Workshops, Startups and Tacos: Lessons from SXSW 2014

South by Southwest | BCBusiness
Tim Brown, IDEO, and Joi Ito, MIT Media Lab, speak on a panel on the Future of Making at SXSW.

Local ad agency insider Jordan Eshpeter reports from South by Southwest, a digital media and arts festival held March 3-16 in Austin, Texas

You know you’re at South by Southwest Interactive when your daily dilemma is choosing between a late night rager at the Spotify House or a workshop the next morning by one of the world’s top design firms; when you have the right badge, but the keynote is full; or when Justin Bieber does a surprise performance at Bangers Sausage House and Beer Garden. It’s the only time you’ll see more Google Glass than cowboy hats in Austin, Texas.
I went to the land of workshops, parties, badges, lineups, wearables and Wranglers on an investigative mission. First, I wanted find out what all the fuss is about. Nearly everyone has been to ‘South By’—Twitter and Foursquare launched there—and Austin boasts dozens of must-try taco stands. Plus, as digital marketing continues its evolution, I want to up my game. I had questions like ‘how does an agency innovate internally and with clients?’, ‘how is data used to drive creative?’ and ‘which taco really is the best?’ After five days in Austin, here’s what I learned:

Friday’s Lesson: Don’t be fooled by the hype—SXSW Interactive is still a professional conference
And, professionals have to work. My first full day at SXSW was spent on client work. Once I set out to the Austin Convention Center, I paused at Houndstooth Coffee for the first of many Dropbox-sponsored cappuccinos and bumped into Tim Leake who just started at RPA Advertising as Senior Vice President of Growth & Innovation after leaving a similar role at Hyper Island. After agreeing that “innovation” is still a useful term and worthy business goal, I entered the convention center and found people scattered across the floor furiously hacking on laptops, tablets and smartphones plugged into every available power-outlet. I was there to see Tim Brown from IDEO and Joi Ito from MIT Media Lab for The Future of Making The two mused on topics like the democratizing power of factories-in-a-box and bioengineering as the next internet-sized phenomenon. Mind bending. I processed these new ideas over food truck tacos.

Saturday’s Lesson: The best laid schemes of marketers and techies often go awry

SXSWi sessions are distributed across Austin in downtown hotels, two conference centres and many restaurants. While I carefully planned my itinerary, I failed to consider the distances between venues. On Saturday, I was ten-minutes late to the very informative Digital Marketing Workshop after mistakenly going to the wrong convention centre. When I caught a shuttle to the other I realized I was within blocks of my original departure point!
Later, on a whim, I headed to Sous Vide in the City: How Digital Dining Feeds Us and randomly met a Google employee and Glass Explorer en route. While I held his Google Glass (lightweight but still awkward feeling), he recounted the sadness at the Googleplex (defined: Google’s corporate headquarters) when news of the NSA’s spy activity broke. Apparently their internal culture is “paranoid” about privacy.
I joined a mobile storytelling workshop led by Hyper Island and Permission Engines: Facilitating Creativity featuring legendary data artist Aaron Koblin and Burning Man’s Will Chase. Afterwards I was invited to join a few ‘burners’ (defined: Burning Man employees and attendees) for a drink. Finally, my No-Plan plan led me to old friends from a Vancouver-based advertising agency for a night on 6th Street—which may or may not have included a few picklebacks (a shot of whiskey is chased by a shot of pickle brine). I bet most No-Plan plans lead to 6th Street.

Sunday’s Lesson: Enjoying SXSW is tougher after a night on 6th Street

On Sunday morning I soldiered to the AT&T Convention Center for Pimp Your Pitch: Learn Visual Storytelling. Since I lead many pitches for Domain7 (defined: a human-centred web agency), catching this session was a no brainer. I didn’t realize until it started that its facilitator was the Nancy Duarte —chances are you’ve seen her The Secret Structure of Great Talks TED Talk! No kidding. After learning her secrets to a persuasive and resonant presentation, I met Jaclyn Ciamillo of Hyper Island to rehydrate over ginger ale and water. From there, we ran to Red River Street (yes, that Red River Street) to catch Fray Cafe: SXSW’s “legendary evening of true personal storytelling.” There I met Kent Brewster who, among other things, built Pinterest’s “Pin It” button and made the original Netflix front-end for iPhone. I stuck around for a handful of stories before catching Kurt Vile and The Raveonettes at The Mohawk. Still enduring a pickleback headache, I happened across a Snoop Dogg concert. Thank goodness for for Advil and live music.

Monday’s Lesson: I am not a developer

Exposure to a wide variety of experiences only affirms one’s identity. I started my day enthused by the Expansion Through Ecosystems workshop hosted by a team from iconic design firm frog. We imagined a variety of scenarios for electric cars, started imaginary companies and launched hypothetical products. Still buzzing from that session and deeply satisfied by lunch at Torchy’s Tacos, I made my way to Exploring the Creative Coding Landscape. I abandoned it after fifteen minutes with renewed assurance that—while I admire them—I am not a developer. Next, I trekked clear across Austin to Using Consumer-Generated Content to Fuel Campaigns for some marketing content. That’s more like it. Next, I went to lineup for the Bill Cosby show. On my way, I bumped into friends from Vancouver and we bailed on Cosby. Over drinks we shared our SXSW experiences, reflected on startup culture and laughed about Matthew McConaughey’s awkward Oscar speech. From there I met my Hyper Island buddies at the Continental Club (like the Cobalt pre-renovation) for their SXSW party featuring legendary country singer Dale Watson. On top of the reminder that I didn’t miss my calling as a developer, Monday taught me I’m best cut out for innovation workshops, a good laugh, and random nights in American dive bars.

Tuesday’s Lesson: 5 days makes for a long conference|

After four days here, there and everywhere, Tuesday was the perfect day to slow down. I spent the morning at Storytelling, Innovation, & Inspiration hosted by Google’s Alex Cuthbert, followed by The Art & Science of Social Listening by R/GA. Inspired to apply storytelling to user-journeys, and to use social listening in my process, I spent the evening transcribing my jam-packed notebook, packing my suitcase and streaming the live Coldplay concert on Vevo. I was eager to return to Vancouver.

There was so much I didn’t see at SXSWi: keynotes by Austin Kleon, Anne Wojcicki, Adam Savage and Chelsea Clinton, and video streams with Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, and (thankfully) Justin Bieber’s surprise performance. That’s the thing about SXSW: you can’t do everything. You must ‘pick your poison,’ and I chose some incredible half-day workshops, evenings out with great people, and a couple of picklebacks.


Jordan Eshpeter heads business development at Domain7, a digital marketing agency based in Vancouver.