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A SXSW summary/journey from Simon van Wyk

March 19, 2012 at 10:45 by Mark Comments

Guest poster Simon van Wyk (founder of HotHouse).

I’ve always wanted to go to South by South West (SxSW) and finally got an opportunity to attend, courtesy of an application my agency, Hothouse, developed for Tablets.  As many industry people know, SxSW started life as a music festival but for many years has also included streams for the film and interactive industries. This year’s Interactive Festival attracted around 27,000 people. And since the festival is held in Austin, a town who’s motto is “let’s get weird”, there is plenty to talk about.


This is a big event, with over 100 different seminars, presentations, panel sessions and event for each of its five days. I started the week trying to see sessions of direct relevance to my agency’s work. But I quickly realised that this approach was not only impossible, it would also be a waste of an opportunity. After seeing the world’s biggest social media company present an example of social media ROI on the Austin food trucks – a project they actually had no involvement in – then listening to a panel from some of the world’s biggest agencies admit there was no real science to content marketing, I decided to attend sessions that would expand my world view in some way.

Here is my take on the learnings from the festival.

Just do something it might work out well

SxSW is primarily a Festival about doing things. It’s a start-up festival and so most of the people there are working on something. At the Al Gore/Sean Parker presentation on the concept “Occupy Democracy”. Gore asked for anyone in the audience who was working on technology to enable the democratic process to make contact. The two guys next to me suddenly cracked out the iPad and drafted a tweet. Yes, they were working on just such an application. There were many similar scenarios. It seemed everyone was working on a big idea, an industry converting application or some kind of disruptive technology. There is a revolution going on. The music industry has declined from a $45 billion business eight years ago to a business of $8 billion today – however we are consuming more music than ever. All that money has clearly gone somewhere. The increase in live tours is part of it, but it’s clearly worth working on how to harness some of that cash. There is a lot of money around for someone who gets it right. The clear message is focus on the opportunity and not the risk. The risks will always be there, particularly in a revolution.

Senior People have a future

I met the head of one of India’s biggest outsourcing companies. He said most businesses had solved the easy problems and the next round of problems and opportunities were largely uncharted. There were no books, case studies or simple solutions left for companies navigating the global competitive and macro economic trends and pressures, he pointed out. Agencies and other companies were going to have to re-invent their model based on making senior people available because these people would have the breadth of knowledge and experience to work together with companies to chart a new course. He concluded that the current model of using lots of juniors to do the client’s bidding is not going to work in this new world because they have the energy but not the experience. Also since breaking new ground will be much more a shared outcome, new risk and reward remuneration will be required.

Anythings possible

SxSW is packed with dreamers and schemers. Thousands of people working day and night to solve some problem, create some new market, make it big. Twitter, AirBNB, Instagram, Pinterest have all exploded into our lives and millions of people engage with these things every day. The language is about changing the world, facilitating usage, making it easy, removing friction. Many of these people are involved with some seemingly tiny part of our lives but when presented globally adds up to a huge world-changing outcome. The belief in ‘anything’s possible’ is everywhere. Biz Stone, Sean Parker and Kevin Rose embody this and it’s infectious. No one is saying “it’s just a silly mobile app that does blah” It’s a highly motivating message and the advertising industry could do well by drinking some of this KoolAid.

Promo Chicks rule:

We’ve all seen the presentation – you’re exposed to thousands of advertising messages a day. Well in Austin it’s millions. There are screens everywhere and advertising and promotional messages are impossible to ignore. During SxSW it’s a very noisy town. The only thing that gets any cut through at all is the well placed and well equipped promo girl. I bought, tested and tried a number of businesses recommended by these girls and on a cold wet Austin day was handed a nice white Social Chorus umbrella. I won’t forget that business. The right message in the right place at the right time still delivers.

Embrace failure:

Twitter founder Biz Stone said that if you want to change the world you must embrace the chance of massive failure. Seems to me much of what we do these days is about risk mitigation rather than going in balls and all to do something extra-ordinary. Maybe that’s why there is so much mediocre marketing around us and so little is truly worth our attention. Australians are also quite different in their approach to failure. The venture capitalists in the USA want to know what you’ve failed at and what you learned. We are very critical of failure in Australia – perhaps because we’re also a little cynical about success. It’s clear to me that being prepared to risk a lot is the only way to get a lot.

Social media is about authenticity not belly flop competitions

I learned that country music artists and comedians make good social media. They know their audience, they are very accessible and they have to be authentic. Actors on the other hand are no good at social media because they are by nature in-authentic. Seems to me the same thing applies to agencies. The idea-driven nature of agencies led by creative teams is not about authenticity at all it’s about the idea. The same applies to most of the social media I see that’s often more like a belly flop competition than real social media. Authenticity requires time and investment and that’s anathema to most of what I see passes for social media..

Technical creativity will be the currency of the next wave or change:

The advertising industry needs to define it’s definition of creative. Tomorrow’s creativity will be driven by the clever, useful and functional use of technology rather than by the creative message itself. Delivering the right message to the right person and the right time is more about working out how to be useful than how to be seen. The integration of the right technology solutions will be the way to engage your audience and this is better done by the geeks than the hipsters. It’s not valued at Cannes or the other advertising festivals where the “OlD Spice” commercials rule. Advertising agencies were the first people to get rid of the UX people and the last to get rid of the Flash programmer. The future will be about the integration of TV, mobile, social media and the Internet. Geeks are much better positioned to deliver in this environment.

Finally would I go again. Absolutely it’s a spring clean for the mind.

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