SXSW 2018: Mark Pickering and Spencer Willis share their key outtakes

By way of background, visiting SXSW has been a life-goal of mine for decades.

Back in the day, it was for the latest trends in music but over the past 20 years or so the event has morphed as my career has – with its now huge focus on brands, marketing, interactivity (in all its aspects) and experiential. That last bit is the main reason for my visit so there are a lot of key outtakes in that stream from me.

In order to widen the focus (and after taking advice from Ben Rose at last year’s event) I also took along a valued colleague as a sidekick – Spencer Willis from Z Energy, whose focus was on technology, brands and retail; so that we could share the immense load of knowledge and insights being spoken about and also add to the knowledge pool.

There was a good Kiwi contingent at SXSW this year and the day’s learnings were shared at the many evening gatherings.

SXSW is a huge melting pot of creativity, technology, strategy and insights. Throw in more than 100,000 people in that first week and you can get a feel for the amount of energy and excitement there is around the event and around Austin itself.

The trade show itself is a living and breathing circus of the latest tech and experiences – and then, of course, there are the numerous meet-ups and launch events to network.

It also creates its own challenges with getting to and from the sessions and seminars and that usually does mean that you miss some of the keynotes. I got to see Lena Dunham but the wait to see Elon Musk was just too much to bear.

What it does do is allow you to slip into some talks and sessions you would not normally see or hear, or give you time to explore the literally 60 or more brand activations happening across the city. This ended up being one of the biggest learnings from the event – I actually ended up being just as inspired and learning from the people I met, creating and producing these ground-breaking brand experiences.

By far the most popular activations at this year’s events were the Westworld immersive experience and the Ready Player One experience – both launching new TV and movie iterations. These were sadly only on for two days and eventually, only VIP could get in. There is a great article about it here.

One strong idea that did come through was that real reality is still the best human and brand experience. The Westworld experience (although a sci-fi series) relied on actors and humans. Sony’s WOW Studio showcased some amazing technology to enhance real life and brand experiences, from photo booths with Snapchat filters built in (expect these at your next wedding or activation soon) to gesture-based gaming and interaction via projection and cameras.

This could also be seen in the huge number of brand ambassadors wandering the city – handing out samples and gifts, playing games and gathering data via smartphone or running scavenger hunts for merchandise and prizes, which were hugely popular.

Perhaps the funniest (and most popular) activation again underlined the importance of real experiences – the huge lines at the Viceland stand (who else?) were all for people to grab a cuddle with a goat. The Mashable House also had puppies to squeeze. Another standout experience was the Mercedes Benz environment at Palm Park, which as main sponsor obviously took the cake for best production.

From a tech perspective Virtual, Mixed and Augmented Reality were once again front and centre, whether that be via some of the amazing activations produced by Dell, Accenture or Sony or through artistic creations such as the Colossal Wave project (look it up – it’s cool) put on by the Arts Council of England and British Underground, which used sound to create amazing VR creatures. The Accenture lounge also featured some incredible interactive hologram technology in the form of a photo booth and game.

The other big tech trend that came through was using SOUND to create Virtual and Augmented reality experiences. Sony was particularly strong in developing these for your home or event and Bose is now developing AR glasses which will not interfere with your vision but will enhance your experience via sound – for gaming, shopping, health and lifestyle.

Other key outtakes from Spencer and I were:

Technology enhancing sports and music sponsorship: Speakers from the NFL, NHL and NASCAR were all pushing boundaries with their activations at stadia using VR, AR and MR, as well as looking to enhance the fan experience for music festivals and gigs – with the key focus on providing fans with a ‘surprise and delight’ moment that would not be possible without the technology. Think facing off against the top NHL hockey goal scorer and being goalie via a VR headset.

Data lies: With all the talk of AI in the air at SXSW there was a refreshing look provided by Emocom of the fact that quantitative data can be so badly skewed by humans because we all lie to make ourselves seem better or different to who we are. Their recommendation was to spend more time on observing people in real life environments and on-screen activity.

Productive play: The Pinterest team spoke about the ability of social and online platforms wanting to get users AWAY from their screens and doing things that enhance their real-life experiences offline.  They noted that they are really aware of how screens and technology are causing the brain to be rewired (particularly with young people) and were encouraging people to learn with their platform and then play in the real world. Once again, this REAL reality theme came through strongly.

2018 marks the end of the traditional smartphone: Amy Webb from the Future Today seminar sees that wearables will become the key for the next decade and not our traditional phones. However, screens won’t completely disappear, with rollable and foldable screens and keyboards being built into wearables and other formats.

And finally don’t forget: 2020 is only 20 MONTHS away and with so many brands and businesses having talked about that date as a target to innovate, now is a critical time to look at how that strategy is working and check if it is on track.

Despite a couple of nasty hangovers from the tonnes of free booze on offer at SXSW, I can’t recommend the event enough to anyone keen on understanding human interaction, whether that is from a tech, marketing or experiential point of view. It has been one of the best experiences I have had.

  • Mark Pickering is director and creative strategist at Brand Spanking, and deputy chair of the Communication Council’s PR, Social and Experiential Committee.
  • Spencer Willis is creative technologist at Z Energy.

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