John Boehner, doobies and goat yoga: Welcome to SXSW 2019

This year's conference spans 10 days, officially kicking off on March 8

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Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen, Ad Age

South by Southwest, the conglomerate of film, interactive and music festivals and conferences, offers a sprawling, nearly impossible-to-wrangle array of speakers, themes and brand activations every March. This year is no different, dedicating entire tracks of programming to celebrity speakers—including John Boehner talking about marijuana legalization—and big tech names on blockchain and cryptocurrency, experiential storytelling, influencers and more. (Also, goat yoga!)

This year's conference spans 10 days, officially kicking off on Friday, March 8. Though as of press time organizers said they were still adding content and registrants, figures were expected to be similar to last year's, which drew more than 75,000 attendees, and featured nearly 5,000 speakers and more than 2,000 sessions. Oh, and 727 parties.

Some in the marketing and advertising community have turned away from attending or sending employees to the event. One executive called the event "agency inspiration week," suggesting it's more of a place to party than to actually get things done.

But adherents argue that attending with a focus on learning something new—or even, yes, getting inspired—is actually quite valuable. "The beauty of South-by is you can essentially go in with one topic you want to learn about, or one interest area you have, and follow that through the conference," says Ashley Shaffer, a strategy director at Austin-based agency Preacher, who will attend for the third time. "South-by does such a good job of [balancing] big hitters and small voices ... films, panels, everything in between, and you can literally pursue it down to a very niche interest all the way up to how are brands expressing themselves."

Last year, Preacher did big, visible activations for Vimeo and Bumble. "This year feels a little different and I can't put my finger on why," Shaffer says. "It seems like there are fewer repeat brands than you've seen in years past. The big expected brands we always see are not showing up, or showing up differently." She adds that this perhaps creates room for smaller newcomers.

One compelling theme she senses this year: representation. "That seems like more the norm this year, rather than the exception," she says,

Famous for its over-the-top experiential activations—like last year's for HBO's "Westworld," which bused festival-goers out to a ghost town—South by Southwest literally gets people waiting in line to experience what's essentially an ad.

This year's brand activations include an immersive "Game of Thrones" experience by HBO also done with agency Giant Spoon (which includes a blood donation campaign supporting The American Red Cross and asking participants, "Will you bleed for the throne?"). Netflix will stage a 1930s-themed experience with agency Collide to promote a new film, "The Highwaymen," while Amazon Prime Video's activation for its series "Good Omens" will bring people into a nearly 20,000-foot space that's apocalypse-themed. Patreon, the platform that helps creators run a subscription content service, will host a House of Creativity to "celebrate and showcase different types of creators," it says.

And to rest up or grab a drink on the periphery of the conference, agencies like Interpublic Group-owned Huge offer more niche programming in their own spaces. As in previous years, the digital shop has rented out Midnight Cowboy in Austin's East 6th district. Derek Fridman, chief digital officer, says Huge's programming is focused on "people getting their stories and perspectives out" and the "power of being heard." A little esoteric, sure, but Fridman says it will manifest in discussions about women in tech to celebrate International Women's Day and a fireside chat with NASA leaders about how they create brands like the Curiosity Rover.

Fridman says South by Southwest may be coming back down to earth after trending toward gimmicks and out-there technologies that didn't have a lot of practical use.

"I think overall, as a creative community, a digital community, we've realized we've run out of gimmicks in hardware," he says. "It's not about what the hardware is, it's more about what the hardware can do. ... Everything is a lot more thoughtful now. Something blinking or something doing something just because it can do it, doesn't really hold water anymore."

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