Treat SXSW like summer camp, not work

Forget guilt, says Havas Worldwide New York's planning director: SXSW is a place to learn by playing

AUSTIN — Summer camp and SXSW have a lot in common, and I don't think you should feel guilty about it.

No one goes to summer camp to do homework … that’s called "summer school." But I don’t think anyone can say that summer camp doesn’t teach you things.

And that’s kind of the conclusion I’ve come to about SXSW after four years — just because I’m not sitting at my desk, doesn’t mean I’m not learning and working. But there are more similarities:

First of all, like summer camp, it’s awesome when it’s sunny and terrible when it rains. But it’s more than the weather.

Also like summer camp, you meet new friends at SXSW. And not in a cheesy "Lean on Me" montage kind of way. I met people from Sydney. I met a woman from San Francisco who helps the homeless get online access. I met a girl who has been couch-surfing for the past two years and drove to Austin from LA. And I even met Shingy — who is totally awesome, by the way.

Like summer camp, you reconnect with old friends at SXSW. It’s no secret to anyone who lives in New York, but getting together with other New York friends is tough. I have a few people I see on a regular basis in the city, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that have more New York-based close friends that I only see at SXSW than I can count on two hands. So SXSW is a great way to catch up with them and hear about all the awesome things they’ve been up to.

And finally, like summer camp, you learn new skills at SXSW. And this is probably the most contentious. You’ll hear a lot of people saying, "SXSW has jumped the shark," but I argue there is still a lot of value. I’ve found the most interesting content in the panels and talks that have nothing to do with advertising. So when I look through the lineup, I tend to flag topics that are a little outside my comfort zone. They help me learn new things and help me think in new ways about things I do.

So I guess you could say, SXSW is like the sleep-away camp of our industry. If you approach it like you approached camp as a kid, you’re sure to have a lot of fun and learn a thing or two.

Maggie Windsor Gross is planning director at Havas Worldwide New York.

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