Peril, Opportunity & Optimism at SXSW


Elon Musk

It’s not everyday that you’ll be one of a crowd listening seriously to a guy telling you why our only chance of survival lies in colonizing Mars.

But then again, this is what Austin’s SXSW is all about. A whirl of new ideas, bold imaginings and personal inspiration that each year magnetically draws in visitors from across the globe to this one-time outpost of the Wild West.

Last week I joined 20 members of the global We Are Social team for my SXSW debut. Walking down Austin’s teeming streets you can feel the ripple of positive energy, enterprise, and ambition pulsing through the exhibition centres. Nothing is impossible here. The city is still a “frontier town”, but in a new sense of the word.

This optimism was to become something of a theme for our Texan adventure. Down at the Convention Centre, we were lucky enough to attend a keynote by the incredible Elon Musk, who spoke about his devotion to solving what he sees as the biggest challenges faced by our planet. After selling his first business, PayPal, and motivated by the sense that NASA was not getting to Mars quickly enough, he decided to get there himself in order to give humanity a chance to one day establish ourselves there at the point that our days here on earth are numbered. What really struck me about Musk was his absolute belief that – through practical solutions and business enterprises – he can solve such huge issues as a future – multi-planetary – habitat for human life.

Sharing a similar sense of purpose in the face of adversity was Doug Ulman, CEO of Livestrong, who gave a talk entitled The New Normal: Resilience in Crisis Recovery, in which he spoke frankly about the threat posed to the cancer charity by the furor surrounding its founder Lance Armstrong earlier this year. Out of this huge reputational crisis for the charity – thought by many to signal its demise – came a renewed focus for the Livestrong team and a brand new communications strategy that has redefined the Livestrong brand in 2013.

Former Vice President Al Gore’s opinions and work are well-trodden. His keynote followed a similar theme to that of Musk’s and to a certain extent Ulman’s in using threats to highlight new frontiers for humanity as he explored the opportunities that are presented by the six biggest dangers or “perils” that planet earth faces.

Back on planet social, peril and opportunity often share the same orbit. Sure, we might be talking more terrestrially, about how to launch a new FMCG product or generate commercial uplift for an existing one, but the principles that these speakers shared ring true for me in the work we do. With every threat or risk to a brand comes a chance to identify and seize an opportunity to make a genuine difference to our clients’ businesses.

So, SXSW – thanks for giving me a good dose of inspiration, optimism and fun – I hope to be back next year for more!