Why SXSW harkened my inner-child and took me on a choose-my-own-adventure

SXSW has evolved, says Martin Agency's Jaclyn Ruelle.

After a two-year hiatus, I boarded the plane to SXSW this year with my SXSW Go app full of favorites and a wonder and awe-inspired attitude. It may have been the "inner nerd" coming out, but ever since I was young I loved to learn and for me, SXSW is that on steroids.

After a week in Austin, I think anyone can take home a Master’s in fast-paced walking, taco consumption, free beer drinking and sleep deprivation, but also in sleuthing the right panels to avoid click-bait titles, negotiating your way into the hour-long lines at the HBO Game of Thrones experience, and finding the silver lining learnings in every panel whether they be lackluster or brilliant.

It’s imperative that if you take away one thing from this article, it’s that SXSW has evolved. They are the Disney World of branding and marketing education, and even a pass to now skip the line. It’s not just your marketer’s rocket ship launching pad anymore, it’s where education meets excellence of the arts. A crossroads of serendipitous encounters and survival of the fittest stamina. It’s a fight against FOMO. But, if you are conscious of all of this and let your journey take you on your way, you will find some of the best and brightest minds with happenchance encounters and possibly a few celebrity sightings, memorable meet-ups and impactful creative conversations. 

I don’t think there’s many other places in the world that brings together such a melting pot of greatness from tech visionaries, presidential hopefuls, Hollywood A-Listers, rock stars and our next great start-up communities; all mixing it up with a slew of big brand activations.

As I counted down the days, I was deterred by some of my in-feed fodder- disgruntled marketers still claiming SXSW has jumped the shark. How could this be when brands like HBO for the second year in a row were producing some of the most intense experiences we’ve seen? Honestly, it’s been chatter I’ve been hearing since 2015 and to an extent, I agree with it. The SXSW of yesteryear is gone and the grandiose announcements are long from the headlines, but the new SXSW is about a resurgence of learning; embracing vulnerability to learn or try something new.

We all deserve to take time to learn more and so I believe SXSW has a rightful place in our marketing world and I wish for its continued programming and evolution. I personally traveled with three people who were there for the first time – eyes wide and ears open to soak in everything like a sponge. Following the adventure through their eyes brought me great energy and confidence that we have just entered a new decade of SXSW. My guidance to the newbies was to flag the favorites in the app, plot out our days like a caffeine-induced Type A wonder woman and pack in as much as possible. By day 2 we fell off the schedule and got lost in a world of experiences for the day – a day much richer than the rest because of the people we met, the things we saw and the conversations that transpired. We took the route less traveled and stumbled into greatness. My favorite collisions? Two girls from Wisconsin who were studying engineering joined 14 other students from around the world in a fellowship program that earned their way to SXSW by entering a contest they won at each of their respective schools. And, a team from Chick-fil-A who had won their own internal employee competition that afforded them a free trip to Austin and the chance to make their program come true when they returned home.

So, to the naysayers and haters, here’s what I’d say – book your trip to next year’s SXSW with a new adventure in mind. Maybe you dive headfirst in AI or go see what the writers from The Simpson had to say, or you hop on a scooter for the day and pop in to every activation along the way. Go to sessions you’d never dream entering and I promise you, you will take something away, even if it’s….’I could program this panel better.’ And then the year after that, you should program a panel of your own. Sign-up to be a mentor and see where your expertise can be the guiding light for the next generation. Fight your way into a waitlisted party to hear a new music artist – shout out to the Vox Party and Emily King. Or, maybe you end up taking a SoulCycle class with two other women that you end up on a panel with later that afternoon with The Female Quotient and then Katie Couric pays a surprise visit and you hear all about her Instagram obsession.

SXSW is a journey, not a destination. Here’s what you gain by choosing your own adventure to join the next generation of marketers at SXSW next year:

-        Collective brilliance that shifts culture – smarts and soundbites from some of the world’s most interesting people from politics to journalism to branding and the arts remind us that we aren’t just here to chart our own narrative or a brand’s, we have the collective power to make change in today’s world.

-        Networking sideways – you are all in the trenches of Austin, TX together, bonding over beers and BBQ. There’s a mindset to embrace to extend yourself to meet people and be inspired by one another.

-        Bright minds, full hearts – even if SXSW isn’t inspiring you anymore, you have the chance to deploy your own marketing savvy on our next generation of thinkers and doers. Put it to good use and talk to and learn from new people you wouldn’t normally collide with.

-        Level Up – Not as inspired as I was? BE the inspiration. Join the SXSW Panel Picker competition and vie to be the next great stage presence.

Jaclyn Ruelle is the SVP and managing director of cultural engagement at The Martin Agency.

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