Industry pulse check: Is SXSW still valuable for adland?

Campaign US asked agency execs whether they think Austin's famed creative festival has lost its flame or if it's as hot as ever.

It’s nearly that time of year: South by Southwest.

The annual festival of all things creative will once again descend upon Austin in Texas, transforming the city into a stew of brand activations and dangerously-fast electric scooters (remember those?)

But has SXSW’s magic waned over the years? Our industry churns with chatter from agencies and marketers who have become disenchanted with the festival. So here’s a pulse check:

Is Austin’s famed creative festival as valuable as it used to be? 


Milton Lebrón, Executive Creative Director, Walton Isaacson
It’s still very valuable. It is a hub of inspiration that fuels agency creativity in many different forms since so much diverse content is being shared. There’s always something happening that can trigger innovation & creativity.

Nancy Hill, CEO and Founder, Media Sherpas
As is the case with all of these events, if you work very hard to network, pick and choose the content that you think will prove valuable and pace yourself the answer can be yes. For me, once they got to a certain size, it became harder and harder to make the ROI equation on my time work for SXSW. That said, it had always provided a great showcase for startups and otherwise under the radar companies.

Brent Buntin, CMO, Code & Theory
Yes! SXSW has more content, speakers, and activations than you could possibly see during your time there, so you need to plan ahead or it is overwhelming. Austin provides an amazing setting for a conference which helps SXSW draw such a diverse crowd and makes it that much more interesting. Conferences are what you make of them, but what I find to be most valuable are the meetings you have and connections you make.

Jacqueline Thompson, Group Strategy Director, Bakery
SXSW has become the great aggregator, however it isn’t the innovative event it used to be for first adopters. Given its size, you can still find panels and showcases demonstrating the next trends that will be playing out on a macro level, however, most of it feels like a recap to most of us who are tapped into trends at their onset and apex. Getting a good birds eye view into popular culture is still doable, though. I’d say to find real value, an individual or brand must be 1) hyper targeted in their approach to scouting panels and showcases, and 2) mingle in order to meet other people who may not be a panelist but are involved in something really great and valuable. Those people are ALL OVER the festival and represent the best opportunity to learn something new and find a great partner to execute something unique. 

Steven Moy, CEO, Barbarian
Not long ago, SXSW was the annual event for cross-industry professionals to discover the latest and greatest trends and practices across culture, art/science, and new media. It was also where the advertising and media industry recruited the best creative, design and tech talent.

However, the rise of events, such as CES and NRF, have been overshadowing SXSW’s influence on the industry. In January, we turn our attention to the latest and greatest technology across the entire consumer journey at CES before attending leading mar-tech summits with Adobe in March and Salesforce in May, before hitting the creative Oscars, Cannes. Many executives have event fatigue and struggle to decide which events to attend or which are worth investing in.

Additionally, SXSW has expanded into so many categories (this year has 20+ tracks), that the lack of focus can make give the impression that it’s no longer as relevant as it used to be. Many executives opt to spend their time at more focused events like CES or NRF to learn the new technology trends and then wait to celebrate their awards at Cannes.

Steve Milton, Founding Partner, Listen
SXSW has become a top conference for just about anyone in tech, entertainment and marketing. Although it can be a daunting event size-wise, you can’t beat the creativity that attendees put into their installations, and the educational takeaways that come from the event's extremely diverse set of panels and presentations. No matter how crowded, there’s no denying SXSW is a hot bed for creative inspiration and fresh perspectives. 

Marika Wiggan, Strategy Director, Preacher
SXSW, just like Cannes or any other major meeting of the minds, has the power to be as inspirational or as vapid as you want it to be. Sure, there are agency parties and VIP guest lists but don't let that fool you, there are also deep cultural conversations at play. So, if Rashida Jones, Jameela Jamil and Jaboukie Young-White rolling through as keynote speakers are any indication of what's also gonna get served on the smaller stages, I'd say SXSW feels as exciting and relevant as it ever has.

Christian Hughes, Principal and President, Cutwater
SXSW has become so big it can be overwhelming. There is value but you must plan ahead what you want to see and who you want to meet. Gone are the days of just showing up and going with the flow.

Pip Bingemann, Head of Media and Comms Strategy, Cutwater
Yes, it's still valuable because innovation and creativity are about smashing ideas together to create new concepts. SXSW is one of the few places where film, music, creativity, technology, health, politics, gaming, brands, advertising, design, sports and space come to meet. 

R. Mordecai, Head of Innovation & Partnerships, INNOCEAN USA
I've found that in the last decade of SXSW, the annual conference/festival has been binged or purged, obsessed over or ambivalent, and all-in or passed by. It binged on scooters so much that downtown Austin literally had to purge them - you may recall images of a trash heap of scooter apps from Lyft, Bird, Jump, Lime, and more on 6th Street from last year. Years before the festival was obsessed with showcasing one start-up hero a year i.e. Meerkat (‘15), Anchor (‘16) with many other companies ignored. It then became about the all-in activations of Giant Spoon, i.e. Westworld, and Bleed for the Throne, which were epic for those attending but hard to access for others.

For SXSW in the 20’s, I see a return to keeping it weird, ending the win or lose, in the party or out-in-the-cold vibe. Agencies/brands remember SXSW is for exploration and growth, but is also particularly fertile for doing business globally. Some of the best activations are from the trade and investment run houses of the EU, Germany, Africa, Scandinavia, and the US cities who are looking to be on the map more for start-ups and investments like Washington D.C. and Atlanta. Send your mid-level creatives and encourage them to come back with the "weird," that works, whether from word of mouth, meeting people, getting a better sense of what they are doing, networking, and building industry connections.

Anders Wahlquist, CEO, B-Reel
I loved SXSW as of ten years ago, but the charming community feel that was so appealing then has gone away with the growing size and the intense attention from big tech. The charm is still there, but in smaller groups, walled gardens, social hangouts, and not in the official program.

I look forward to going as I will tap into the greater network of clients and competitors aka friends, coming together, and will get some ears-to-the-ground input, but for our tech or client service it does not make sense to go anymore. They do not really meet their client counterparts there, and there are other smaller, more focused, easier to attend tech events happening elsewhere.

James Keblas, Director of Business Development, World Famous
SXSW hosts one of the greatest concentrations of creative and marketing people in the country. There is so much talent, expertise and money there. If an agency isn’t getting value from attending it, then I think that speaks more about the people representing the agency then the festival. For an agency like World Famous, we define our success at SXSW by how many relationships get started with likeminded people we could work with in the future, and talent we might hire. This is still one of the best places for that to happen. 

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