SxSW: Agencies do Austin

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While Austin's South by Southwest Interactive is still largely the premier geek meet-up, many "full service" agencies sent delegations this year. Most notably, Wieden + Kennedy fielded a group of 25, including a copywriter, designer, art director, producers, developers/flash guys and the entire planning department. It's a significant outlay for a busy agency, but a tiny fraction of the estimated 10,000 attendees, a 40 percent increase from 2007, according to organizers.

Wieden interactive executive producers Marcelino Alvarez and Kris Hanson oversaw their agency's contingent. Alvarez also attended last year and realized there were great opportunities for acquiring knowledge. "I don't think it's hard to get a bunch of interactive people to say, 'Hey, I want to go to South by Southwest,'" he says. "But Scott Cromer, who heads up our planning group, said that this is a way for us to get abreast of the trends and everything that's coming down the pipe. Everyone down here works on all the different clients in our office.'"

Hanson emphasizes that it's important for people with traditional backgrounds to cross-pollinate with the digital crowd. "The digital understanding and digital background of the planning group varies, so I think each person will come away with a different outcome. But it'll open a lot of minds to what's going on as well as finding new ways of staying up on what's going on."

Crispin, Porter + Bogusky sent eight people, including producers, designers and tech talent. Other agency attendees included Leo Burnett, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Fallon, BBH, Wexley School for Girls, The Martin Agency, DDB, Saatchi & Saatchi, 72andSunny and Austin locals like GSD&M Idea City and Door Number 3, an indie shop that blogged the whole affair.

It's hardly surprising that so many agencies were in attendance. "Everyone's heard the buzz about new media and fortunately we've gained this reputation as this place where people are on the cutting edge," says Hugh Forrest, the director of SxSW Interactive. "People from various other traditional forms of media want to learn from people down here."

The building Bloxes of SxSW
The building Bloxes of SxSW
At the panel announcing the Society of Digital Agencies or SoDA—originally titled "Awards—Do We Lose By Winning?" a crowd of around 60, half of which identified themselves as agency employees, listened as interactive veterans dished on what takes work from great to award-worthy. It seemed a case of role reversal as the traditional talents took cues from their digital counterparts.

"Agencies are making a big effort to come to this side of the business," says Jay Wolff, president of interactive design studio Odopod. "SoDA is about bridging that gap as well, so we're coming back that way.

Marcelino Alvarez, executive interactive producer, Wieden + Kennedy, Jennifer Helm, interactive producer, Fallon, Minneapolis, Brianne Calandra, interactive producer, W+K and Kris Hanson, executive interactive producer, W+K relax after a day laden with learning
Marcelino Alvarez, executive interactive producer, Wieden + Kennedy, Jennifer Helm, interactive producer, Fallon, Minneapolis, Brianne Calandra, interactive producer, W+K and Kris Hanson, executive interactive producer, W+K relax after a day laden with learning
"A lot of agencies are just now getting into this scene when web 1.0 was, what, 11 years ago?" asks Kristen Curtis, an art director at Seattle's Wexley School for Girls. "Why not have somebody down here? This is where all the ideas and new technologies are coming from, this is the forefront of this next huge social movement and these are the people who are really running the show on that."

Around 40 Avenue A/Razorfish employees attended, including New York ECD (and TED Conference veteran) Joe Crump, who spoke on a panel entitled "Hollywood and Design and Literature: Just Who is Inspiring Who." "This is my first time here, it's fantastic," says Crump. "I feel like an idiot for not having been here a lot. I'm going to try and blow it out and see as much as I can."

Obstacles: How to Maneuver

The challenges at the festival tend to stem from distribution—the Austin Convention Center is large and the panel to panel route can be circuitous. As one Flash developer pointed out, the myriad empty walls of the center would benefit from information screens indicating panels that were full, so if you step out of a dud after five minutes you don't walk another fifteen minutes to the other end of the convention center only to find your second choice is full and you can't get in.

"We looked at all the panels that are happening and flagged certain ones to make sure we had broad coverage, we've got planners and designers going to certain ones," says Wieden's Hanson. "One of the great things about having a lot of people [is we] can have the conversation afterwards —This is what I got out of that one, Oh, you got something completely different? So we're getting that coverage and sharing that knowledge back at the agency."

Wieden created an internal blog so its attendees can share their insights from various experiences at the conference. "Some companies are coming down strictly from a recruiting standpoint," says Hanson. "That's not our reason for being here, it's an education thing."

Alvarez thinks the benefit lasts beyond the spell in Austin and breaks up what's usually a busy period. "Everyone comes back invigorated," he says. "It's a nice reset button to give you the context for the bigger things that are happening that you can bring into the process later on."
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