Five days, hundreds of sessions, dozens of unique brand activations and a lot of delicious TexMex and BBQ – this year’s SXSWi has wrapped but we’re still reeling from all the great things we experienced on the ground in Austin.
If you weren’t on the ground (or couldn’t get to everything while you were there), here’s our rundown on the best SXSWi had to offer attendees this year.
“Most Inspiring Reason to Create and Innovate” – President Obama’s Keynote Address: “The reason I’m here is to recruit all of you,” President Obama remarked. He called on SXSW attendees to collaborate on solutions for the country’s biggest problems addressing everything from updating obsolete federal networks to the debate over security versus privacy most recently ignited by the disputes between Apple and the FBI. If you were a lucky SXSW attendee to score a ticket to his address, you probably left Austin wondering how we can move innovation forward to improve our country for the better.
“Best Brand Experience” – IBM Cognitive Experience: A mix of educational, aspirational, innovation and fun content, IBM created an engaging experience (in partnership with George P. Johnson, a Project WorldWide agency) centered around IBM’s Watson. Upon entering the space, attendees were prompted to input details about th
eir mood and taste preferences, then given a wrist band and sent on their way to experience different stations tied to IBM’s latest innovations and partnerships, including The Weather Company’s latest innovations and Under Armour’s new offering in IoT. SXSW attendees could even play ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ against an IBM robot who got smarter with every move. Or if you wanted to burn a few BBQ calories, you could try some virtual reality cycling. At the end of the experience, attendees were invited to enjoy a “cognitive drink” based on the data in your wristband. Robot bartenders are now a thing – this is the future!
“Best Place to Run into a Trekkie” – The Eyes of Robots and Murders Session: Legendary director/producer/screenwriter J.J. Abrams and his friend Andrew Jarecki, the writer/director of HBO’s “The Jinx” spoke about how technology has changed filmmaking for the better and how it has democratized the creative process. Abrams was also quick to point out that technology should be invisible so that the consumer can have an experience that’s as effortless as possible. Ending with a bit of inspiration, Abrams and Jalecki asked that attendees leverage their talents and today’s technology to create: “There’s no excuse to not tell the story we want to tell.”
“Best Off the Track Event” – Brand Innovators Austin Summit: Brand Innovators brought a great mix of speakers and content to SXSW attendees. From Mark Cuban speaking about the future of sports and sharing his candid feelings about the U.S. elections, to leading marketers from Mondelez, Walmart, Coca-Cola, Visa and much more – the venue was packed as any room in the convention center. A particular favorite panel was one featuring Deep Focus CEO Ian Schafer moderating a panel with recording artist Kevin Jonas, actor Adrian Grenier, Johnson & Johnson’s Amy Pascal, and social media stars Monica Church and Shonduras. The lively discussion centered on how brands can best leverage celebrities to promote their brands on social media while still maintaining authenticity with millennials and other consumers.
“Best Place to Find a New Gig” – MEC Job Fair: Our client MEC took a new approach to attracting talent at this year’s SXSW. The media agency transported its New York office culture to the event through three virtual reality films which gave prospective talent an immersive glimpse into what it’s like to work there. Using Google Cardboard, the first film focused on the agency’s digital teams, highlighting social media operations and some creative work they’ve made. Another showed off the agency’s culture, and the third film highlighted the agency’s creative moments.
“Coolest Executive” – a tie between Soulcycle Cofounders Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank. Soulcycle’s cofounders just oozed cool, but they definitely had a lot to offer to SXSW attendees. With Fast Company moderating their fireside chat, they addressed the characteristics that make up their brand DNA and how they were able to innovate in the fitness space – (surprise!) it wasn’t with technology but by creating a community for their consumers. Our friends at Fast Company also interviewed Under Armour’s CEO, where he provided one of festival’s best soundbites: “Data is the new oil. The companies that do well are the companies that use math.”
“Best Celebrity Panel” – New Rules of Social Stardom Session: Kerry Washington and InStyle Magazine hosted a discussion on the ever-evolving role that social media plays in the life of celebrities. Though she’s more of a private person, Washington talked about how she interacts with social herself versus when she taps a communications team, the types of content she likes to share (mainly fashion shots and causes she’s passionate about) and the value that lies in NOT reading the comment section: “It’s a tricky balance. For the most part, I stay away from comments, but Twitter is a conversation, so I do occasionally engage…but I’ve realized that comments are not about me. When someone comments, they are revealing something about themselves.”
“Best App Launch at Southby” – Kodak Moments: To launch its new visual storytelling app, Kodak Moments, Kodak Alaris (in partnership with Junior, a Project: WorldWide agency) created an activation that immersed attendees in their own memories – practically seeing, smelling and even hearing them – in a chamber it called the “Memory Observatory.” How did it work? Upon entering the chambers, participants saw whatever memory-specific image they chose to share projected on a grand scale within the activation, and the colors, smells and sounds corresponded to the emotion in something the brand called an “experience guide.” Robbie Whiting, co-founder of Junior, spoke with Adweek about why SXSW was the best place to launch the app: “SXSW is chaotic. We wanted to create a respite from the noise, a place for meaningful moments from the process of remembering a moment to the articulation of what makes that moment special to the communal experience of all our deconstructed memories, our own Kodak Moments.”
“Best Place to Go If You’re Craving San Fran Vibes” – Mashable House: From a Pied Piper Bar (shout out to fans of HBO’s “Silicon Valley”) and fun meme-inspired temporary tattoos to mingling with CEO Pete Cashmore. Upon entering this space, you were transported to the Bay City. Mashable had several parties and events at the space as well which put a spotlight on different brands and influencers – definitely making this a go-to place during the days and nights during Southby.
“Best Party at SXSWi” – GSD&M: Touted as one of SXSW’s must-attend events each year, we were lucky enough to get an invite and so glad we did. From unique art and live music to delicious food trucks and specialty cocktails – our last night in Austin was well spent on our GSD&M client’s compound.
South by Southwest Panel Picker is here again, and it’s another opportunity for great insights, learnings, and dynamic industry leaders to come together. We at DGC have submitted two topics for the PanelPicker and if selected, it would be our first time to appear on the SXSW stage. The sessions highlight our unique approach to business and how these ideas have helped us grow since our founding in 2006.
Over the years we’ve learned a lot about attracting and retaining the very best talent in the PR industry, especially how to keep pace with an evolving workforce and offer more flexible work schedules and environments. As such, our first session is “Conducting Business in a Flex World.” will share best practices on how to retain talent when employees embark on major life events such as marriage, pregnancy, family-care issues or relocation that can potentially make them leave their jobs. Included in the session will be our CEO Sam DiGennaro and our President Howard Schacter, who will share insights on how to create a flexible work environment that allows for flexibility but still encourages growth and maintains your company culture.
Our second session, “Brand Me Please: Personal Branding 101,” looks at how executives can build their brands to align with personal values. DGCers will conduct a live demonstration of a branding session, taking members of the audience and teaching them the basic skills to sell themselves. The “jury” will be comprised of both DGC executives, those from other agencies as well as wardrobe and body language specialists. The winner will get a trip to NYC for a Personal Branding boot camp at DGC headquarters.
We appreciate your votes for these sessions, and your willingness to share thoughts in the comments section. Hope to see you in Austin!
“The first rule of building a ‘love culture,’ is to love what you do.”
Although the session’s panel descriptor was about the brain, Spence and his co-presenter Mac Brown (founder of Spur Leadership and Founding Pastor of Lake Hills Church in Austin) spent the bulk of their time talking about the heart.
They offered three rules for building what they call a “love culture” within your organization:
1) Love what you do. Spence, who built GSD&M with four partners from the ground up over the past 45 years, encouraged audience members to “create an environment where people can play to their strengths.” He relayed a story from his childhood about his struggles with spelling. After numerous C grades, he scored an A- on a term paper when he was about 14 years old. His mother remarked that while he may not ever be a great speller, but she could see that he was a great writer. Her advice? Don’t waste your time trying to be average at something you’re bad at doing, but spend every second trying to great at what you’re good at doing.
2) Hang out with people you love. “Love cultures are about people helping you, and you helping people,” said Spence. Brown added that part of loving people is accountability: “You have to operate alongside people with an established set of values. As a leader you have a greater responsibility to the group than the individual. You have to be willing to let someone go if you want to build a love culture. You have to do it for the health of everyone else. You love people when you hold them accountable.”
3) Love the impact you have on lives and communities. Brown said that any thriving organization has two things: Love and good deeds. Spence recited some of the purpose-based companies he and GSD&M have worked with over the years from Southwest Airlines to Whole Foods.
Their one common denominator? They’ve all cracked the code on creating environments where people can love what they do, be deliberate and intentional about their jobs and have license to literally change the world. To Spence and Brown, those are the ultimate markers of a “love culture.”
As the session came to a close, one woman asked Spence for his personal definition of a leader. He replied: “I’ve never called myself a leader, but I do know this…If you don’t have followers, you’re not a leader. Leaders build the ship, and they do so through love.”
The DGC team hit the ground running on Saturday morning at SXSWi with a quick stop at and an 11 a.m. deep-dive into how data will build high-performing humans. The panel featured New York Giants star wide receiver Victor Cruz and Equinox President Sarah Robb O’Hagan, joined by Michael Gervais and Mashable’s Haile Owens. We were fascinated with the panel’s discussion on how data can make even the highest achieving athletes more powerful on and off the field. One nugget we took away from the session was data and tools are great, but don’t forget about your body’s biggest source of information: your brain.
After a quick selfie with the man of the hour, our team dispersed to other sessions before gathering to prep for DGC’s first-ever #SXSWi happy hour. The team set up shop at the JW Marriott to entertain clients and friends of DGC over margaritas, chips and guacamole, and the best darn jalapeño cornbread Austin has to offer.
Day three saw us checking out some of the week’s best brand activations and experiences. We swung by Samsung’s Studio Experience, where our colleague, Sara Ajemian, made a DGC t-shirt in its design studio. While the A&E network offered up nightly stays at a faux Bates Motel to promote its series of the same name, neighboring station National Geographic took it to the extreme with a challenge to promote its new season of “Life Below Zero.” We dared to see if we had what it takes to Escape the Cold, as the promo was called, encouraged players to find clues to get out of the room in twenty minutes working with teams of 6. It was tough going – we didn’t find the key. Brands should take note for 2016 as this was an incredible way to bridge the gap between brand experience and user interaction. It tied to “life below zero” which is a show about people living in isolation in Alaska
Other panels we checked out:
– Argonaut, an agency that’s part of Project Worldwide, had two executives on a panel: Robbie Whiting, Creative Technologist, and Garrick Schmitt, digital advisor, who spoke to a packed house about “Malevolent Marketing.” Recap the conversation on Twitter with #letsbeevil.
– Deep Focus CMO Jamie Gutfreund cracked the code on Millennials at the Pandora Lounge, encouraging marketers to be smart about their consumer and audience. She was later joined on stage by Nana Menya, AVP of Investment Strategy of GE, whose talk on the mindset of music was equally intriguing.
– DDB’s Global Business Director Marina Zuber discussed art, tigers and an #EndangeredSong with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and on-the-rise band Portugal the Man.
Stay tuned for more!
We in public relations do a lot of writing. Sometimes, that writing is on behalf of someone else so the session The Real Art & Economics of Ghostwriting – featuring NYT best-selling author/celebrity ghostwriter Joni Rodgers – sounded like it could provide some good insights on how to become a better ghostwriter.
Important to note that the session was focused on ghostwriting of books which isn’t something that generally falls into the scope of a PR person but the trials and tribulations of nailing someone else’s voice, establishing efficient processes and creation of content people care about are the same, no matter the output.
One thing that struck me about Joni was her caring, motherly nature. Driven in part by her sharing the stage with her daughter and business partner, Jerusha Rodgers, but also by the genuine compassion she demonstrated for the clients she has collaborated with.
They talked a lot about the concept of humility and abandonment and that you must be completely comfortable with not being the sage on the stage to find happiness in ghostwriting. This concept also wasn’t lost on me as it relates to PR – often we’re the people working hard behind-the-scenes to shine a light on our clients.
Joni’s first piece of advice to budding ghostwriters was to write a book yourself first so you fully understand the process. The second alluded to flexibility and working with your client on their terms – ensuring they’re in their natural habitat to maximize creativity and a good working relationship. Jerusha talked about a strong agreement upfront behaving like a moat: of course there is a bridge but the water provides a barrier, allowing you to control the process and stay safe.
Here are the three things Jerusha and Joni look for when assessing whether to take on a project or not:
- Storytelling ability. Can the person tell a story?
- Style compatibility. Many partnerships fall apart because of a mismatch of style, not personality.
- Do they have the skill to turn out a feasible project?
The last bit I wanted to touch on is Joni’s commentary around content. She pointed out that it’s easy to fall in love with someone’s “story” but that doesn’t necessarily make for a riveting book.
Asking what is the point of telling the story, why will people care, why will they care right now and what the larger meaning is all help in the decision-making process. The decision on format – the use of flashbacks, vignettes, etc. – is also key to helping structure the project. All questions us PR folk ask every day when it comes to pitching the media and indeed, in the creation of thought leadership content on behalf of our clients.
You can check out the books Joni has penned (including Sugarland, Love and Other Natural Disasters and Nancy G. Brinker’s Promise Me) here: http://www.jonirodgers.com/#!work/c1pen
DGC is officially on the ground at this year’s SXSW Interactive and it’s already been a busy couple of days of meetings, sessions, music, client catchups, reporter briefings and of course, parties.
My topline takeaway so far (and I’m not tapped into whether official attendance levels are down from years past) is that the whole experience feels much more manageable this year.
There are of course the same logistical challenges of transport, lines to get into events, etc. but there have been only a handful of sessions I’ve wanted to go to that I couldn’t get into and there has been ample space to decompress and work along with ample power outlets (I haven’t run out of charge yet!). Here are some of the trends we’re seeing emerge this year:
- Privacy is front-and-center: There’s been a lot of talk about privacy, being driven in part by the industry’s focus on personalization and data but also controversial and heavily promoted feature presentations from Julian Assange (hosted by The Barbarian Group) and Edward Snowden (a discussion between Snowden and Christopher Soghoian, the American Civil Liberties Union’s principal technologist) who skirted U.S. law by engaging in their discussions virtually. As we’ve seen in many recent industry conferences, people are talking a lot about privacy but are playing it safe- they’re saying it’s important but are talking less about how to navigate it and statements seem almost circular.
- Be there, but be smart about it: We’re seeing less of the enormous, splashy brand presences than in year’s past (like the three-house Google Village in Rainey Street from SXSWi 2012.) Notably, Foursquare turned their decision to not have an official presence at this year’s SXSWi into PR by responding to Adweek’s Chris Heine and the WSJ reported Snapchat and WhatsApp would be no-shows. There are certainly branded “houses” encouraging punters to experience a company’s brand such as Funny or Die’s takeover of Lustre Pearl, Yahoo’s space at Brazos Grill and AT&T’s The Mobile Movement activation but they all feel very sensible and experiential vs. going for enormous scale and pure stunt value.
- Where is the wearable? Lots of chatter about wearable technology and its potential but on the whole it’s been tell, not show. Perhaps that will change once the exhibition hall opens but there’s been fewer sightings of Google Glassers than we expected. The question remains: is wearable still ahead of its time?
- You can make, but can you run a business? There have been a lot of sessions focusing on corporate culture, operations and staying happy. SXSWi is a conference with an eye firmly on innovation, creating and making but the convergence of the startup world and general business seems to be driving more discussion around “staying power” and how to run a company efficiently with an eye on the long term. It feels like a natural exchange of expertise: startups are teaching corporations to be more agile and corporations are teaching entrepreneurs the benefits of a little structure and direction for lasting success.
- Shhhh: This observation could go in two directions – 1) people trying desperately to escape the crowds and quieten the noise and 2) apps like Secret and Whisper helping people create inner circles. Avoid Humans, an app that utilizes Foursquare data created by Austin-based GSD&M, is indicative of the former as attendees (and locals) try desperately to create pockets of zen amongst the chaos. The latter is an extension of the trend behind Google+, Path, and the like: Intimacy is key and the smaller meetings, discussions and events are the ones people are really valuing.
We’ll be sharing some outtakes of some of the most interesting sessions and activations we’ve been seeing in the coming days, so stay tuned!
SXSW isn’t just for music, tech and movies. In the last four years, it has increasingly become a hotbed of marketing and communication activities with big brands spending big dollars. This year was no different – there were dazzling parties, free swag, and utility-based activations like Oreo-branded pedicabs.
Many brands had a memorable impact. But as we reflected on our experience at SXSWi 2013, we were surprised that our standout marketing moment happened miles away from the action downtown, in the back of an Austin cab en route to the airport.
Outside of our hotel we flagged down a cab, and the driver, Bob, told us he was on his way to pick up someone also going to the airport and that we could share the ride if we wanted to. “Sure!” we said. A huge favor from Bob. After a few minutes of listening to the music playing in the cab, we inquired about the artist.
Gemma: “Who’s singing this song? I like it!”
Bob: “Oh, it’s this guy, Josh Halverson. He’s a local musician who was a passenger in my cab a year or so ago. Do you want one of his CDs?”
Bob gave us both a copy of Josh’s CD, on the condition that we like Josh’s Facebook page and comment on his wall to let Josh know we received it from Bob. We’d heard enough of the music to decide that Josh deserved a “like,” and did so right there in the cab as we were chatting. Bob handed us a business card so we could credit his name correctly and before we knew it, we had followed Bob on Twitter and were chatting about his blog, “Confessions of an Austin Cabbie” and his personal Twitter strategy.
The beauty of this moment was that Bob let us discover the music he was playing in the cab. He didn’t push it, he just played it and let us decide for ourselves whether or not we liked it. With a simple word-of-mouth recommendation, Bob earned our social currency and this column space on The Hit Board. He also helped PR his buddy Josh (not a paid arrangement) in the process.
It speaks to a trend many SXSW attendees noticed – the need for a more personal touch in an always-on digital world. As we neared the airport, Bob pointed out that it was hard for him to see out of the back window because it was covered with a big white sticker – some kind of outdoor branding. Which company had paid good money for this window space? Who knows? We certainly didn’t notice – or care. The real “cab-vertising” moment happened inside the car.
Signing off for this year!
Goodby Silverstein and Partners assembled an all-star panel at the Driskill Hotel Sunday night in Austin, “So When the Hell Do You Sleep,” but the real meat of this packed session was how a group of uber-achievers create, invest, manage and generally take the world by storm.
Hosted by Jeff Goodby, Co-founder and Co- chairman of GSP, the panel included: Paul Bennett, CCO of Ideo; Damian Kulash, lead singer of OK Go; Ivan Askwith, Sr. Director of Digital Media for Lucas Films; Aileen Lee, partner, KPCB; Bing Gordon, partner, KPCB; and Livia Tortella, Co-President and COO of Warner Brothers.
So how does one become massively successful? Practice the 4Cs:
Collaboration: All agreed collaboration is the key to creating great work and great organizations. Said Bennett, “the number one skill we seek in talent is collaboration. If someone says we before I, that’s what we look for.” Lee pointed out that smart people sharing ideas in conversations can be even more valuable than degrees, “it’s about being in these Petri dishes.”
Confidence: Over-achievers do in fact experience pangs of self-doubt – Askwith dubbed it “healthy neurosis–” but part of their success comes from comfort with failure. Goodby summed it up: “Creativity is about being confident and fearful at the same time.”
Conviction: Trust your gut. OK Go, a band credited with helping to reinvent traditional music industry business models — not to mention music video aesthetics –releases video content they like, even if it garners less-than-favorable feedback from executives and internet commenters. Lee cited regret over not listening to her own gut when she had the opportunity to invest in white-hot mobile payment app Square but passed because she was counseled against it.
Cool: “The reason SXSW works is because you don’t go to work for a week, you hang out with people, drink with them and just chill,” Kulash said. Sometimes you have to take the pressure off and relax– ever notice how your best ideas come in the shower? Last night’s session ended with an 8-minute acoustic set from Kulash and his band OK Go. A small, intimate show in a historic Austin hotel — what’s cooler than that?
Beer + technology. Isn’t that what SXSW is all about? Anthony Stellato, the Head of Research and Prototyping at Arnold Worldwide knows it and his session Drinking Your Way To The Future walked his audience through what goes into making a talking, tweeting beer vending machine.
Arnie, Arnold’s resident beer dispenser, lives in the Boston headquarters. He’s a conversation-starter, perfect party guest and a key feature on tours of the agency. Arnie was born out of Arnold’s “Lab” thanks to their internal The Make Project initiative, that aims to set the stage for innovation. Arnie has earned himself a lot of media and as Stellato shared, people leave events at Arnold saying things like “You work for the best place in the world.”
There was an overwhelming sense of inspiration emanating from the audience. I don’t know that the audience members knew they could do this kind of work at an ad agency and many of the questions were talent-related. In fact, Arnie is really great for talent and not just because of the free beer. Ad shops are frequently competing for top digital talent and Arnie is a real, tangible example of the tech opportunities available at Arnold.
Stellato summed it up well by stating that if you don’t invest in hiring people whose job is to constantly be looking for new technology, you’ll fast become obsolete.
So what’s next for Arnie? Stellato would love to build voice recognition and a way to dispense Jack Daniel’s into Arnie 2.0. As Angela Wei, Arnold NY’s Chief Digital Officer so aptly stated, Surprising or not? the beer brewing part was harder than the tech part. Our thoughts: not surprising at all. As much as technology is close to our hearts, beer is closer for many, especially those at SXSW.
If you’re not tapped into the hardcore tech at SXSW, here are Stellato’s top picks for what’s hot:
- Raspberry Pi, a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard.
- Lead Motion, a motion controller that lets you control your computer with your hands without touching your computer.
What’s the reward for getting up early for my first SXSW Salon? A free mimosa and a pair of bright orange sunglasses. Oh, and GEEKSTA PARADISE: The Ballers of Uber, Airbnb + Github. First up, Dave McClure (of 500 Startups) sat on the stage with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and the overarching theme of their chat was innovating in the face of strict legislation.
Many startups are born of the desire to solve a problem and Uber is no different – the company coins itself as the future of transportation. They’re currently active in 28 cities and although they’re a darling of the tech startup scene they’re not so popular with local governments and cabbies, having been accused of illegal taxicab operation.
Kalanick cites the city’s resistance to embracing Uber as protecting an incumbent industry through anti-competitive measures. To launch Uber in Austin, the drivers have to charge 20 times the taxi rate. In Denver, the cars wouldn’t be allowed to operate downtown or charge by distance and Uber would have to own all the cars that provide the transportation – an unsustainable model.
Kalanick was asked about Side Car which is regularly heralded as one of Uber’s low cost competitors and the message was the same: Side Car is Uber, but with unlicensed drivers. It keeps the cost down, but there’s certainly more controversy and the long-term sustainability is questionable. While he stated that there has to be a low cost Uber, it is at the mercy of the law.
The philosophy of open source is the opposite innovation-crippling red tape and we’re hearing more and more about entrepreneurs having to engage a two pronged approach of being creative within legislative parameters, and lobbying to extend or even remove those parameters. Member numbers give weight to this lobbying, as does strategic PR that places your issue firmly on the public agenda.
It’s nice to see the content extend outside downtown Austin with a livestream feed. You can catch the replay at The Lean Startup SXSW site or sift through the Salon’s Twitter hashtag for key takeaways.