SXSW – why go and how to do it.

Head of Client & Commercial, Kate Fulford-Brown, gives her take on 2LK’s first time at SXSW. Originally published in The Drum.

Written by Kate Fulford-Brown.

You’ve read the trends reports, watched the best sessions on demand and heard all about the film releases – now you’re thinking you need to be there in person next year. 2LK were selected as part of the DBT trade mission promoting the UK creative industries. Situated at UK House, as one of 23 companies selected to take part, our Wonderscape interactive immersive activation formed the backdrop of the centre stage. Here’s our take on how to take SXSW on.

Why we went. SXSW has been in our sights for many years – having dipped our toes in a minor way five years ago. As a business whose business is creating extraordinary brand experiences for courageous tech companies we’re always hungry for innovation and tech inspiration and provocation. The scale of SXSW is what makes it ridiculously exciting, but also daunting, so how did we go about it in order to get the most from it? And was it worth it?

A few observations and tips…

Prepare, prepare, prepare, then be prepared to rip up the schedule. No doubt, there is real value in doing pre-event legwork, in familiarising yourself with what’s on offer, spending time on the app, building a schedule, reading Do52 (insider tip), identifying people you want to meet and listen to and setting up meetings where you can. This is all part of the experience, deepening your familiarity with Austin and the event. However, when you arrive you’ll be bombarded and seduced by all the things you couldn’t have known about before being on the ground – some guerrilla, some late to the party, some just ‘off grid’. Put down the schedule and embrace flexibility. Have a plan by all means but be prepared to deviate at the drop of a Stetson. 

It’s a festival, not a conference. SXSW is a town takeover. A space made up of lots of different spaces, experiences and ambiences.  Because of this it feels pretty casual – more often than not, meetings are serendipitous and just as likely to happen at a crossroads, or a bar, as across a table. It’s all about the incidental, not the scheduled. If you think you’re going for business development only, think again – the quality of conversations may be high, but the immediacy of requirements is low – people tend to be in a learning and ‘inspire me’ mindset rather than a buying mindset, to the point it almost feels crass to be too hard-nosed on the sales front. Make friends. Play the long game. 

Embrace the JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out). You just cannot do it all. With the spreadiest spreadsheet and all the energy of a Duracell bunny there is just not time in the day. Things you want to do and see will be scheduled at the same time. Or right across town. Or even (Amazon Prime anyone) across the river.  Even a life affirming electric scooter ride might not get you there in time so accept that some will happen, and some won’t. If you see it there in front of you, do it there and then. There’s a huge sense of there today, gone tomorrow. Things change daily. 

Strength in numbers. Upon arrival, it’s overwhelming and a bit of a sensory overload. It can be hard to orientate yourself. The beauty of being part of the DBT UK House trade mission is that it allows you to settle and navigate, it disciplines you and it gives you an amazing platform. Use that as a base to invite clients to, and fully utilise the infrastructure and support that come with being part of that community – both from a content and a morale perspective. 

The UK House inclusion meant you arrived and felt equipped to take SXSW on. DBT did incredible work to line up clients and meetings, and to amplify our event presence. Likewise for Advertising Association, AEG and British Music Embassy with promoting British creativity. UK House is a celebration and explosion of UK talent – it puts you amongst an extraordinary peer set, people who are pushing the boundaries of what is possible in Web3, gaming, multiverses etc. and acts as a salutary reminder of why you’re in this industry and how brilliant creativity is a huge British export. 

Challenge yourself. There are several ‘content tracks’ (e.g.Med, Education, Brand) and the temptation is to just stick with what you know and dive deeper into subject areas you have some familiarity with. But you should absolutely take the opportunity to jump into a NASA keynote or listen to a panel debate on how we’re using psychedelics to tackle mental health challenges. Expand your horizons, that’s the huge benefit to being part of a festival experience with so many cultural and subject strands to it.

Frivolous AF. The branded experiences aren’t intellectual or smart, there’s precious little insight driven creativity or depth of story on offer. Entertainment rules and the vast majority of owned spaces are fast, fun and frivolous. Loosen up and get stuck in, British stuffiness and egos firmly left at the door (with your firearms).  

Unique futurecasting. There’s no other gathering in the world which future-casts in quite this way – thanks to the weird alchemy of music, arts, science, tech, culture and business. Your experience of ‘what’s new and next’ could be brought to you by MIT one minute, Paramount the next and L’Oreal straight after. If a ‘typical’ day starting with “what’s the difference between a scientist and a creative?”, swiftly followed by a Roku brand experience in a lift with “the Doctor”, then on to Web3 storytelling and a bit of cannabis food pairing is your cup of tequila then SXSW is for you. 

Conclusion. There is literally nowhere else in the world where you can find all of this in one place. It is a truly unique, full-on and massively rewarding experience.  

So, is it worth it? If by worth it we mean supercharging and challenging your day-to-day approach with maverick and stretchy thinking, networking on a level you’ve never experienced before, access to truly transformative thinking and innovation across ‘all the verses’ then yes! It ticks all these boxes and so much more.

But make no mistake, it’s a huge investment in time, money and resource to ‘do’ SXSW well.  If you’re a small to medium sized agency, your chances of squeezing every drop of benefit out of it increases exponentially if you’re able to be part of a Trade Mission like UK House – the platform, amplification and support system it provides will transform your ‘return on experience’ as well as leave you feeling full of pride.

Let’s talk.

If you’d like to discuss a future brand experience project, contact us to make the most of moments that matter.

More reading:

“Live events can’t be replaced” Sarah Wiggin, VP of Sales, GSMA (MWC hosts)
What did MWC 2023 tell us about the future impact of AI on brand experiences?