The 3 Areas Where SXSW Both Shines and Stumbles, According to Top Execs

The festival's strengths and weaknesses are intertwined

Blindfolded attendees listen to psychotherapist Esther Perel speak on "the future of love, lust and listening" at SXSW Interactive on Friday. The festival has grown to attract a wide range of industries and audiences. Getty Images
Headshot of Nicole Ortiz

SXSW Interactive is under way, drawing tens of thousands to Austin for the opportunity to network, learn about new tech and bask in the glow of some of the world’s most ambitious marketing stunts.

The festival often sparks debate among marketers and agency staffers, who admire its role as a creative showcase but question its sprawling scope and inconsistently curated programming.

But what do some of the industry’s most influential executives think? We asked members of the Adweek Advisory Board—made up of 24 key leaders across marketing, media and technology—what SXSW does well and where it stands to improve. Their perspectives paint a picture of a festival defined by several factors that, depending on your goals or simply the moment, can be singular positives or frustrating negatives.

Upside: The Networking
Downside: The Chaos

Few if any events can match SXSW’s eclectic cross-section of industries.  Terrance Williams, CMO and president of emerging businesses at Nationwide, said he  finds “tremendous value in attending” specifically because “the ability to network with peers and others from the creative space is invaluable.”

"SXSW interactive is not just about showing off what's cool and new; it's about the conversations and connections that spark new ideas."
Ben Lamm, CEO, Conversable and Hypergiant

Startup entrepreneur Ben Lamm, CEO of Conversable and Hypergiant, said the value of SXSW is no longer in discovering the next great app, but rather is in the connections that can be made there.

“SXSW interactive is not just about showing off what’s cool and new; it’s about the conversations and connections that spark new ideas and create opportunities to innovate even more,” Lamm said. “The caliber of people who attend and their eagerness to contribute to the ecosystem is a potent environment for invaluable experiences and interactions.”

The festival can be especially rewarding as a networking experience for your company’s emerging talent, said Colin Kinsella, CEO North America at Havas Media Group, who calls SXSW a “great way for rising stars to connect with peers and be inspired about what’s next.”

However, the endless networking opportunities can also create an atmosphere of chaos. Colleen DeCourcy, chief creative officer of Wieden + Kennedy, said its “too hard to find people and difficult to attract a sizeable audience in the chaos” and that SXSW “feels very disorganized” overall.

Funny or Die partnered with HBO to create a Silicon Valley "Not Hot Dog" activation.
Getty Images

Upside: The Wealth of Branded Activations
Downside: The Lack of Next-Gen Innovations

Having already developed a reputation as a prime place to debut your brand activations and other experiential marketing efforts, SXSW has not disappointed in 2018. Ambitious and intricate promotions for HBO’s WestWorld and the upcoming film Ready Player One have shown that the festival is a prime stage for bold promotional ideas.

“SXSW is a place where the unexpected is expected,” said Baiju Shah, chief strategy officer of Accenture Interactive. “SXSW is a destination for announcements to garner media attention.”

But even for marketers, the evolution of SXSW from a discovery showcase to a hype launchpad for consumer brands can be disappointing, given the festival’s history as a jumping off point for game-changing apps like Twitter.

“I have only attended once and it was last year,” said Susie Nam, COO of Droga5. “It felt very dominated by brand activations versus innovation or acting as a truly bleeding-edge showcase for emerging technology.”

Similarly, David Sable, global CEO of Y&R, looks back fondly on SXSW’s years as a “discovery expedition.” His advice to SXSW organizers? “I’d turn back the clock.” He points to the success of Mobile World Congress’ startup pavilions in Barcelona as a sign that there’s still an appetite for an innovation showcase.

Upside: The Crossover of Industries
Downside: The Muddled Identity

One big benefit of the evolution of SXSW is that it has begun to draw key players from a wide range of industries that might otherwise have few chances to interact, said entrepreneur Lamm.

“We’re at a point in the industry where all of the different verticals, from food, to health, to intelligent future and music all have something to learn from each other,” Lamm said. “We’re slowly seeing more cross-pollination across tracks, but encouraging collaboration across the different pieces of the conference will pay dividends in innovation.”

Accenture Interactive’s Shah agrees, saying that the “organizers should find more novel ways to connect and focus on crossover between industries,” not just on the tech side but across the film, music and interactive segments of SXSW. “All those worlds are blurring, and there is less delineation.”

"I think they need to have a clearer positioning. SXSW seems a bit all over the place to me, and so it makes it a bit hard to understand what to do with it."
Kasha Cacy, CEO, UM U.S.

This increasingly complex melting pot of industries and professions may yield new connections, but it also creates one lingering question: What is SXSW?

Wieden + Kennedy’s DeCourcy said the festival needs more clarity. “Honestly, it’s just not got enough of a ‘why,’ she said. “I know why CES, I know why Cannes, I know why Advertising Week. I don’t have something at SXSW that I’m worried about missing if I don’t go.”

Kasha Cacy, CEO of UM U.S., said her media agency doesn’t have a large presence at SXSW this year due to the relatively low interest among its clients. But she also echoes DeCourcy’s concerns on the festival’s vague identity, which can make it a difficult event to prioritize.

“I think they need to have a clearer positioning,” Cacy said. “I know what Cannes is about: creativity. I know what CES is about: technology and innovation. SXSW seems a bit all over the place to me, and so it makes it a bit hard to understand what to do with it.”

@neco_ornot Nicole Ortiz is a senior editor at Adweek, overseeing magazine departments such as Trending, Talent Pool, Data Points, Voice and Perspective.