We have been in Austin since Thursday night for the annual SXSW conference pilgrimage. By now we have got our bearings and realised that navigating the event is going to take some planning. From working out which are the best sessions to attend, locating the various venues spread over the city, to then dealing with the queues, some of them up to an hour long.
A lot of my focus and pre-planning however revolves around the panel session I am running tomorrow.
One of the perks of being a speaker at SXSW is that I get a Platinum Pass that gets me into the Film and Music stuff as well as Interactive. My colleagues try to bribe me to swap with them. Nice try.
After a day of session-hopping and trying to avoid the rain, I meet my panellists at the Iron Cactus for a couple of drinks and a quick run-through. I top off the evening by going to the She Says/Contagious dinner – it’s inspiring to be in the presence of such amazing women.
Today is the day. It’s time for me to host a panel session on the Automated Assistant Revolution. The panellists and I assemble in the green room for a last minute group hug and some very strong coffee.
For a fleeting moment I feel like a celebrity. I’ve never been in a green room before. We spot a woman hosting a panel on the Future of Luxury – full body-stocking, absolutely jaw-dropping. It’s only Sunday, but everyone else at SXSW has already lost in the fashion stakes.
The panel kicks off at 11am and discussion ranges from the biggest growth opportunities for brands to consumer needs and expectations in this space. The chat is great. The audience is engaged and asks some cracking questions at the end, and I’ve done pretty well – so I’m told.
After that, I head to a fascinating session on Improvisation and AI, where we learn how robot theatre can teach us more about the role AI will play in the human world. We meet a robot called Stephanie and she’s very charming. Honestly.
Now it’s back into town for a session on Designing for Neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is an approach to learning and disability that argues that diverse neurological conditions such as autism and ADHD are the result of normal variations in the human genome and should be accepted rather than "cured" – just as we accept differences in gender, race and sexuality. This is fascinating. Today’s been something special.
An early start comes with a panel including Teen Vogue, Playboy and Refinery 29, focussing on taboos in the digital world such as porn, abortion, and the responsibility that publishers have to present both sides of the argument. This is heavy stuff, so I’m thankful for the extra coffee.
Given that it’s now Monday, my work email starts lighting up and my Austin bubble is popped. I spend an hour or so catching up with Harvey Cossell, our head of strategy in London. We go through key client projects and new opportunities in the pipeline. No rest for the wicked.
We then head for an authentic BBQ lunch at Stubbs, a real feast, before meeting our US, Italian and German teams in the evening. There’s great food, silly games, a "few" drinks and a hypnotic glass fire pit that we all sit around, chatting in its glow until the early hours.
We congregate at the Driskill hotel for breakfast, waving goodbye to the diet as I demolish some huevos rancheros and eye up the supersized cinnamon buns for later. I browse the SXSW app and several WhatsApp groups, hunting for the best talks and weighing up how long queues will be.
Ultimately, I descend upon A Scientist, Artist and Engineer Walk into a Bar – a brilliant line-up discussing the marriage of art and technology including Pixar, Disney, NASA and Industrial Light and Magic.
We then decide to brave the weird and wonderful SXSW trade show, exhibiting everything from VR experiences to drone digital assistants.
The week’s final session is an absolute show-stopper, though. Yasmin Green, head of R&D at Jigsaw – a Google Alphabet company with the aim of making the world a safer place through technology – introduced to the stage two people responsible for fake news.
One was the founder of the National Report and Denver Guardian, the man who broke the fake story about Hillary Clinton being investigated by the FBI. The other was the owner of a Twitter account for the 15th State of Georgia (there are only 14).
Hearing their unfiltered views was a revelation, and even though a lot of people walked out, it was an important, albeit uncomfortable discussion to be had, taking all willing to listen into the changing landscape of digital democracy.
Finally, there’s sunshine and one last drink before the 17-hour-round trip home. I’m getting withdrawal symptoms already.
We land in London ready to head home but first a luggage scare at Heathrow – my bags are on a different carousel for no reason. I happily sort all of this before getting a cab home with Matt. It’s great to be home, although my flat’s freezing. It occurs to me how great it would be to have a smart home heating system right now so I could have set the timer for when I got in.
SXSW is such an intense experience with new ideas coming at you from all directions, so it’s a bit of a shock to the system to be back.
However there’s no time to reflect – a new pitch brief is sat in my emails. It’s a really interesting challenger brand with an awareness problem in the UK. It should be fun. But now... sleep.
9:30am board meeting. Back to reality.
I’m downloading key SXSW highlights and planning various conference wrap up talks including an agency lunch and learn, all while trying to sort my parking permit that expired while I was away. I’ve managed to snag a two-week temporary replacement, but it doesn’t soften the blow of the three tickets I got while I was away.
Favourite media: Whatsapp
My biggest inspiration: My grandmother
Dream job: Forensic scientist
Not a lot of people know this about me ... I’m left handed