Why brands need a creative presence at SXSW

We've all used the following quip in meetings. The one that goes: "If people behaved like brands, you'd want to punch them in the face."

Dylan Williams: just back from SXSW
Dylan Williams: just back from SXSW

And it’s a good one because it cautions against anti-social brand behaviour. It reminds us that relationships are healthier, and more mutually rewarding, when one’s creativity isn’t riven with self-interest. And that in listening we say so much.

If SXSW is any barometer of the way our industry is changing then there are grounds for real optimism. This year saw unprecedented numbers of marketing and brand communications people. All, like me, steeped in the dark old arts of interruption and emotional sell. Where our every instinct screams, ‘Stand out from the crowd’, ‘Make sure they remember your name’, and ‘For Christ’s sake just say something funny’.

But it seems we are learning to master those urges.  

Because despite a broadening of its constituency, SXSW isn’t becoming another one of those ‘grip-n-grin’ Clusterf**ks that dominate the marcomms events calendar.  There is a lot more listening to others than loud self-promotion in Austin. The city fills with over 30,000 people all intent on scribbling notes. And asking questions. And trying on mad Arduino-based sunglasses. And helping NASA map the craters of the Moon. People are here to absorb, explore, experiment and learn. Not to permanently transmit.  

Similarly, while there are logos everywhere, brands, in the main, display refreshingly good citizenship. The intention is to be genuinely useful. The best ones have obviously thought about what the festival needs and try to help provide it.  Free stuff like WiFi, taxis, charge points and cocktails, sure. But also innovative new ventures like Lanyrd,  whose location-aware session tracker really helped attendees navigate the sheer number of events taking place around the city.  Similarly, GroupMe ensured that twenty Mother folk didn’t duplicate attendance and instead covered more ground. Next year maybe Shutl will solve the first day queue for passes once and for all.  

So, yes, the old instinct to detach, cordon off and create a polished and controlled brand experience was, thankfully, limited to a few. The enlightened many now just get amongst it, work in agile and try to create things that offer real utility.  

Given all this it’s probably worth reviewing our own presence at SXSW13. Because we really didn’t want to have one at all. The world doesn’t need a Mother pop-up brand experience. Just go to an Early Learning Centre with a hangover. But as it turned out I think things worked out ok.  And I think they did so because it wasn’t about us at all.

Hackney House Austin opened for four days last Thursday 7th March in a derelict building on 119 W 6th St. Brought together by some enlightened people at Hackney Council to help showcase the flourishing local creative technology cluster.  It was an entirely collaborative effort between a constellation of young companies from the area. Brands that, in a previous era, might have fretted about ‘convergent offerings’ and eyed each other suspiciously.  But who now all realise that more gets done, in far more imaginative ways, and with far less risk, when we all look to openly collude.  

Initially, we did split up and work on our own projects. Protein centered on their TV forum. Albion on their Corporate Start Up session.  MakieLab on showcasing their world-first 3D printed toy. We worked with Daniel Hirschmann and our Acer client on a generative painting installation. But pretty soon – a good month before we headed out to Texas – we all became fixated with making the overall Hackney House experience a good one. We wanted people to come and visit. We didn’t want the harrowing memory of techno music rattling around an empty room. We didn’t want it to be shit.  

And that’s when everyone really came together.  The ambitions of each individual contributor were put to one side and we all pitched in for mutual benefit. One Dot Zero seemed to be everywhere. Eleven Fifty Five and Little White Lies teamed up to construct a forum on cinema. At the last minute we relocated MiniBar from downstairs at Mother and had the UK’s longest running tech start-up meet-up make its US debut.

And as I read the tweets and scroll the Instagram, I think we just about pulled it off. Better still I think that in working cooperatively to make a product good enough for Interactive Week, we more accurately represented the East London ecosystem. The cluster is full of imaginative makers from all different fields who regularly team up and hack things together to meet a need.

And all in all I’d bet that all the brands coming away from SXSW13 will do so forming similar views. By thinking about the environment we want to contribute to, we end up better representing who we are than if we just think of ourselves.

Like I say, ground for optimism indeed.

Dylan Williams is a Partner at Mother and sits on the Tech City Advisory Board at 10 Downing Street