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A marketer’s request: Make SXSW exciting again

The festival is attempting to position itself as politically and socially relevant with initiatives like the presidential candidate interviews

This year at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW), an impressive lineup of 2020 presidential candidates (and possible candidates) like Amy Klobuchar, Julián Castro, and John Kasich will take the stage for ‘Conversations About America’s Future,’ a series of one-on-one interviews with prominent media figures.

Too bad everybody’s talking about Game of Thrones instead.

In building its ‘Bleed for the Throne’ setup at the annual digital confab, HBO had to live up to the hype of last year’s SXSW stunt, where they surprised pretty much everybody by building an actual Westworld. Well, not quite, but they constructed a pop-up version of the hit science fiction series set on the grounds of a local ‘Wild West ghost town’ theme park, filled it with actors in period costumes, and staged an immersive theater performance where guests could interact with the actors, pose in a photobooth that took grainy sepia photos, attempt to uncover and (most importantly) drink complimentary Old Fashioneds at the Mariposa Saloon. Invites were nearly impossible to come by, and ‘Have you been to Westworld yet?’ became the question everyone in Austin was asking.

It was one of the most ambitious undertakings ever seen at the annual digital media festival, and has also paid off in spades when it comes to the marketing cred of HBO and its agency Giant Spoon, as ‘SXSWestworld’ has been cleaning up at advertising industry award shows ever since. But the multimillion-dollar stunt also set off the complaint machine – that the formerly indie tech festival has become too dominated by corporations, packed full of marketers, and excessively expensive to attend. Except this time the complainers were often rebuffed: the Westworld setup was just so good.

As someone who’s attended SXSW for over a decade, first as a journalist and then as a marketer, here’s my assessment: SXSW has a problem, but ‘it’s changed, and it’s too corporate’ isn’t it anymore. That ship sailed a long time ago; the ‘too corporate’ complaints started about two years after SXSW became the original launch pad for Twitter in 2007 and it suddenly became a must-attend for the advertising and media worlds. The problem right now is that SXSW – whose 2019 edition kicked off today – hasn’t changed lately, and even the marketer crowd is starting to grumble that it’s too expensive and not useful enough.

This problem was made obvious by HBO’s Westworld setup, which was legitimately groundbreaking in its creativity and unlike anything that even a veteran SXSW attendee had seen before. Most of the other corporate setups at the festival, especially to a generation of digital media professionals who were figuratively raised on SXSW, just aren’t that original. There’s a lot of free BBQ and beer, musical performances, and oddball stunts like goat yoga and rides on 20-person party bikes.

A large part of the issue is that doing anything in Austin during SXSW really has become far more expensive, in addition to heavily regulated by festival organizers and local authorities, so it’s difficult to do anything really inventive without an HBO-sized budget. The audience is also an amorphous blend of technologists, digital media professionals, startup founders, venture capitalists, and creatives from agencies of every size, so if you as a marketer are trying to target some but not all of those people at the notoriously noisy and sprawling festival, you risk spending a lot of money to ultimately reach the wrong people. This works out great for the likes of HBO – SXSW arguably offers probably the densest concentration of affluent consumers likely to watch a science fiction show with plot lines more complicated than Facebook’s terms of service. And, sure enough, following in the footsteps of last year’s Westworld sensation, Netflix and Amazon Prime are putting up enormous experiential spaces for forthcoming productions. HBO’s Game of Thrones experience is already receiving rave reviews.

In an ideal situation, more than a handful of companies would be able to use SXSW as a staging ground for maximum creativity, capable of inspiring the tens of thousands of people who show up in Austin hoping to experience just that (and justify the expense to their bosses). But making it possible to do so doesn’t seem to be a top priority for the festival organizers. Instead, SXSW is attempting to position itself as politically and socially relevant with initiatives like the presidential candidate interviews. Is this really what people go to Austin to see? (I would argue that no, it is not.)

SXSW risks losing relevance because it’s too pricey for most individuals to attend without an employer covering the bills, and so expensive once you get there that many companies (even those well past the startup phase) find it cost-prohibitive to make a splash. The latter makes the former harder to justify. If only Netflix and HBO can afford to do anything meaningful, the festival could quickly fall off the ‘must-attend’ list for agencies and tech companies. The corporate presence isn’t going away; why not ease the red tape and make it possible for more companies to do something really awe-inspiring? After all, as we saw with ‘SXSWestworld,’ if a brand does something that’s really that good, even the complainers can be won over.

Plus, this stuff can work: After visiting the Westworld experience, I went ahead and subscribed to HBO so I could watch the show itself.

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