Looking back on the week that was SXSW Interactive, one has to wonder if it was worth so much focus, hype and investment.
Starting March 12, at airports in major cities across the country, one noticed a change. The electric outlets were all taken up by MacBook Airs, and thousands of thumbs swiped feverishly across huge mobile screens. Middle-aged men dressed like their teenage children and young men dressed as nostalgic Don Drapers discussed content marketing, growth hacking, influencer strategy and other themes that will most likely go out of fashion in a year's time. Yes, the annual pilgrimage to Austin began with the usual buzzwords, predictions, thought pieces, snarky tweets and flagrant techsumerism (you can have that buzzword for free).
However, with the increasing popularity of SXSW and changes to the digital landscape at large, the relevancy, impact and overall value for advertising agencies at the festival must be questioned.
Innovative social media platforms and tech are exciting, but how often are they the sole drivers behind successful and infectious campaigns? You could be using a network of the most innovative and sexy media technology to deliver your campaign, but without great insights and ideas, the campaign will fall flat and won't connect with your target.
Recently it seems there's a strong trend for agencies to be more interested in the tech around ideas than the ideas themselves. This issue is particularly compounded at an event like SXSW. One has to ask the question, how much of the new technology and innovation presented at SXSW is relevant for the mass audience that agencies are trying to impact? Do we really think the middle-America consumers that drive our brand's growth are as excited about the Internet of Things as the urban digital prophets at SXSW?
There's another peculiarity that makes me question the value of SXSW: the Internet. It's a strange irony that an event focused on digital innovation is staged in such a traditional, physical format. Anything groundbreaking from SXSW can be found online (probably earlier) and in a more digestible format. And even if there is exclusive, innovative content that is only found at SXSW, it's basically impossible for anyone to properly learn and take something back home with them. SXSW is simply not set up for learning. With the parties, food trucks, networking, music events and other festivities, SXSW isn't exactly a great place to think about how new technology can help solve your clients' business problems.
The dangerous combination of agency anxiety to stay on top of the latest trends, combined with an increased value of tech over ideas, has led to many brands and agencies making the trip just to be seen. It is a place where brands and agencies go to luxuriate in the glow of tech. They go there to feel cool and seem innovative, but often very little of what happens there makes its way into their work.
The original purpose of SXSW Interactive was to give new technologies and innovation a kick start. Twitter was famously launched there, and Foursquare too. However, the long tail of social media platforms means that such impactful launches won't have the same landmark effect today.
Our collective obsession with innovation has made us dream of working in hot, Silicon Valley-startup environments, but we don't. The real value we bring to our clients is through insightful and culturally resonant ideas, not the latest flash-in-the-pan tech trends. If you focus your time at SXSW on meeting your peers and clients versus chasing the next big thing, then it's a completely worthwhile experience.
But let's be honest with ourselves as an industry, stick to what we are great at, and apply innovation only so far as it helps us expand a brand's business and reach a relevant target.
Andrew Bailey (@awjbailey) is CEO of The&Partnership North America.