Like clockwork, thousands of tech aficionados, artists, politicians, celebrities descended upon Austin, Texas for the annual return of South by Southwest (SXSW)—one of the buzziest tech and interactive media festivals in the world—from March 8-16. 

Beyond the glam-and-glitz of film premieres and celebrity sightings, this year’s SXSW provided a unique window into the current state of the world. From discussions about the promises and perils of AI to buzzy appearances from influential global brands, the conference presented an opportunity for attendees to be immersed in some of the most prominent trends at the intersection of technology, creativity, and culture. 

Edelman’s Gen Z Lab was out and about all week long, and here we’ll break down everything that caught our attention—from the good, to the bad, to the simply outrageous.

The Good: The Amplification of Gen Z Voices

Despite being a generation that wields so much cultural influence in today’s world, Gen Z has often been left out of the conversation in recent conference programs. Instead of being treated merely as subjects of conversation for marketers, SXSW actually went a step further this year to ensure Gen Z had active voices across all facets of its program. 

From Remi Bader to Nick Viall to Eli Rallo to Alex Cooper, it was refreshing to see so many Gen Z and millennial speakers in SXSW’s program. 

The best events created welcoming atmospheres for connection and conversation. The beauty of SXSW is that everyone is in one place on a seemingly level playing field; truly anything can happen. Whether you're a startup founder, a seasoned industry veteran, an aspiring artist, or simply an enthusiast, SXSW offers a rare opportunity for meaningful engagement with others who share your passions and interests, even if you’re just waiting in line together.

The Opening Day Keynote Panel, "Breaking Barriers, Shaping Narratives: How Women Lead On and Off the Screen" featuring Meghan Markle, Katie Couric, Brooke Shields, and Nancy Wang Yuen didn't just tout that representation of women in media is flawed, the speakers went deeper on how they each action against these issues; where each of their own experiences play into their work, how they're discussing these issues at home with their children, and what the future of a safer online space for women can look like.

Key Learning: SXSW successfully captured the attention of Gen Z attendees and kept it by giving the younger generations the mic (literally). Gen Z isn’t just listening to these conversations; they’re driving them.

However, it has to feel authentic. While the conference brought the topic of Gen Z as an audience to center stage, it felt like the first time Gen Z voices were the ones doing the talking. This meant that Gen Z values—such as social impact, diversity & inclusion, and civic engagement—were front and center across the conference’s wide-reaching program.

The Bad: An Audience Clearly Divided by AI 

This year, the star of the show was not a person, company, movie, or musical group. Surprise, surprise! It was AI, an unavoidable topic of conversation that filtered through every aspect of the conference whether attendees liked it or not.

From the get-go, AI was always going to be a natural point of contention. It was inherently clear that there was bound to be a course collision, particularly by virtue of the audiences that SXSW has historically been known for convening: Cotopaxi-cladded techno-optimists and New Balance-donning creative wunderkinds. 

On one side of the aisle, technologists like AMD CEO Lisa Su and OpenAI product VP Peter Deng expectedly delivered an arsenal of talking points touting AI’s potential to address all of humanity’s challenges, from workplace productivity to climate change. One of the most controversial remarks came from Deng himself, who opined that “AI fundamentally makes us more human.” Other folks in the technosphere continued to rattle an already-skeptical audience with a call-to-action to “stop resisting and start learning AI.”

On the other side, Oscar-acclaimed filmmaking duo The Daniels drew support for expressing their concerns about how AI could devalue the work of creatives and further remove people from all the things that make us essentially human. What especially resonated—particularly for Gen Z, who, according to HP’s Work Relationship Index, are more likely to view AI as a potential threat to their job security—was their reminder to the audience to be critical about how and why they’re applying the technology: “Are you trying to use it to create the world you want to live in? Are you trying to use it to increase value in your life and focus on the things that you really care about? Or are you just trying to… make some money for the billionaires, you know?”

Key Learning: Despite all this, SXSW—and Austin, a city heralded for its dual culture of creativity and entrepreneurship—did prove to be a potent battleground for much-needed debates about the future of society in the new era of AI. 

And for Gen Zers, seeing these dialogues play out in real time, it was a healthy reminder that thought leaders have an opportunity to leverage mass events like SXSW to engage and educate younger stakeholders about how to critically think about technology within their own lives, particularly in a world saddled by rapid change and uncertainty.

The Outrageous: Political Influence and the Banality of Brand Activations

One of the most radical aspects of SXSW was how the political energy of Texas’ state capital was leveraged to shed light on the fight for political movements, notably women’s rights in a post-Roe world. For example, the She Media Co-Lab lounge was focused on women's whole life health. Attendees walked out with learnings from panels featuring Brooke Shields and Sophia Bush on the latest innovations in health and wellness. The festival also included featured screenings of documentaries like “Preconceived” and “Plan C,” dissected the state of reproductive justice in states (including Texas) that have implemented some of most restrictive laws following the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

Additionally (and unsurprisingly), we continued to see brands working to dazzle consumers with live activations. Unfortunately, however, the conclusion we reached was that many have become stale – dare we say banal – in their quests to compete for the attention of audiences. To say the least, activations can often quickly devolve if they’re not truly “experiential” – and SXSW was no exception. 

However, there were some that did indeed deliver. Despite it being the brand’s first time at SXSW, Delta Air Lines* showed up in a big way and got people talking the whole week, for all the right reasons. From a dedicated badge pickup area to an entrepreneur and artist market, The Delta Lounge at Estelle’s and VIP experiences at public, conference-affiliated concerts – if you were there, so was Delta. 

All activations were staffed by uniformed Delta employees from around the globe, adding to the authenticity of the moment. This 360-degree approach earned Delta the majority of attendees’ attention, and conversation. The Delta Lounge capitalized on the intrigue of what awaited inside, encouraging attendees to wait in line and join them inside for the hour and a half long experience (topped off with a free sweatshirt and tote bag of course.)

Key Learning: As brands determine what their presence will look like in 2025, it’s critical that they ground themselves in building a truly worthwhile experience for their target audiences. In other words, don’t have an activation just for the sake of having one because today’s consumers –particularly Gen Z –are much more adept at seeing through the smoke and mirrors of blatantly poor marketing schemes. And they’re much more willing to call them out when they see one. 

So, just think: What is the brand bringing to the table that’s new or different? What is the brand trying to build visibility around, a product, an initiative, a thought leadership perspective? What message is the brand trying to distill to its audience? What levers are needed to establish or strengthen brand credibility? 

To build an effective engagement plan and break through the noise of SXSW, marketers must have an answer to all of these questions before they’re on the ground.

* Delta Air Lines is an Edelman client.