As SXSW Evolves, Marketers Still Have Faith in the Industry’s Rite of Spring

This week marks the beginning of the 2017 version of South by Southwest Interactive, which over the years has noticeably changed. It’s gone from being a pure technology show, to a mix of digital and marketing/advertising players, to being overrun by brands and it’s now becoming a veritable mixed bag. In terms of the latter characterization, consider that Joe and Jill Biden—fresh off their eight-year run amidst the office of the U.S. vice presidency—are headliners this year.

Pray tell, why do thousands of practitioners from the marketing and media world—many of which just endured the exhausting double-play that is Mobile World Congress and CES—descend upon Austin, Texas, for this annual event? To pick up a great marketing or tech tips from the Bidens? No, of course not. But SXSW is still a formidable rite of spring in the space, marketers say, when ad deals are made, startups are discovered by brands (on a microlevel compared to the break-out days of Twitter and Foursquare) and valuable ideas are exchanged.

“Some people believe that SXSW Interactive has passed its prime, that the heyday of groundbreaking tech and creativity exploding out of Austin is over—I’m not one of those people,” said Tarah Feinberg, CMO and managing director at software player Kite. “I believe it has changed form, but the ecosystem is thriving more than ever and SXSW continues to be a beautifully chaotic petri dish that produces wildly successful outcomes. Will we see another Twitter or Foursquare-type launch from SXSW? Maybe, maybe not, but that’s not where the real value is emerging from the fest anymore.”

The show’s strange mix, per Feinberg, is a strength, not a weakness. “Its casual and unpredictable nature forces [big companies] to let down their guard and startups to step up their A-game hustle,” he added. “This isn’t about sales; it’s about exploration.”

“Some people like to say that [South by Southwest] is better than Cannes,” remarked Simon Pearce, U.S. CEO of mcgarrybowen. “The difference is that Cannes is about celebrating our successes while SXSW is about dreaming up and building our next successes as an agency. We are sending our people because innovation happens at the intersection of skill sets. We want our people to immerse themselves in new experiences, meet new people, and bring those ideas and connections back to the agency and to our clients.”

At the festival, Ryan Fey, co-founder of Los Angeles-based agency Omelet, said he looks to meet amicable industry folks, recruit talent, market his company’s brand and eat good tacos—in that order, calling the last item “very important.” Many of the tens of thousands of people expected to attend this year would likely agree with that agenda.

“We approach SXSW knowing that it’s overcrowded,” Fey said. “So as an independent shop, we’re not looking to cut through the noise with big stunts backed by bigger budgets—we’re looking to share our ideas … with like-minded people that really want to make a difference in this industry.”

But fun stunts are kind of part of the draw, too, aren’t they? Adobe and Conor Brady of Critical Mass, an experience design agency owned by Omnicom’s DAS group, are offering bike rides for 30 people who evidently hail from creative, tech and professional cycling realms. Pro cyclists Ted King and Tim Johnson are expected to be on hand. “The rides start every morning and lunch,” a Critical Mass rep explained.

What topics will be hot?

“This year, we’re particularly excited to see how other companies are using the ever growing set of tools and [application programming interfaces] for applying machine learning to business applications, as well as sharing our own stories on how machine learning is helping to shape absolutely new experiences for people in such a way that we humans can interact with devices as naturally as with other humans,” Leonardo Mattiazzi, vp of innovation at information technology firm CI&T. “We anticipate machine learning and [artificial intelligence] to be key themes.”

However, one SXSW veteran from a major ad agency, who requested anonymity, isn’t going this year because “I’m so over it. … It’s just too much.”

Yet those who are attending definitely sing a different tune. Jen Warren, director of global public relations at Belkin, advised that it pays to be strategic about how your company participates.

“You must know the festival inside and out in order to determine how to integrate the activation while remaining authentic to your brand,” Warren said. “It’s a great location to conduct some intense recon and scout out big possibilities for next year. SXSW still holds ‘cred’ in my book but only if done correctly.”

Huge rep Sam Weston added, “More than any festival in the industry, SXSW is the one our clients—the people who are pushing digital transformation in their companies—find the most value in attending.”

By Christopher Heine