SXSW: New Rules


I went to SXSW this year for the first time in my career.  I have been trying to go since the 1996 Multimedia conference where the subject was a little round disc that could hold data.  In other words, since college.

Well, when I was young I was poor.  When I was new in industry I was schlepping for someone else.  The past 10 years had one conflict or another that caused me to miss the bulk of the interactive conference – I can remember each client and project that conflicted.

This year I booked six months in advance.  This was my year.  Last minute client opportunity came up, no problem, flights changed.  Opportunity to go to Daytona Bike week, no problem, shifted things around.  So I arrive 24 hours later than I wanted to, but I was going to make up for it with urgency and gusto.

I spent the flight from Daytona to Austin double checking my schedule.  I had heard that there could be lines, RSVP sessions, long walks or shuttles required.  My hotel was 5 miles from downtown (5 miles?!?!) and I was nervous that Uber’s would be scarce and or jacked up on prices.  Nevertheless, I was excited.

The rest of this post will take on Bill Mahr’s closing monologue style, NEW RULES, I am sure you will get a sense of the experience.

<strong>NEW RULE</strong>: If you have more than 7 years experience in interactive, regardless of age, you should not attend SXSW.

<a href=””><img class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-718″ src=”; alt=”long-lines-RESIZED” width=”504″ height=”360″ /></a>

When I curated my schedule I noticed one filter was missing from the planner: experience level. I brushed by it initially, but by the end of the first day I realized why I hadn’t seen it; everything was entry or intermediate level, in other words, there was no need for it.  With subjects that were new to me (e.g. textile technology in clothing) it made sense.  If that panel had talked in deep vernacular I would have been lost.  But that subject is new to nearly everyone, it is bleeding edge.  Even subjects on industry evolution and processes were superficial and while they validated and supported some of my own views I wasn’t learning.

<strong>NEW RULE</strong>: If one needs to take a shuttle or walk hurriedly from one hotel to another, over a river and through the woods, it’s not a festival, it’s a ‘Citival’.

<a href=””><img class=”size-full wp-image-709″ src=”; alt=”SXSW Hiking” width=”504″ height=”360″ /></a> I’m sorry…How far is it to the JW Marriott?

First off, Kudos to the staff of SXSW on their logistics management.  Though this ‘conference’ spans several neighborhoods of the city, the organizers have taken care to provide signage, way finding, support staff and general merriment across the venues.  I never felt lost nor alone, simply rushed and overwhelmed.  Getting a cup of coffee forced you to miss a session, L-I-T-E-R-A-L-L-Y.  The key learning I had over the days I was there: buy a Starbucks, immediately.  The line at every Starbucks and local coffee joints I saw, were 20 deep at all times.  I actually bought Red Bull rather than wait.

<strong>NEW RULE</strong>: When a participant is encouraged to drink first thing in the morning, it ceases to be a conference and begins to be a carnival.

<a href=””><img class=”size-full wp-image-713″ src=”; alt=”Hung Over Bee” width=”504″ height=”360″ /></a> I drank how many tequilas last night?

I thought the session was a typo or maybe a joke.  Nope, “Young Professionals Mimosa Meet Up” is a real thing.  I went, neither being young (and in the opinion of many) nor professional.  And this wasn’t a brand sponsored event.  I saw venues, which had been renamed ‘The Samsung Experience’ or ‘The Fast Company Restaurant’ had some events where they were using booze to lure in people, mostly in the afternoon, though some credit card companies did it in the AM.  This young professionals event was at 9.30 in the morning in a hotel conference center.  Not exactly how I would want the Junior members of my team starting their day.


<strong>NEW RULE</strong>: When the party schedule is longer than the conference schedule I no longer need to pay for my team to go.

<a href=””><img class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-717″ src=”; alt=”Cat” width=”504″ height=”360″ /></a>

I was fortunate that I was sponsored by my company to attend.  As such, I spent a considerable amount of time in sessions, planning back up sessions, talking to the speakers and spending time on the floor of the conference center.  I felt it was my duty.  It was clear this was not the general mood of the participants.  The crowds I experienced from 9AM – 3PM paled in comparison to the crowds I witnessed from 3PM forward.  Parties began at 3PM with pre-gaming (sometimes nearly using that language) and were scheduled through 1 or 2 in the morning.  One could easily attend SXSW Interactive and just be on a bender.  That sounds more like vacation than a work conference.

In closing, I respect the intent of SXSW Interactive, the operational efficiency and planning performed by their team.  It’s a tremendous event and one I still think everyone should experience once.  It’s part side show, part Interactive 101.  Send your junior people, force them to report back or better yet present to the company what they learned.  Warn them of the slippery slope of attending fluff sessions like ‘Kimmel Live’ and ‘The Internet Cat’ and move them towards the 101 level sessions where they can absorb general industry know how and language.  This will make them stronger and offer more value to you and your company.

Of course this is coming from the perspective of a ‘subject matter expert’ on the agency side.  I can see value for sales people with software, hardware and services attending.  But then again, the audience they want is me and my kind, not each other.  So you can’t focus to heavy on one segment and ignore the others….wait, that sounds strangely applicable.