SXSW: Notes From An Old Fart

I admit that I am probably too old, natively stodgy and fast food-averse to be attending many big trade expos anymore. I did too many CES Vegas winters. Had my ears numbed on the show floor at E3 more than a few times. Suffered way too many intractable demos at CTIA. All this was back in the day when I covered what was then the generalized “digital beat.” SXSW was my first massive event in many years.

But there is something about SXSW that makes me feel older than usual. The leggings and skinny jeans (worn by men), the lightly Slimer-green hair highlights and the overabundance of pork pie hats will wear you down after a while. Then there is the press room. They hand out energy drinks and mints for the press, when deodorant and cones of silence would be more helpful.  

Within much of the panel and talk program, things were pretty hit or miss. The expo show floor had little to offer, except for a strong presence by NASA that left many of us wondering WTF? I specifically asked several people at the massive NASA corner of the show floor to speak with someone from PR about what they were doing here. Apparently there was no one from NASA marketing there. WTF?

Miller Lite beer was there asking people to sign a no-drink-and-drive pledge and have it posted to your social network with a branded overlay. Well, who wouldn’t want to do that? I came upon ths booth three days into the festival and was the first one to sign the wall.

I learned an awful lot from our own star chamber of marketer/speakers at OMMA@SXSW. But you can see it for yourself on video here, and blog posts from Joe Mandese, Laurie Sullivan and myself here.

Identifying key themes in a mosh pit like SXSW is more random than real. Protesters nearby were emphasizing the need to maintain our humanity in the face of tech and robotics, and they successfully placed that worm into everyone’s heads. Among the most concrete examples of the humane robotics theme was a set of traveling video screens that I met up with in a hallway. They were tooling around the conference floor with video screens connected to two severely disabled people who were using the devices to attend the show virtually. They were real world avatars that not only let the remote user experience the show from a real hall walker’s perspective, but they had speakers and microphones for live interactions with people on the floor.

But most of what I learned at SXSW came more from conversations and themes that kept emerging among the agency execs and analysts I spoke with.

They were all there to hire. As much as anything else, the agencies and consultancies were there to interview programmers and social media natives. From what some of them were telling me, more time was being spent in hotel suites with interviewees than going to sessions.

Frustration with internal silos, within and among agencies at the holding companies, is chronic. As many of the platforms reach across traditional organizational boundaries this internal competitiveness and need for control is getting in the way. One persistent call to action was the need for edicts from on high. CMOs at brands need to force their agencies to work together, and agency heads need to require intradepartmental cooperation on projects.

Content is king. That content is coming to the center of brand strategy was clear again and again. One of the surest signs is that more than a few people claimed -- a bit disingenuously I felt -- that content is advertising and advertising is content. Which may be another way of saying that it is now unfashionable to be seen as an advertiser. Okay, you are all “content providers” now.

Chasing “cool” can be a big pain in the ass. I found MediaCom’s perspective on YouTube and other social media celebs especially refreshing at a panel we held on Saturday, “Who Wants To Be a YouTube Millionaire?” Mark Fortner was candid that working with many of these homegrown stars was more frustrating than fruitful. Many of them were not that willing to collaborate productively. Instead of targeting a star and seeing how to make some kind of idealized shared vision for a sponsored project, he recommended coming up with a very specific brief of what the brand wanted to do and then seek out a social media celeb who is willing to execute it.

Of course, chasing cool is what all of us old farts are doing in Austin for SXSW anyway, in one way or another. We are either trying to tap into the hippest memes or hire us some. And the agencies are getting the vibe. When MediaPost first started coming down here three years ago you could tell who the agency folks were in the audience -- the ones with the suits and skirts. Most of the people in our industry seem to have loosened up a bit in recent years, however. Now it was shirtsleeves or a casual blazer and jeans. It may cut down on the contrast a bit, but there is no mistaking who is who at SXSW. Instead of the oldsters in suits, just look for the folks who are struggling to look like that aunt or uncle who desperately wants to come off hipper than a parent.   

3 comments about "SXSW: Notes From An Old Fart".
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  1. Pamela Horovitz from Internet Video Archive, March 18, 2015 at 9:51 a.m.

    Thank you Steve. I guess that the role of old fart is to be the truth-teller. I even remember when SXSW was about music, and how artists hated having their music referred to as 'content'.

  2. Jennifer Jarratt from Leading Futurists, LLC, March 18, 2015 at 9:55 a.m.

    I loved this report, thank you Steve. You caught glimpses of future as well as how events like this morph into something else, as Pamela H. says.

  3. Tanya Gazdik from MediaPost, March 18, 2015 at 5:13 p.m.

    Great read, wish I was there. But yeah, what ever happened to it being a music festival first and foremost. Is a side conference at Coachella next? Hmmm, maybe I'm on to something.

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