We ask the same question every year: Does South by Southwest (SXSW) still matter? In fact, this question serves as the foundation for many conversations that occur at SXSW. As we’ve seen over the last several years, there was no singular wow moment, no standout app or product launch, no speaker that everyone agreed was best (though U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s was arguably the most well attended). But as the drama and flash seems to have ramped down, the volume has been turned up on content – specifically at the intersection of technology and society.
Here’s our snapshot of some of the most compelling themes we tracked this year, courtesy of the Edelman Austin team (and don’t forget to also check out our own David Armano's take here).
A Call for True Authenticity: Cutting the Bullshit
The official SXSW kickoff was more introspective than in years past, as author Brené Brown calmly took the stage to encourage festival goers and facilitate an honest conversation about truth and belonging. She had one challenge for the audience: speak truth to bullshit but be civil about it. The takeaway? In these politically and socially turbulent times, it’s vital that we stand up for our beliefs in a respectful way. Not at all a departure from how we counsel clients through the lens of the Edelman Earned Brand findings. -Hailey Bishop, senior account executive, Digital
The Art of Failure
One of the festival’s claims to fame is its open platform for innovators of all kinds to discuss, share and learn. This year’s programming showcased one of the most stigmatized ingredients within the innovation process: failure. Speakers across a variety of sessions argued that for brands to truly become innovative and drive the change they promise, they need to redefine and embrace failure as a tool for learning and understanding, instead of viewing it as a risk. Doing so not only makes brands smarter, but – to consumers – it makes them more human. -Tyler Norton, strategic planner
What Works at Work
While brand activations, street teams and stunts throughout Austin focused on grabbing the attention of new customers, many conversations within the convention center focused on an often forgotten, built-in audience: employees. Citing social issues and their impact on workplace culture (#MeToo, Google walkouts), experts urged companies to act in authentic and purposeful ways. We contributed to this wave of conversation with our own 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer-focused event, where we discussed the need for CEOs to take the lead on change and leverage a chorus of trusted voices to capitalize on employees’ relatively high trust in their employers. The SXSW Future of Work track echoed the sentiment, stressing that employees expect their workplaces to celebrate and engage with their values, a trend that becomes more critical as company and individual identities become more blended. -Madeline Krebs, senior account executive, Corporate
Loneliness and the Dark Side of Social Media
One common trend across several tracks this year (tech, workplace, health) was the increase in loneliness and decrease in focus and creativity, all at the hands of social media. From the option to fake-RSVP to events to attention spans of less than 45 seconds, social media has forever changed all aspects of lives – for better or worse. However, thought leaders, from Courtney Consulting Enterprises’ Founder/CEO, Michelle Berry, to author Brian Solis, were optimistic about the future if we can find balance by practicing self-care, putting down our phones and experiencing real life, interpersonal connections, even if just for five minutes a day. -Carolyn Conners, senior vice president, Brand
This year, SXSW debuted its first-ever “cannabusiness” track, attracting a wide array of investors, executives and marketers who are trying to figure out just what the booming global cannabis industry has in store. Growing significantly faster than the organic food category at its peak, the cannabis industry is rapidly changing and inherently political – but is experiencing a universal shift in public opinion. Stringent legal restrictions around advertising of any kind made traditional media and owned content a central theme of the SXSW cannabusiness track. -Megan Mrazek, senior account supervisor, Corporate and Crisis
The Road to 2020
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and U.S. presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and, of course, a pre-Vanity Fair Beto O’Rourke showed up and reinforced that SXSW will never shy away from politics. AOC’s packed session (thousands turned away) even suggests that SXSW may become a key stop for political candidates and hopefuls, all of whom took the opportunity to discuss regulating big tech with a tech-savvy crowd, address issues of race and class division – and take shots at each other. -Marissa Sandell, senior account supervisor, Technology
TL;DR? Has SXSW jumped the shark? Not at all.
Is it a big, overwhelming, exhausting display of content that requires a ton of research, a smart plan, patience and persistence? Absolutely. Most worthwhile experiences do.
Dan Susong is an executive vice president and general manager.
Heather Stephenson is a vice president, Austin.