SXSW Preview: A Lot More Than Booze and Tacos

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Credit: Illustration by Josh McKenna
Credit: Illustration by Josh McKenna

The annual massive tech conference South by Southwest is known as the Super Bowl of over-the-top experiential marketing. Past years have seen a "Better Call Saul"-inspired Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant activation, a pop-up beach with a surf simulator to promote TNT's "Animal Kingdom," a six-story Doritos vending machine—and more.

This year's conference, held as always in Austin, Texas, will still include those blowout brand activations, but it's likely to see more intimate events and gatherings. This goes hand in hand with what agency attendees say is a hunger for interactions with clients that go deeper than free booze and tacos.

"Participation changes from year to year and we've seen a shift towards more intimate, creative and personal activations," says SXSW Director of Special Projects Brad Spies.

Expect some brands to opt for a digital presence instead of or in addition to real-world venues and excessive parties. HP and Intel, for instance, will stream live video from some of the festival's musical performances, in addition to other activations, and Spotify is creating custom official playlists for SXSW Music artists. In the past, Spotify had a substantial physical presence with its Spotify House, which hosted daily SoulCycle rides and performances by big-name artists. The house has been absent since 2016 and won't be back this year. Spotify declined to comment on the change in strategy.

"There are those of us who remember years ago how South by Southwest was an opportunity to 'zoom out' and get inspired, hear fresh perspectives and go back to our day jobs invigorated," says Derek Fridman, global head of experience design at digital agency Huge. "I believe that still exists—it's just become harder to seek out over the booming corporate sponsorships and influx of folks just looking for an excuse to party. Now that [some conference] budgets have been cut and some of those companies have, thankfully, chosen not to attend, perhaps this year things will start to right themselves."

Agencies including MediaCom and SapientRazorfish, for instance, have said they won't have official presences at the conference this year.

Nikos Acuña, chief visionary at ad tech company Sizmek, says he's returning to SXSW after a years-long absence to lead a discussion on what AI teaches people about creativity. But Acuña says the talk is actually a great excuse to return for music, talks and networking.

Conference attendees, he adds, seem to be putting more emphasis on quality interactions than the quantity of people attending an event.

"I've been speaking to agency executives and the general consensus seems to be that less is more," he says. "I think the big agencies have pulled back a little in terms of spend and activations. ... I just think they're changing their investments to focus on more one-on-one meetings and smaller-scale events."

Epsilon Chief Digital Officer Tom Edwards, who has attended SXSW 12 times in the past 18 years, says the spectacle of brand installations, from the 56-foot-tall Doritos vending machine in 2012 to the "Star Wars" activation for "The Force Awakens" in 2016, which included a group of Stormtroopers and a 20-foot-tall TIE Fighter, are a bit played out. The focus has shifted somewhat, he says, from the Austin Convention Center on East Cesar Chavez Street and its immediate environs to venues more off the beaten track.

"It's become more about the off-Cesar Chavez events held by partners that are just as entertaining and enlightening, if not more so, than some of the official programming," he says.

Still, this year will have its share of over-the-top: HBO and Bravo will be among the companies with big-ticket activations, for "Westworld" and "Imposters," respectively.

Getting schooled at Southby

SXSW programming spans NASA-led space meet-ups to panels on "Feminist Artists on Sex and Digital Identity." This year's star-studded speaker list includes Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bernie Sanders, as well as marketing heavyweights including Uber's Bozoma Saint John and GE's Linda Boff. But the official sessions are just the tip of what the conference offers, with countless tangential events and some companies hosting programming of their own.

Those who complain that navigating the conference brings on "South by Southwest fatigue might be doing the event wrong," says Mindshare Canada Chief Strategy Officer Devon MacDonald. "The content turns over and expands every year. There are 20 or 30 different programs at any given time slot throughout the day. There's so much to learn. If you're just going to parties and just taking meetings with partners, I don't think you're getting the most out of the experience and what Southby has to offer."

MacDonald says he's seeking out compelling presentations that he can translate for clients in terms meaningful to them. This year, he says, one area of interest is the ethics of artificial intelligence and the responsibility of marketers in that space.

"I used to attend South by Southwest for the 'next big thing,' " says Epsilon's Edwards. "From Twitter [to] Foursquare, Highlight, Meerkat, South by Southwest used to be the launching pad for consumer-centric platforms that held the promise for new ways to connect with consumers. [Now] it's less about apps and more about intelligent systems, the ever-evolving ways we interface with technology."

Given the conference's variety of programming, says 360i Social Marketing Director Alec Piliafas, marketing attendees should look outside just the brand and marketing tracks.

"[A lot of the] brand marketing track isn't telling us anything we don't know," says Piliafas. Experiences like Giorgio Armani's 39-foot dome, which served as a film festival venue to show 360-degree films last year, was one example of something he found valuable. "We pull inspiration from that," he says.

"I'm hoping we can have conversations about a strategic approach to voice," says Lizzie Widhelm, Pandora's senior VP of ad product sales and strategy.

Other "big-ticket discussion" will focus on data and measurement, she says. "The sophistication of measurement continues to grow and it's interesting to see that come to life when dealing with a creative platform and advancements in technology."

Huge's Fridman expects a lot of chatter around artificial intelligence, robotics and their future impact on society and business. "Things are moving alarmingly fast in this space, and moments to come together from a variety of different disciplines and perspectives are few and far between," he says.

Though the conference may be a headache for some, it's tough to not get caught up in the electricity it creates, says Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman.

"I think there's a cycle that happens where everyone sort of whines about South by Southwest beforehand," says Huffman, who will be there talking to Inc. writer Christine Lagorio-Chafkin about a forthcoming book on Reddit.

"But once they get there and they reconnect with people and see a film or hear a talk or a band that's great, then they get excited and end up having a good time."

Time's Up at SXSW too

SXSW hits two months after tech conference behemoth CES, which drew criticism this year for its lack of solo female keynotes. While SXSW's nine keynotes announced as of press time included three women, the conference attracted controversy with the title of one panel. "Don't Sweat the Tech: Mom Can Use Blockchain Too" was changed by its organizer after complaints that it was sexist, though the organizer does indeed test tech with his own mother. (The conference warns on its program listings: "Programming descriptions are generated by participants and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of SXSW.")

SXSW will have its share of programming around diversity and female empowerment. The conference, in fact, announced in late February a panel on Time's Up called "Shifting the Imbalance of Power" as part of its film and TV industry track.

"I think on the main stage at the big industry [conferences], it's the who's who," says Shelley Zalis, CEO of The Female Quotient. "I think that at Southby, it's really the emerging ... the edgy," which tends to result in more diverse panels.

The Female Quotient will host a Girls' Lounge event at the conference, which Zalis says will focus on creating a culture of belonging. The organization has had events at the conference since 2015.

Pandora's Widhelm says she's eager to see female names in the conference's most talked-about spots.

"I love seeing that Melinda Gates and Esther Perel are keynotes at South by Southwest Interactive," she says. "As a female leader, it is great to see strong women up there moving the needle for this community." 

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