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Has SXSW Lost Its “Sex Appeal” for Marketers?

Something was missing at SXSW this year. Was it you?

If you didn’t make the trip to Austin this year, you may not be too disappointed. The advertising trade media was, how should I say it… “underwhelmed” with the goings-on at SXSW 2017. Check out the reviews by ADWEEK and Advertising Age. They also cite the fact that 22% fewer sponsors took part in this year’s creative celebration. Why is that? Is SXSW losing relevance for marketers who have flocked to Austin in the past to be a part of the next new thing, whatever that may be? Remember Meerkat at SXSW 2015? It was far from a dud, but then SXSW has always been a hotbed for marketing inspiration at the intersection of creativity and technology. What happened this year? Although the presence of brands and creatives could be felt everywhere, marked by activations and pop-ups populated by concert-goers, inside the presentation halls, marketing-minded attendees and those looking for something new in the branded content sector found the very thing they were looking for was missing. Although there were some fascinating session titles like “Content Idea Orgasms with Tech Improv Mashups,” and “They’re Going to Hate This and Think I’m Full of Shit,” there wasn’t much with obvious appeal for brand storytellers. What do you think? We’d love to hear from those of you who made it to Austin and get your take on this year’s experience. Was it good? Bad? So-so? Will you be back in 2018? Here are some highlights that should interest you:


In a SXSW panel on Sunday the 12th, Richard Guest (Tribal Worldwide, President of North American Operations), Jennifer Dalipi (COTY, Senior Director), Graham Harris (Bazaarvoice, Vice President of Brand Partnerships) and Ja Rule (Rapper) discussed the importance of achieving authenticity in advertising. The panel resolved that although telling an inauthentic story to reach a new audience can backfire in the digital-age of fact-checking, ultimately the very same urge to research brands’ representations of themselves and their values, when those values are uniformly represented across all platforms, can garner stronger consumer loyalty.


At SXSW, Ben Jones (Google, Creative Director) delivered a presentation at Google’s "YouTube Corner" called "From Six Words to Six Seconds: How the New Age of Storytelling and Innovation Intersect." Joined by Myra Nussbaum (DDB, SVP and group creative director), Sebastian Tomich (T Brand Studio, SVP of advertising and innovation), and Jess Greenwood (R/GA, VP of content and partnerships), the panel discussed the importance of implementing data-infused storytelling in the digital age. Jones’s data demonstrates that brands that function like content creators, such as GoPro and Lyft, currently own the new media ad space. Jones discusses the way YouTube TV will cater to the modern viewer who watches what they want when they want and the skippable, long format ads that will follow.


At the SXSW panel “Bingers & Time-Shifters: The Future of TV Marketing”, Melanie Shreffler (Cassandra, Senior Insights Director) revealed that young viewers of television spend twice as much time binging content as they do watching live TV, and that 28% of those young viewers don’t even know which of the shows they watch aired on what networks. And while this doesn’t mean live viewing will disappear any time soon, it may mean that where much of that live viewing happens changes, such as on apps and platforms rather than Cable. In any case, a paradigm shift has occurred that will continue to affect the types of programming that will emerge, no matter the length of the content or the size of the screen it’s being viewed on.


“Meet Walter”, an ad-like short film, debuted at SXSW last week. Produced by Fox and 3AM in partnership with the tech firm AMD, the film is a seamless merger of the artistry and creativity of the film “Alien: Covenant” and AMD’s new SenseMI technology introduced last year. The short film is the result of AMD’s efforts to seek partnerships with creators to tell authentic stories about their own burgeoning products. Walter, an AI robot featured in the Ridley Scott’s feature film, serves as a perfect vehicle for showcasing AMD’s tech, which, in the short, is embedded in his artificial brain. AMD was involved from the concept’s inception all the way through the design and production phases in order to ensure a faithful representation of both AMD’s product and the upcoming feature-length film.


“Genius”, National Geographic’s flagship scripted series, had a large and popular installation at SXSW. Seeking a big, immersive experience to mark the launch of its first premium drama, NatGeo partnered with Microsoft to showcase Albert Einstein’s greatest gift: his mind. Activation activities included Microsoft HoloLens technology that let users experience Einstein’s thought experiments by way of VR. The activation also featured an AR photo collection of some of National Geographic photographer’s greatest nature photos in which the photos would jump right off the screen.


At SXSW, VR company Laduma showcased their Stereoscopic 360 VR experience that claims to go beyond the average VR content found today both technically and creatively. Mike Santiago (Laduma, VP of Business Development) delivers an interview in which he explains that the Laduma VR experience is unique not only for the viewer, but for their content partners as well. Acting more like a creative agency than a tech company, Laduma works directly with their partners to ideate, script, shoot, and distribute their stereoscopic content. The stereoscopic element of their VR enables consumers to get a better sense of the space their viewing, making the VR experience more realistic than ever before.


At an event as sprawling as SXSW, it can be difficult to key into the newer, smaller Startups that have future potential. Five such Startups are Wattpad, ThingThing, StoryO, StylePull, and Novel Effect. Wattpad will be introducing “Tap” to their 50 million users, a chat-style app that presents stories in a text-like format to hit millennials where they live. ThingThing offers text keyboard integration of everything from calendars to branded keyboard tools. StoryO enables users to create context for their photos by layering them with written content and offering options like brand-integrated themes. StylePull is a platform for new designers to showcase their wares to consumers and brands. Novel Effect is a real-time storybook enhancement app complete with voice recognition, music, and sound effects, offering future opportunities for brand-integrated stories.


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