SXSW: Mad Men Meet Techies

Over 11,000 attendees are expected to flock to Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest, drawn by the conference’s growing reputation as a sort of Burning Man festival for digital technology.

Among the armies of developers, techies and designers are a growing cadre of advertising pros from both the brand and agency sides. They’re looking to polish their image with Web tastemakers, find clues to the next hottest piece of tech and recruit digitally savvy talent. That there are non-stop parties doesn’t hurt, either.

“What’s great is it’s this unique place where this trifecta of culture actually meets: interactive, film and music,” said Bonin Bough, director of social media at PepsiCo, the lead sponsor of SXSW. “We believe digital is a huge representation of culture and this is the biggest manifestation of that.”

It’s a sign of the times that a conference boasting such esoteric sessions as “Google Hackathon: HMTL5, Chrome and Android Accessiblity” would garner the attention of the branding world.

“We believe technology can help ignite great ideas and we plan to use our time [there] to make discoveries that we may not have come across otherwise,” said Tyler Murray, head of the digital practice at Saatchi X, the shopper-marketing arm of Saatchi & Saatchi.

SXSW, which in 1994 branched into interactive and film from its roots as a music festival, has solidified its position in recent years as the place where the latest tech trends are launched. Three years ago, Twitter started at the festival, quickly signing up the early adopter crowd who used it to find which parties were hot and which panels sucked. Last year, current social media darling Foursquare took the wraps off its iPhone app at SXSW.

What will be the breakthrough digital darling this year? Early bets are on location-based services such as Plancast and Gowalla.

Brands, including Microsoft, which signed on this year as a platinum sponsor, use the conference to burnish their credentials with an audience that might otherwise be a tough sell. “If you believe in the consumerization of technology, South by Southwest is one of the most important events in the world,” said Chris Bernard, user experience evangelist at Microsoft.

Microsoft isn’t the only brand looking for a little hip to rub off on it. Chevrolet is far from an adopter-crowd icon, yet the General Motors brand is aggressively marketing the launch of its electric vehicle, the Volt, at the show. Chevy started with a social media campaign that saw eight teams of online influentials record their road-trip experiences of driving a Volt to Austin. It also partnered with Gowalla to welcome attendees, and is operating a Volt Recharging Station for digital devices.

“The rise of peer influence and online word of mouth as influential factors in brand loyalty are factors that most large brands can’t ignore anymore,” said Christoper Barger, director of global communications and technology at GM.

Those factors have drawn in agencies of all sizes, from the seven-person Humongo to TBWA and JWT. Like brands, they want to find out what’s next. “South by Southwest is a beacon as to what’s going on in pop culture,” said Harvey Marco, CCO at JWT New York, which has nine staffers in attendance. “It’s music, art, technology, innovation and film — all the stuff that’s meaningful and relevant to a demographic that we’re constantly trying to connect with.”

The added benefit for shops is the chance to connect with the digital creative class. Publicis Groupe’s Digitas is pairing with client Miller Lite to hold a contest for content partnerships as part of a conference session styled like a speed-dating event. The eclectic group includes Obama Girl creator Ben Relles and Ask a Ninja’s Kent Nichols. On the line is $24,000 from Miller Lite to underwrite the creation of their idea.