Opinion

It's time for UK marketers to make more of SXSW

This week, the good and the great of British marketing embark on the BA0191 Dreamliner to Austin, Texas, writes Michael Sugden, CEO of VCCP.

Back to the future: R2D2 and the DeLorean make an appearance at last year's SXSW
Back to the future: R2D2 and the DeLorean make an appearance at last year's SXSW

Packed with optimism, battery packs and perfectly groomed beards the industry decamps to SXSW to decode the future. They return next week dishevelled and hungover but with a sack load of booty. Ideas and inspiration that will change our industry forever (at least that’s the idea).

And SXSW 2016 promises to be a humdinger. The conference opens on Friday with no less than Barack Obama, The President of the US of A, delivering the keynote. Supported by other A-listers like J.J. Abrams, this year’s event promises to be a global headline grabber.

Gender inequality and policy up for debate

In addition to a stellar cast there are some sizzling topics likely to ignite proceedings. The first being gender equality in the tech industry - or lack of it to be precise.  Michele Madansky and Trae Vassallo, authors of the recently released "Elephant in the Valley", will light the touch paper on Sunday with their exposé of gender inequality in Silicon Valley. With the likes of Michelle Obama and Geena Davis also speaking, this is a topic likely to dominate.

Another hot topic will be politics and policy. Technology is developing so quickly that policy makers are struggling to keep up. Whether it’s drones, driverless cars or encryption, there are few areas of modern society that tech isn’t disrupting. How society manages and regulates these changes will feature heavily and it may be a clue as to why Obama thinks SXSW is worthy of his time.

So I’m excited. SXSW is the best of its breed. It’s life-affirming, inspirational stuff. But if I’m honest there is a recurring problem with SXSW and its contemporaries like CES and Mobile World Congress.

Early next week, a few hundred UK marketeers will stream back into their organisations armed with enthusiasm, ideas and a big fat dollop of West Coast optimism - determined to change stuff. And this is usually where wheels the fall off.

Creativity dies on the journey home

It’s not that our colleagues aren’t interested, it’s just they… well… they aren’t interested. 

Hyperloop transportation on a wet Tuesday morning in Reading just isn’t important. That customer services drama however, is. The urgent displaces the important. The future is put on hold and is replaced by hitting Q2 targets. That enthusiasm, those ideas - well, they slowly suffocate, wither, then die. Entombed in a PowerPoint presentation, gathering virtual dust on a server somewhere.

Whatever it is, on that flight home from Austin, something is lost in translation. Something that leads to inaction and indifference. Which is a great shame. Sure, there are exceptions, but experience tells me that not enough of the ‘South By Spirit’ translates in to positive change.

So what’s the problem? Why is this happening? My theory is our Dreamliner of marketeers are looking for the wrong things. And in looking for the wrong things they are making their findings inaccessible, intangible and unimplementable. In short, organisations don’t know what to do with their bag of SXSW booty.

So in my quest to make SXSW more useful to UK marketeers here’s my four-point guide to making your booty bag more bountiful.

Think impact not just innovation

Often the biggest impact that technology has on brands is through behavioural change rather than the technology itself.

Take driverless cars for example. Sure, there are a few brands that can directly apply the technology - transport and delivery companies for example. Far more brands however will be affected by the societal changes that come with the mass adoption of such technology.

What will people do with their time now they don’t have to drive? How will car insurance work? Does it mean drink driving is no longer an issue? Identifying these bigger behavioural impacts alongside the tech itself will give your findings more credibility.

It’s not about new tech, it’s about old tech

New is sexy. Old is not. However the inconvenient truth is new technologies need time to mature.

Technology needs to become affordable and accessible before brands can adopt them to mass effect.

Take Oculus Rift for example. The Kickstarter project generated serious hype when it launched in 2012 but it has taken the best part of four years to produce its first consumer device. So time may be better spent at SXSW seeing how the trends of yesteryear are progressing rather than hunting out the next big thing.

Understand your organisation’s attitude to innovation

Is innovation in your brand’s DNA? Is it an early adopter of technology or a fast follower at the point a technology matures? Who’s responsible for innovation?

Does your organisation have an innovation budget or are you scrapping for money alongside the office refurb? If you understand your organisation’s approach to technology adoption you’re more likely to land something on your return.

Just do one thing

Changing stuff is hard. No it’s not hard, it’s juggling jelly hard. Many organisations like status quo so concentrate your efforts, pick your battle and identify the one thing you’re going to change on your return.

Some might think this isn’t the ‘South By way’. After all SXSW is a celebration of the new and the possible. However as the technology sector grows up so do we as marketers. That means presenting our case for innovation and advancement in a more considered way. More like a business plan and less like a trend report.

It might sound a little boring but it’s not half as boring as looking back in a year to see nothing has changed. So come on my fellow Dreamliner passengers. It’s time to find some useful booty, some bountiful booty. It’s time to make more of SXSW.