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Don’t put too much stock in the title of this blog. It is not the second day of SXSWi, it’s the third. I just called it day two because that’s how long I’ve been here.
It’s a singular numbering system, but I’m not changing it now. I just wanted to offer some clarity on a subject because I’ve spent the day dealing with conflicting ideas and vague answers.
I attended a panel session this morning that promised to reveal the overarching trends of the festival. Apart from rain, tacos and free juice, the big topic at SXSWi 2014 is privacy – inevitable with both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden on the speakers list. Hardly a talk goes by without someone asking what the technology means for people’s privacy.
Even Shaquille O’Neal, in a talk about wearable technology (another big trend at SXSWi 2014) revealed that he uses an alias (Tom Jones) when signing up to health monitoring networks.
But, at the same time, almost every start-up CEO making a pitch has ended by saying how they will make most of their money by harvesting their customers’ data.
Someone on this morning’s trend panel asked whether these two topics had yet clashed in a session; whether a concerned attendee had raged at a tech company for selling people’s information. No one had heard of it happening, yet.
I spoke to James Temple (ECD and VP, R/GA London) and Nick Law (global chief creative officer, R/GA) in an Austin Irish bar during the half-time break of the England v Wales Six Nations game.
Why do you come to SXSWi?
JT: We have started bringing clients here to expose them to a different type of thinking that’s more innovation focused. Also, we’re a direct participant of the show here, with the R/GA accelerator.
What are you most looking forward to at SXSWi?
Last year was a bit disappointing. There were a lot of talks about big data but when you got to them, there was no discussion about how to execute the data, or how it was applicable to brands. This year I’m looking forward to hearing about what the influence of big data will be.
Do you think R/GA is on top of things, digitally?
JT: Ha, yes, of course. Our relationship with Techstars is indicative of this. We’re getting behind these [start up] companies and helping them get to market, which shows we’re thinking beyond everyone else’s model.
NL: A lot of the Madison Avenue agencies come to SXSW and then go back and set up a lab, but it’s a hobby. They never really make anything and it takes talent from money-making parts of the business. We’ve never had a lab. We’re also one of the few agencies that has taken a product to market.
What’s the best bar/restaurant in Austin?
JT: Saltlake, the world’s best barbecue. For just $19, it keeps on coming.
Do you think there’s any danger that Austin will suffer in another tech bust?
JT: I don’t see any indication of that. R/GA has just opened an office here, so that shows our confidence in the city. The only danger is that the city may lose some credibility. It used to have a lot of tech edge, but now that the massive sponsors are getting involved with SXSWi, it erodes slightly the purist love of what it all stood for in the first place.
Who would be the speaker in your idea of the perfect talk?
JT: Getting Julian Assange to say something was pretty fantastic, even though it was through Skype. But now, it’s mostly the kids, the 18-21 year-olds that are changing the game. Hearing about their drive is good for everyone.
Are UK companies slower to adapt to digital than US companies?
JT: They’re certainly behind. Two years ago I would have said they are radically behind, but now the gap is definitely closing.
Twitter has been an albatross around the neck of South by Southwest Interactive, according to the festival’s director, Hugh Forrest.
Forrest was speaking at a panel debate about current trends on Sunday 9 March when said Twitter’s success following the 2007 festival was a huge boon for SXSWi but had created expectations that similar breakthroughs would happen every year.
Fortune journalist Erin Griffith, who was also on the panel, added that there had been no breakout company in 2014 so far, nor was there one in 2013, and that tech start ups were no longer interested in launching at SXSWi. According to Griffith, the failure of mobile app Highlight to capitalise on its hype during 2012′s SXSWi, in addition to the increase in costs following the invasion of big brands at the festival, had put smaller companies off.
Forrest added that now, SXSWi was “less about the giant releases that change the world overnight and more about having conversations that would lead to other things in the long term”.
Daniele Fiandaca is head of innovation at Cheil
As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee proposing the idea that gave birth to the web, this feels an awesome time to be championing all things digital at SXSW. But in contrast to last year’s giddying first day, I can’t help but feel excited and depressed in equal measures by what I’ve seen so far.
First, the good news, and an incredibly thought-provoking session by Autodesk CEO Carl Bass on the oh-so-excitingly-named upcoming robot revolution. To illustrate the profound impact of the internet on the way businesses establish value, hear this: in 1990, the market cap per employee for the top 3 Detroit automakers (Chrysler, Ford and GM) was $30,000. Fast forward 12 years and this leaps to $6 million per employee for the Silicon Valley top 3 (Apple, Google and Facebook).
Clearly, much of this drastic change has been driven by possibilities opened up by the invention of the internet. Most exciting to me…what will be the new drivers for business over the next 5-10 years?
Robots about take over?
For Bass, the answer is a robot revolution that will fundamentally change the way we live and work and the roles of business and government. Exciting stuff, but Bass’ prediction that in 30 years smart machines (robots) will outnumber humans is also chilling. What will we do when the robots start taking our jobs?
From Robot Revolutions to Networked Humans, as Dr Leslie Saxon explored the notion of body computing. A true advocate of the value in unlocking human data for medical needs, Saxon believes we should consider selling the data we can deliver to health and pharma companies. For me, this raises interesting questions: Should we be paid for sharing our data? Is the quantifiable self going to be the new currency?
In keeping with the privacy theme – on to Julian Assange, sharing his views on the impact the internet is having on the government. His fundamental belief is that we are living in a world we do not understand and are in fact living in a fictitious representation of the world (red pill or blue pill anyone?).
Now that human society has merged with the internet, laws of the internet apply to human society, as well as governments, which Assange feels will bring out the best or the worst in them (let’s hope the former). Strong views, as expected – and whether it was these or poor sound quality that prompted some audience members to walk out remains a mystery.
To jump, then, from three profoundly groundbreaking talks into an advertising panel rehashing the same old ideas (doing cool shit, what makes an idea original) was somewhat depressing (note to self: consider avoiding panels).
With a growing contingent of British talent from advertising now attending SXSW, let’s not waste one single opportunity to talk about our industry’s long-term future and, crucially, what it means for audiences and brands.
Nico Abbruzzese is global director of creative technology at Metalworks by Maxus
At SXSW, you can always count on a handful of hot topics to emerge from the ocean of diverse, engaging content that makes this conference so unique. The cream of these themes quickly gathers pace across the geek-out grapevine, guiding the colourful, often inebriated conversations of the SXSW Interactive ‘Digital Nation”.
Invariably, these conversations will come to define the latest buzzwords we’ll see popping up in trend decks and upcoming “The Future of….” speeches soon to be heard at conferences around the world. To be at SxSW is to be at the forefront of that wave. That’s why I come! After all, we love leaning into change.
Before the Texan dust had barely settled from our landing, it became apparent that this year’s first emerging theme was to be the hotly debated topic of Privacy and Information Security. The late inclusion of secret virtual appearances by Edward Snowden and wikileaks’ dark knight Julian Assange cranked up the buzz level to further sensationalise this critical topic.
An internet divided
The first panel session to tackle the theme was lead, perhaps unsurprisingly, by Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, co-authors of The New Digital Age. They painted a picture of a potential near-future scenario of Information Sovereignty and balkanization – or the subdivision of the internet into separate enclaves.
As to be expected, Google flaunted its thought leadership around the issue, addressing it with a technological and policy-based solution, thereby cushioning itself from the hot bed of conversation.
In the context of the internet, Information Sovereignty is a new concept. As the ‘statelessness’ nature of the worldwide web dictates that there are no frontiers on information, the concept of an information “passport” could profoundly revolutionise the way we access the internet. I’d hate to imagine a future where each of us will require a visa in an internet passport to consume Wikipedia-type information.
This is only the beginning
Clearly this debate is only in its infancy and the industry is far from finding a resolution or common ground. As we’ve experienced in recent times through the wiki-leaks phenomena and the NSA European scandal, Information Sovereignty is far too complex an issue to be solved by a firewall and censorship alone. Several critical questions remain, at this juncture, unclear. Who actually owns information? And who has the right to distribute and share this information, potentially threatening the safety and lives of individuals everywhere?
Among the strong arguments presented to the SXSW crowd was a call for the person consuming information to be the owner of the information itself. Equally, as some information could potentially bring down governments or institutions faster than an earthquake, the role of ownership clearly presents a far more complex problem to navigate. Information sovereignty is the next frontier of the internet; let’s keep front of mind that people are going to expect more of a return on sharing personal data moving forwards, not less.
Pete Edwards is chief strategy officer at Engine
My first day in SXSW’s Austin welcomes me with rain (this is not what I signed up for) and the chorus of the Grackle – Austin’s own avian pest akin to a long tailed starling with football thug aggression and a call to match.
A breakfast sourced from the local Whole Foods store is as tasty as the shop is overwhelming – a spectacular choice of the finest fresh and organic, from what I learn is one of America’s retail darlings. Not what I’d expect from the heart of Texas. This type of unusual combination will come to form the theme for the rest of my day.
A damp stroll to the conference centre follows, dampened by the splash from a passing high speed 18 wheeler (pedestrians are nothing in the land of the car), revived by the good Samaritan that was the Chevy hospitality car driver who spotted wet and bedraggled Brits and whisked us off to registration.
Once there the scale of the event hits home. The convention centre alone is gargantuan. It occupies full four blocks and twice as many floors. A monolithic lump surrounded by the ubiquitous global hotel brands.
Wearable tech and connected health
The first session is a whirlwind of facts on ‘connected health’. Apparently 27% of Americans are wearing some form of medical sensor on (or in) their bodies. These sensors answer questions like how well is your kidney transplant performing. Is the course of pills you’ve been prescribed right for you, the right drug, the right dose. Yes, the sensor sits in the gut!
Body computing, is changing the way individuals can understand their own health. Flexible electronic tattoos attached to your skin or on a transplanted organ monitor in, real time, the body wellbeing. Clear applications for remote healthcare. But also more superficial pleasures. Creative combinations lead to attaching biometric sensors in a person’s body to those sensors in a connected BMW. Marry up driver respiration, temperature, body position and calorie burn to a responsive driving task and you have a fascinating and rewarding experience.
It’s not all good
Ms Saxon finished early so a quick dip into ‘Are we making the right medical decisions’. Wrong decision. Poor content , badly presented. And here’s the thing with SXSW – a wealth of intellectual nourishments surrounded by a plenty of tat – how to pick the winners is the delegates overarching challenge.
Body tracking, gamer tech rethought and big data
Next up Stephen Kim of Microsoft. Slow start but built to an amazing conclusion. And again it’s the unusual collaboration of ideas that create something new and exciting. Xbox kinetic body tracking – tech built to satisfy gamers – is a technology that can translate sign language into text and vice versa – potentially allowing deaf people to work in places never before thought possible. A truly powerful application of technology that can enable and enhance lives.
Next up, the SXSW ingénue’s mistake – a trip off site (beyond the convention centre) to visit a Big Data session at the Sheraton 10 blocks away (Chevy courtesy car steps in again) . Mistake 1. Pain to get there, Mistake 2. Session shuts it’s doors as I arrive as it’s full. However serendipity kicks in and the fall back is a really informative 40 minutes on social media habits of teens. Fascinating history of social that explains behaviours in a new light.
Lunch is a turkey roll ate in the back of a pedicab back the bunker (sorry convention centre)
Geeks will save the world
The afternoon moves from the sublime to the ridiculous. First up the ‘Keynote’. Dr Tyson Grasse – clearly a celebrated US scientist cum broadcaster, and with good reason. Sometimes superficial yet consistently passionate and eloquent, his treatise into the merits of thinking scientifically strikes a chord. Lines like ‘the geeks are going to save the world’ are hugely appreciated. An hour passes very enjoyably, and the 3,500 ‘geeks’ present are delighted.
Finally Combinatorial Creativity – something I was looking forward to all day. And SXSW in microcosm. The session facilitator a gum chewing sycophant (yes, the bloke asking question chews gum into his microphone for 40 minutes!). Product director from tumblr the worst exemplar of all things lazy digital – complacent, arrogant, full of ‘awesomes’, ‘cools’, ‘software dudes’ and ‘stuff’ but sadly bereft of insight. Dave Germano – digital director of Vice a voice of reason, opinion and inspiration.
And that’s it in a nutshell – whilst the individual may be unpredictable suspect, the sum of the parts is magical, and the bringing together of unrelated themes makes something truly memorable, creative and more importantly, applicable. Roll on day 2.
I met Paul Vallois (managing partner) and Dan Northover (digital design director), from Partners Andrews Aldridge, at #Kittencamp, a party at the Hackney House pop-up in Austin. They gave me five minutes of their time as a ‘battle of the memes’ took place on stage.
Paul, what are your first impressions of SXSW?
PV: It’s wet. Apart from that, it’s what I expected, but in a good way. There’s a good buzz and a lot of interesting people. It’s not a marketing thing; it’s much broader, and democratised.
Why are you here?
PV: It sounds wanky, but just to be inspired; to develop ideas that are relevant for me and my agency. It’s not just about what’s next and what’s going on. SXSW may not be about marketing, but a lot of the conversations are relevant to brands and marketers.
Do you think Partners Andrews Aldridge is on top of things, digitally?
PV: No, but I don’t think anyone is.
What has been your SXSW highlight so far?
PV: It’s early, but so far it has been taking a selfie with R2D2 [at a talk called 'the robot revolution' with Autodesk CEO Carl Bass]. At the talk, they made the point that we only call something a robot when it doesn’t work. When it does work, we give it a name.
Dan, what’s your take on SXSW?
DN: I’ve been coming here for three years and what amazes me is the sheer optimism for the future. I think “could we recreate this in London”, and the answer is probably not.
Cannes or SXSW?
PV: I’ve never been to Cannes, but I was given the choice this year and I chose SXSW.
Facebook or Twitter?
DN: Twitter for now, but in terms of longevity, Facebook. There’s a prediction that Facebook will last for two generations, so around 100 years.
Snapchat or WhatsApp?
PV: WhatsApp. What is interesting is that I read that the multiples on that deal [in terms of WhatsApp's value] have only ever been seen before in the case of a life saving drug.
I bumped into Matt Goff (managing partner, head of account management) and Alex Hesz (managing partner, head of digital) from Adam & Eve/DDB’s London office. They took me to a dive bar and I interviewed them while watching the 1985 film ‘Re-Animator’ with the sound off.
Why did you come to SXSW?
AH: I guess it was three things. The first was just to listen to different points of view. The second was a slightly dirty desire to meet people who we could hire. SXSW is a good place to find people who are not in interview mode and to hear them talk about digital. The third was just SXSW’s natural value. Here, you come up with ideas that you wouldn’t at home.
What’s the best thing you’ve seen so far?
AH: The most impressive thing was a session called “how technology fuels social change” with [Samasource CEO] Leila Janah. She’s just off the reservation. She showed how simple ideas around technology, when implemented right, can be fundamental.
Do you think Adam & Eve/DDB is on top of things, digitally?
AH: No, I don’t think anyone is. We are learning as quickly as we can, but for anyone to say that they are [on top of things] is for them not to understand how fast things are moving.
MG: People still talk about digital as a medium, as a channel. But it’s not, it’s life.
Cannes or SXSW?
AH: Cannes feels more retrospective. It’s about work that has already been done, and then codifying themes from that work. Here it’s about people taking a pause from an industry that’s moving at one million miles per hour and saying “this is what I’ve been up to”. It feels less egotistical, too. They don’t put people’s job titles on their passes, and that’s not insignificant.
What’s the best bar/restaurant in Austin?
MG: Frank’s. But I’ve only been to two places so far.
Facebook or Twitter?
Snapchat or WhatAapp?
I have been attending SXSWi conferences using someone else’s credentials while my own pass gets sorted. I’ve never felt so alive.
I’m pretty sure the staff noticed I wasn’t Hispanic like the man on my pass, but let me through anyway. “Aww, let the pasty Britisher learn about computers”.
The first talk I went to asked if emojis could ever replace written language. No, is the short answer, but it was a fascinating talk all the same. I picked up some great trivia along the way, too. Did you know that the letter A evolved from a hieroglyph of an ox’s head? That the first emoticon was posted on a message board at 11:42 am on 19 September 1982 by a man called Scott Fahlman?
At the end, the discussion veered towards the implications of this for marketing. Pictures will not kill the written word, but in today’s world it is often easier to send someone a picture instead of writing a message and, as a result, images are taking on new shorthand meanings. If brands adopt this right, it could make advertising easier on the eye. Imagine if Times Square was populated with powerful photos and images instead of logos and brand names. It was exactly what I expected from a South by Southwest talk. In a good way.