of the media came through this year. A lot of that has to do with the advertising industry becoming interested as well. 

But the fact that Twitter launched another monetisation scheme involving advertisers and publishers and has yet to display a really enlightened understanding of advertising since it launched here in 2007 goes a long way to explain how attitudes are changing.

It's time for advertising and marketing minds to be empowered by our own role in creating and bringing to life stimulting content and novel applications and be more active about putting that knowledge back into communities like this.     
Did you see something amazing and have a geeky 'aha!' moment in Austin? Do you want to share your experience? What can the communities learn from each other and make the festival better? Leave some thoughts in the comments.