While in Austin, I posted a sound bite from my first morning at SXSW on my Facebook feed and quickly heard back from a friend in the music and PR field who claimed SXSW was no longer what it used to be. Friends of hers who used to go no longer attend and there was little benefit in going. This led me to reflect on the value of SXSW and whether it was worth the time away from my family and the office, the travel expense and the jet lag.
I have to be honest. My clear conclusion is a resounding YES. I attend a few of the 'big' shows/festivals each year, as a marketer in technology, including CES, SXSW and Cannes. Each has a different purpose and offers a different experience. But SXSW is unique for several reasons.
"Texas does not usually conjure up images of indie culture and café society, but that is exactly how Austin feels"
To begin with, there is a confluence of perspectives that is difficult to replicate. This is due to the overlapping festivals that take place at the same time: interactive, music and film. This means that thought leaders, innovators and practitioners from each of these fields are in the same place at the same time and the content tends to feed off each other.
Secondly, even within the interactive festival alone, the diversity of subject matter is startling. In a 24-hour period alone, I went to discussions on tidiness as a lifestyle, AI and facism, the interplay between media and politicians during elections, how to drive through a step change in creativity in the office and mobile storytelling. It is this diversity that sparks creative thought, that helps to take one out of the 'day job' and make connections which ultimately come back and shine a different light on the same day job challenges and how to overcome them.
Thirdly, the location is unique. Texas does not usually conjure up images of indie culture and café society, but that is exactly how Austin feels. It is smaller and easier to navigate than Las Vegas, more casual and alternative than Cannes, and certainly better weather than you find in most places in March. Why is that relevant? Not for the suntan, as days are spent inside bland hotel conference rooms (the one downside), but because when the talks are done for the day, participants mingle on lawns or decks or outdoor cafes and continue the conversations.
To be sure, there are brands making big stands at the festival. There is a continuous round of late night partying. There is schmoozing. But to condemn SXSW because of that is to miss the point of the festival: it is about creativity and innovation. Not awarding creativity, but sparking it, finding it and sharing it.
I came away with a plan of how to take colleague engagement and creativity to the next level at O2, clarity around our future content direction and an idea to claim leadership in an emerging platform. Oh, and my first rodeo experience. Not bad for a three-day weekend.