South by Southwest has been an annual escape for media and marketers to ostensibly discuss technology and social media. Indeed, the highlight of SXSW 2018 was a literal escape from reality when visitors were transported to HBO’s “Westworld,” courtesy of Giant Spoon.

But winter has come in digital media, in television and in marketing. This year, that reality is at the forefront, attendees say. (It’s even affected the HBO work: Giant Spoon is hosting a blood drive in tandem with its activation for HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”)

“Last year, considering what was happening politically and culturally, everyone was trying to escape, but I think this year people want to do something about it. The panels [at SXSW] seem to be less talking about the idea but more about the practicality and implication of that,” said Giant Spoon’s Adam Wiese.

Overall, SXSW has kept its unique brand in the marketing conference circuit as the place where technology, film, music and culture come together. But it’s gotten more political rather than celebratory. One of the most pressing concerns is privacy. General Data Protection Regulation, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal and ongoing talk of regulation in the U.S. has instigated backlash against the once glorified tech industry. Consumers, including politicians, have woken up to what data they are sharing with companies and what those platforms should be allowed to do with it.

SXSW is no longer simply the launch place of apps — Twitter in 2008, Foursquare in 2009, Highlight in 2012, Meerkat in 2015 — but it’s still where attendees can expect to talk about the latest changes in technology and its impacts. Foursquare’s co-founder and executive chairman, Dennis Crowley, is returning to SXSW after launching his company there 10 years ago for a panel titled “Tech Ethics: Creepy, Cool and Everything In-Between.” Facebook-investor-turned-critic Roger McNamee has a keynote on March 10 with Wired editor-in-chief Nicholas Thompson. Tech and privacy are sure to be topics of discussion in the panels with 2020 presidential contenders, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, Reps. John Delaney and Tulsi Gabbard, Howard Schultz and Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

“SXSW has always been about an exchange of ideas and a celebration of creativity and innovation. What’s changed most for me is whether any single idea or innovation will stand out and shine. We haven’t seen the launch of a platform like Twitter or Foursquare, or products like the Nike Fuelband, in years. Perhaps SXSW is now where those ideas get developed, honed and shared rather than launched to the masses,” said Group Nine’s chief client officer Adam Shlachter.

Though, some companies do still use SXSW for launches. For example, U.K. publisher Culture Trip is investing in SXSW for the first time this year and using it to promote itself in the U.S. The publisher rented out the Austin Motel for three days for a series of events and also branded some double-decker buses and dockless scooters, said Culture Trip CMO Mike Fox.

A big change from SXSW of years past is the continued influx of big brands, rather than scrappy startups. Brands like SAP have their own branded houses, luring attendees away from the main convention center and official panels to other, often more intimate, conversations. SAP CMO Alicia Tillman said she’s noticed a growing trend in “unofficial programming” at conferences, including this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos.

“These opportunities for more intimate and uncensored dialogue are critical for sparking enhanced innovation and creative approaches to some of the world’s greatest problems. While [SXSW] originated as more of a tech and entertainment event, today it’s an interactive conglomerate of the most disruptive brands and creative individuals who are changing society as we know it. It’s an event rooted in experience and innovation,” Tillman said.

Platforms also have been investing in branded houses on Rainey Street. This year, Snap is making its first official appearance at SXSW with the Snap House. Twitter is bringing back Twitter House and will be hosting several events with its partners like BuzzFeed. Patreon has a House of Creativity for its creator community with panels and performances. LinkedIn is hosting a fireside chat with actress Mindy Kaling.

While some publishers and brands have pulled back, others are taking over. Mashable will no longer have Mashable House — though it is still hosting its “MashBash” party. Meanwhile, Comcast NBCUniversal has three days of programming with special attendees like Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty and branded experiences with Universal Pictures’ “Us” and Bravo’s “Project Runway.” Vox Media is bringing back “The Deep End,” its own line of programming and parties at the Belmont.

For marketers, the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) is hosting a full day of programming, titled “Think Tank: Solving Problems in Cross-Platform Advertising,” as part of SXSW’s Brands & Marketing track. ARF CEO Scott McDonald said last year was his first time at SXSW and thought it would be useful for the nonprofit industry association to create a track of content.

“The kind of folks that show up [at SXSW] are really different than the other industry conferences that focus on media, research, advertising. It stems from the roots of the conference in music and digital. It’s a different crowd, and I enjoyed it for that,” McDonald said.

Attendees say even though there might not be a new app or an experience such as “Westworld,” they are interested in the unexpected.

“SXSW can be a place for brands, across any industry, or politicians to start to make bold claims or pledges or predictions. You wouldn’t go to Sundance to watch the same movies every year or go to CES to see the same TV or go to E3 to see the same games. You want something that starts to feel new and cast a vision for the coming year,” said Giant Spoon’s Wiese.

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