SXSW 2015: Indistinguishable from Magic

Joe Skorupa
Editor at Large
Joe Skorupa profile picture
By Joe Skorupa

It's impossible to accurately paint a cohesive picture of the sprawling innovation incubator that is SXSWInteractive, so I won't. And it is easy to be skeptical about techno-geeks pitching breakthroughs on every corner and passionate hipsters selling the gospel of creativity through commerce, so I won't. Despite some pings on my inner radar, I was sucked into the magic of SXSWInteractive and departed with a sense that you can indeed peek into the future.

Not that William Gibson's well-known quote needs any bolstering, but SXSWInteractive perfectly demonstrates his memorable insight: "The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed."

Many leading-edge companies have been successfully launched at SXSWInteractive including Twitter and FourSquare. This year the breakout star could be FireChat, a messaging app that bypasses cellular and WiFi in packed, close-proximity locations, Or it could come from the guy I met at a roof-top reception who has a company that will send robots to asteroids where they are capable of remotely mining metals and manufacturing satellite parts in space. You never know.

The Ghost Economy

The reason I was at SXSWInteractive was to moderate a session called the Ghost Economy, which was part of the branding and marketing track offered at the Hyatt Regency across Congress Bridge from the convention center. The session was inspired by Kevin Sterneckert, CMO of OrderDynamics, and executed by a creative team led by Sarah Engel of OrderDynamics and Sara Lassiter of the Ketner Group.

The session was built around the theme that you think you are in control of your business, but there are things you can't see going on and they can be scary. There are hidden secrets of revenue loss and inefficiency taking place throughout your organization, and if you can only bring them to light you can recapture lost profits.   

The star retailer on our panel was Cindy Lincks, vice president of Brooks Bros., who broke out key points about the ghosts that reside in inventory distortion, marketing misfires, omnichannel confusion and stale data.

In the true spirit of SXSW, our team developed an out-of-the-box approach that included a custom video to kick off the session, an artist who created a live graphic sketch of themes, and a sophisticated social media campaign that included custom landing pages with relevant content. Also, a video crew shot the entire session for future streaming.

The session was aimed at high-level executives at medium-size to large retail companies and we discovered this group has been slow to discover SXSWInteractive. Only about a third of the audience that attended the session were retailers. The rest were either vendors or marketers. But the session was well received and, importantly, it will have an extended life when the video and graphic drawing are posted.

My SXSWInteractive

I was aware that Will Ferrell and Jimmy Kimmel and Jessica Alba and Sally Field and other celebrities were somewhere in the sprawl of scattered SXSW locations in downtown Austin during the weekend I was there. And I knew there were digital superstars there like Gary Vaynerchuk and Buzz Stone and Malcolm Gladwell speaking in sessions that required standing in football-field length lines to get into. I went to some of these sessions and enjoyed them.

But after spending hours poring over print and digital agendas and balancing priorities of schedule conflicts and remote locations, I decided to spend my time attending sessions that might make a difference in my professional life. These included attending sessions on social media, personalization, native advertising, data-driven storytelling and visual-driven story telling among others. There was a lot to choose from.

Ironies and silliness at SXSWInteractive could fill a book, such as "Game of Throne" pedicabs and a full-size Bates Motel next to the convention center, but the highlights more than make up for the oddities, which are a big part of the event and maybe even a necessary one.

Fundamentally, SXSW is as much an emotional experience as it is a high tech one. Disconnects are as frequent as enthusiasm is high. The ironies are as powerful as the passion. SXSW is alive instead of programmed, and you feel ideas as much as think about them.

There is a genuine sense of discovery, inspiration and awe at SXSW, despite it being a hot mess of conflicting themes, brilliant innovation and over exuberance, or maybe it is because of them.

Thinking about it later, I came away from the experience with another quote about the future stuck in my head. It is from Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

I always thought the quote was a bit of an exaggeration, although a memorable and poetic one. But after experiencing SXSW I am not so sure.

More Blog Posts In This Series