SXSW 2019 has been and gone. Another five days of trying to drink from a fire hydrant of knowledge, powered by some of the world’s most inspiring leaders across tech, design, brand, sports, health and politics.
In the moment, it’s a constant frenzy of note scribbling and rushing between sessions. By day five, my memories of individual talks seem to have smushed together into a single mega-presentation of tweetable quotes, beautifully designed slides and standing ovations.
But a day or two afterwards, as things settle down, I start to notice the snippets still floating around in my mind. The half thoughts, the different perspectives, the new ideas still nagging for my attention.
Rather than a detailed account of what happened in every session on every day, here’s what’s still swirling around in my post SXSW haze.
1. Nick Law on who should lead
Nick Law is undoubtedly one of the best thinkers in agency land. He’s had a huge impact on the way I’ve thought about strategy, creativity and the role of agencies over the last decade. Amongst other things, Law was the Creative Lead at RGA over the period where they effectively taught the rest of the marketing world how to use the internet (Nike+, Nike ID and much much more).
Law, now Global Chief Creative Officer at Publicis Groupe, spoke about the importance of having creative leadership at the very highest levels of agencies and holding groups. He referenced an old Steve Jobs interview in which Jobs discusses the importance of promoting product people over sales people.
The thinking goes that in stable, monopolistic environments, the people who can have the biggest impact on a business are those in sales and marketing. These are the guys and girls who win deals, drive growth, get promoted and end up in leadership positions. Unfortunately, the byproduct of this, is that the underlying product culture, the innovation grew the company in the first place, withers and dies (eg Xerox, IBM and many FMCG businesses). The companies “forget what it means to make great products”.
Conversely, in dynamic, highly competitive environments, the people who can have the biggest impact on a company’s success are product people. Those obsessed with pushing the boundaries, inventing new things, creating better outcomes for customers. In our world, these are the creatives and strategists, who Law believes should be operating at an agency’s highest levels (in contrast to finance or account people), shaping the work, the organisational structure and the processes for bringing greatness to life.
While finance and accounts people have an important role in moving an agency forward by inches, in dynamic times, strategy and creative people can move it forward by miles - if we let them.
2. Where growth curves intersect: Podcasts and Loneliness
Every year there are unofficial themes that permeate the hundreds of talks across SXSW. In years gone by, it was impossible to go an hour without hearing about virtual reality, diversity and inclusion, Mars or artificial intelligence. This year, it was all about loneliness.
Whether you were in a session about tech trends, the role of brands, the need for courage, our polarised political environment or the inevitability of robot overlords, the rise of loneliness was on the agenda. London has officially been recognised as the loneliest city in the world. I guess it makes sense then, that in January this year Prime Minister Theresa May officially appointed a Minister of Loneliness to help reverse the curve.
Across the pond, we’ve seen another meteoric rise. Dubbed as the second golden age of audio, podcasts are officially exploding. This year, 90 million Americans will listen to a podcast. That’s 20 million more than last year.
Gimlet Media, founded in 2014, has been one of the biggest drivers and beneficiaries of this growth (they were purchased by Spotify for $230m earlier this year). Cofounder Matt Lieber took the stage with leaders from Spotify and Anchor (another recent Spotify acquisition) to talk about the current state of audio.
Within this, he outlined the three reasons people listen to podcasts, at least two of which any new Gimlet show needs to hit;
1. For the enjoyment of being told a story
2. For the chance to learn something new
3. For the companionship that comes from feeling like you’re part of the conversation between hosts
While point three has been a truism of radio (especially talkback radio) since the dawn of time, I couldn’t help but think that podcasts are helping to scratch a rising loneliness itch that’s being felt around the world.
3. The Instagram founders on expediting the inevitable
Sometimes you need to make sacrifices for the greater good. At SXSW, this can mean sitting through a session you have absolutely no interest in, just to ensure you have a seat for the next session happening in the same room. Such was the case as I endured a vacuous one hour interview with Gwyneth Paltrow, eagerly awaiting Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, who were doing their first interview since leaving Facebook late last year.
In addition to being equal parts brilliant and humble, the guys left me with plenty to think about. One such pearl was their take on adding advertisements to Instagram following the $1b acquisition by Facebook. They said that while people outside assumed Facebook was pushing their ad model onto the newly purchased platform (still ad-free), there was, in fact, lots of pull coming from the other side.
For a start, they maintain that they wanted to be able to contribute to the (financial) success of the organisation that had just given them a billion dollars (fair enough).
But more interesting was their view that every person who joined the platform before there were ads, would be an additional person they’d need to introduce ads to at some point down the track. Surely it was better for ads to have always ‘just been there’, right?
As it turns out, it probably was. While 150 million existing users bitched and moaned about the introduction of ads, almost a billion jumped on since. I found this to be a beautiful lesson in doing the tough things first, especially when it’s expediting the inevitable.
4. Esther Perel on our impossible expectations
Last year I was lucky enough to hear Esther Perel talk about relationships in the modern world. The guts of her talk centered around personal and romantic relationships - the field in which she’s spent most of her career, and the arena in which she’s become highly recognised and respected.
This year, I heard Perel in transition. She’s decided that our working relationships are often in just as dire a state as our personal ones, and is looking to carry her experience, research and expertise into our 9 to 5. For the most part, it works.
Last year she spoke of the impossible expectations we hold for our spouses. While once upon a time, marriage was a more practical construct around resource pooling and reproduction, today we expect our partners to be our best friends, our heartthrobs, our intellectual equals, our rocks of stability and our inspiration (a list of attributes that until recently, was what we expected from God).
This year, Perel drew parallels with our expectations of our employers. While once it was about an exchange of labour for money with which we could feed our families, today, we expect so much more. Our jobs should not just provide for us financially, but they should challenge us intellectually, be a source of inspiration, form a key part of our identity, and provide us with a higher purpose in life.
Perhaps it’s these expectations that are driving the short-termism and job switching that’s so rampant in the marketing world today? After all, we used to leave relationships (and jobs) because we were unhappy. Today we leave them because we think we might be happier somewhere else.
5. Tinker Hatfield on creativity
As a lifelong sneakerhead, getting to see Tinker Hatfield interviewed live on stage by Scott Dadich was a dream come true. If you’ve never heard of Tinker, he’s the guy responsible for designing almost every iconic sneaker from both Nike and brand Jordan over the last 30 years. In short, it would be impossible to overstate his impact on sneaker culture, sport culture, pop culture or hype culture. If sneakers are a religion, Tinker is unanimously considered the one true God.
Without a doubt, Tinker is the coolest 66 year old on the planet. Hearing about his journey into sneakers via architecture and athletics was inspiring, and his optimism about the future was emboldening.
When asked about his creative approach, he put it so simply that it sounds cliched: “When I design something, it’s the culmination of everything I’ve seen, touched and experienced up to that point. I go out. I observe. I’m curious. Then I go back to the studio and things just start to flow”.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in his design of the groundbreaking Air Max 1 in 1987. On a trip to Paris, he visited the highly controversial Georges Pompidou Centre, an ‘inside out’ building in which all of the usually concealed inner workings (plumbing, cabling, air conditioning pipes etc) were featured on the outside. As if this wasn’t enough, they were painted in garishly bright colours, just to ensure everybody noticed them - not exactly what you’d expect against a backdrop of traditional, French style mansard roofs, small windows and row housing.
From here, Hatfield borrowed the concept of making inner technology a feature to behold, rather than a system to conceal. The result? The world’s first shoe with a visible air unit, followed by decades of groundbreaking innovation.
If ever I needed a reminder of why taking a week out of my year, at a time that never seems quite right, to get over to SXSW was important, then this was it. Everything we make is the culmination of everything we’ve seen, touched and experienced up to that point. Five days of intensive seeing, touching (don’t make it weird) and experiencing in March has proven to be just what I need to fuel my creativity through the year.