What we learned from SXSW 2019

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We Are Social
Earlier this month, we sent a team of 20 from across our London and New York offices to this year’s SXSW festival to gain insight into the future trends, tech and innovations shaping our industry today. After returning, some of our UK team shared what stood out for them with Creativebrief. They’ve been kind enough to let us reproduce it below.

Here, some of the attendees at this year’s SXSW festival from socially-led creative agency We Are Social share some of the trends, brands and talks that stood out for them over the last few days.

Alvaro Carballido, Senior Strategist
This year, SXSW saw a renewed focus around the fact that brands and media organisations compete for a finite resource: people’s attention. The implication of this is brutal: good ideas are not enough. They can go unnoticed while people focus their attention elsewhere. This year at SXSW, I saw three different ways in which organisations are trying to win back people’s attention.

Data-inspired storytelling: Content creators are digging deeper into data to shape the storytelling of their biggest shows. HBO explained that to grow Westworld’s audience in season two, they tapped into season one’s data to understand what type of story plots and characters women felt more attracted to. Warner Bros mentioned that in the future, AI will allow them to crunch data across thousands of movies to create more dynamic stories.

Enhanced immersion: Creators are exploring how to make more immersive experiences. Storyfile’s founder explained how they use AI and holograms to allow people to ask questions to a Holocaust survivor. The Sacramento Kings shared how they are revolutionising the fan experience with “The kings canon”, an AR mobile game where spectators can play with virtual basketballs to win a real one.

Cultural layering: Creators are layering their products with cultural meaning to win community fame. Levi Strauss talked about how, by supporting the end of gun violence with the creation of “The Safer Tomorrow Fund”, they are connecting and winning the attention of a younger generation of buyers.


Cristina Sarraille, Senior Strategist
Democratising access is no longer a trend, it’s becoming an emergency. Or at least that’s the impression I took from SXSW, from digital forensics to culture and politics, covering access to data, information and empathy.

Access to data is imperative, as we increasingly allow AI to learn and develop solutions. But without regulation, how can we be reassured that our data stays in the right hands? A hard question which was raised by Amy Webb from Future Today Institute. If we give access to our own DNA and companies can commercially patent it, what can we truly say about our very own existence and identity?

Access to information can be overwhelming and can make it easier for us to be manipulated. We’re in the middle of a global epidemic of misinformation. Journalists must become guardians of the truth, while pushing for more accessibility to digital forensics and tech innovation. Journalists and consumers need to be educated in distinguishing what’s fact and what is opinion, created with a private purpose, not a public purpose.

Finally, we need to remind ourselves that technology should improve society, not undermine it. PostSecret’s Frank Warren said that “we live in a culture where we have unlimited ways to connect but there has never been so much loneliness in the world.” The current mental illness epidemic affecting teenagers and adults everywhere demands action. However as long as we choose to leverage people’s kindness with the help of tech, we can lend a hand to those needing it.

John Crozier, Business Development Director
What do hallucinogens, Cirque Du Soleil and an A.I. recreation of JFK have in common? They were all present at SXSW 2019 and they focused on mental capacity.

Michael Pollan and Tim Ferris discussed the renaissance of hallucinogens in mental health treatment. Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, has the effect of removing ego from the user, allowing them to focus their treatment in a way that is not tainted by their past experiences.

Cirque Du Soleil discussed this lack of ego in their creative process and how it allows you to embrace uncertainty. This was part of a scientific review of the experience of awe that the audience feels when they watch their show. Awe makes them feel small but connected and more willing to take risks.

Finally, JFK Unsilenced is a project that challenges political paradigms asking if an A.I. JFK could win the 2020 election. The reason JFK was selected is that the brand has stood the test of time and it is fundamentally tied to American values. Nothing encapsulated this more than JFK’s role in the pursuit of space exploration; the audacity to say that we will go to space, not because it is easy but because it is hard.

It is this commitment and focus that creates a value-driven decision that can positively impact your life. Going to the moon is hard but rewarding. So, what is your moon landing? And when will you get there?

Tom Oakey, Editor
A key focus of SXSW this year was, yet again, the approaches brands need to take to be more diverse and produce more inclusive output, extremely pertinent given the number of brand scandals already this year. The most interesting talks focused on proactive action.

It’s no longer enough to nod along when debates on diversity arise. It’s an internal culture change. As one panellist noted, it’s no longer acceptable for “culture to be having doughnuts on a Friday.”

As Austin Justice Coalition Executive Director Chas More explained, it’s about bringing a better mix of people to the decision-making table: “If you have real diversity, things won’t get out of the door that are offensive to whole communities and cultures.”

Brands also have to be active in their quality control. Cultivated Insights founder Tanya Tarr gave some simple guidelines for avoiding cultural appropriation. Before anything goes out of the door, the questions should be “Is this sacred? Does this cause harm? Did I do the work to know enough? Can I tell the story?”

Brands also need to pay attention to their community if they want to improve. Speaking about the women’s revolution in WWE, Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon revealed that the biggest recent step change in wrestling came off the back of the hashtag #GiveDivasAChance. What started as a backlash to the minimal time women were given in the ring, led to headline events and vastly improved character development. The community aren’t just there to talk at; listening to them is equally important.