SXSW14 Day Four: Edward Snowden, creative technology and the 'dark arts' of marketing

Dan Machen: director of innovation at Billington Cartmell
Dan Machen: director of innovation at Billington Cartmell

Another great day in Austin draws to a close, with three different perspectives on the intersection between technology, marketing and privacy, writes Dan Machen, director of innovation, Billington Cartmell.

Privacy has been the dominant theme of the festival, kick-started on day one, by Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, when he said really we have no choice but to embrace technology. The key issue though is "who gets to decide what is done with data".

Related to this theme, we began the day with Ben Malbon and Aman Govil (also from Google), who made a presentation on "Bridging the Gap: Bringing Together Code and Creativity". Ben talked interestingly about how coders and copywriters, despite being thought of as different, are both creatives: they both want people to love their work.

User understanding and 'creative magic'

Aman then went on to show some search data from Vegas, highlighting the signals that come out of the city when CES is on and demonstrating the buzz of activity around the conference centre. He was suggesting that this could give seriously creative ideas around genuine real-time marketing based on understanding peoples' contextual needs at CES.

A further creative example for Burger King around pre-roll advertising on Youtube, created great charm through being insightful about how people find those ads annoying. Using the search terms from the video in the creative execution, they said "oh this guy was just wanting to see his cat video… he doesn't want to know about this awesome offer."

Contrasted with Snowden, this was quite a glib scouring of search data for creative purposes, but a good example that if there is an emotional or utilitarian value exchange with people, they tend not to be as concerned by the data monitoring, or at least be less conscious of it. As Malbon summarised, we have to unite user understanding and link this to creative 'magic' to create value – "human insights and data are the basis from which all great marketing is created."

At my agency, we are inspired by the belief that "human behaviours build human brands", so this sense of brands becoming more adaptable and real-time responsive, is really preaching to the converted.

Ed Snowden

The second session of note was the late-announced keynote, 'A Conversation with Edward Snowden'. This talk was one of the most eloquent talks of the festival – albeit via video link. In fact, such was the perceived gravity of Snowden appearing, that a US senator contacted the festival organisers and asked them to not allow him to, on the basis that he "betrayed" his country. Thankfully, SXSW ignored the senator.

I think Snowden acquitted himself with aplomb and while Julian Assange came across with quite a bit of ego, Snowden was eloquent and – with a backdrop of the US Constitution document – very clear about his motivations to challenge the NSA's bulk surveillance policy. He talked of his ardent desire to challenge the "adversarial internet", which "none of us asked for, or wanted".

The focus of the conversation was single-mindedly on the need for the tech security community to evolve mainstream products to become a defence against the dark arts of snooping agencies (and by extension tech companies like Facebook and Google). Snowden said "the NSA has tried to set fire" to our identities and personal privacy, and that "the tech community are the fire fighters against bulk surveillance."

I think one of the key facets here was the sense of organisations, political or commercial, being given carte blanche to keep data in perpetuity. Giving this a political frame, one of the panellists said Americans are frightened of "data permanence", another major theme of the event, while asking: "What if someone gets in the White House that you don't like and they have your data?".

The key feeling of the panel was that data should only be collected and used for as long as it's needed. Google have already taken steps regarding security to protect against bulk surveillance. Perhaps they could consider a "use by date" on data too?

Top tech round-up

We ended the day with a round-up of Top Tech Trends 2014 with Gary Shapiro, founder of CES, and uber geek and start-up stalker Robert Scoble (The Scobleizer). As expected there was a lot of focus on wearables, biometric sensors and contextually smart apps.

The focus was on the new layer of contextual understanding and geo-location offered by these devices and platforms for marketing. Scoble gave a great example of an app called TripIt that he let access all of his gmail. The app pulls out any info linked to travel and creates itineraries including live updates of cancellations. This led to a valuable summary point from Scoble – " the more utility you give us, the more we will give away our privacy, without thinking about it."

The debate

Clearly the issue around privacy is much graver than just utility, it's about emotion too. Ed Snowden felt so strongly about it, he pretty much sacrificed his life for it. In the wake of Wikileaks and Snowden affair, we as agencies and marketers must have a responsible debate about how we get creative with data and respect and protect people's human right to data privacy. There are three critical points arising from today to debate further:

  • The value exchange between people and companies for data: creativity or utility?
  • Rights to privacy and levels of security needed in mainstream platforms like Chrome
  • How long data is kept and a "use by date" on data

This requires a wider debate and is not likely to provide any answers for years to come, but we may look back further down the line and acknowledge SXSW 2014 as the moment people first started asking the right questions on a big-enough stage.

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