Reflections on SXSW

Gareth Jones is chief brand and content officer at DigitasLBi

Agencies aplenty

This year, there were seemingly more agency types than ever before at SXSW. We’re pretty easy to spot; rucksack, vague look of confusion, still hungover from the night before…

We come to learn. And it’s easy to see why. If SXSW is about anything, it’s disruption. In the long run the new technologies, product innovations and cultural memes showcased at the festival have the potential to transform the very fabric of our society. Take for example the evolution of wearable technologies, the increasing role of robots in our everyday lives and the fast-becoming-a-reality internet of things.

Has it lost its edge?

This is all lofty stuff. But as more and more marketing folk pour into Austin each year questions are being asked about the long-term credibility of SXSW, with some pointy-headed festival diehards claiming it’s already losing its edge. I’ve only been to SXSW a couple of times but this is more than enough to know that this is total bollocks.

The fact is that SXSW simply isn’t about advertising in the same way that Cannes isn’t about basket making. The comparison is futile. If agency people suddenly stopped going to Cannes the festival wouldn’t happen. If agencies stopped turning up to SXSW I doubt anyone would even notice (apart from the distinct lack of lavish parties, of course).

Brands, marketing and advertising’s fight for relevancy

This is all well and good but the real issue is the extent to which brands and advertising, in the traditional sense, is becoming incidental to the forces driving change in both commerce and culture. Now more than ever it’s the scientists, the start-ups, the mathematicians and the hackers that are transforming the world and the agency fraternity risks being left out in the cold.

But it’s not all doom and gloom

The challenge for agencies is to find new ways of working with these change agents. True strategic partnerships, client-agency joint ventures, thoughtful IP creation and talent swapping initiates are all ways to do this – and the merits of each could be debated at length but most important of all is the need for agencies at large to ‘make it meaningful’. Good creative ideas executed in the right way across the right platforms will always have the power to connect brands, companies, corporations – whatever you want to call them – with their customers. Now though with technology, peer-to-peer commerce and do-it-all-in-house-start-ups threatening to make these connections themselves it’s up to agencies to do it better.

So here’s to doing it better …  and more importantly here’s to keeping Austin weird.

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