Decoding SXSW 2018

J. Walter Thompson

Marie Stafford, J. Walter Thompson

European Director, The Innovation Group


Westworld - SXSW
Westworld's Live Without Limits at SXSW 2018

The annual cornucopia of ideas, inspiration and tacos that is SXSW is drawing to a close in Austin. This was the year Elon Musk crashed the party, Arnold Schwarzenegger talked tough on climate change and Ashton Kutcher even hosted his own start-up contest. The rest of us queued obediently to hear chat on themes from blockchain to biohacking, sustainability to storytelling.  From the diverse array of panels, keynotes and brand activations, here’s a handful of standout stories.

Inclusion and diversity take centre stage

In response to political division, movements are coalescing to challenge the status quo and call for a fairer, more inclusive society. The likes of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and Time’s Up have broken through powerfully into the collective consciousness. At SXSW there was much discussion on issues around diversity, regardless of the panel theme.

The technology industry has taken a lot of heat in recent months for its performance on diversity. Uber’s Chief Brand Officer Bozoma Saint John argued that the responsibility for solving bias, sexism or racism needs to be shouldered more broadly. “Why do I – as the black woman – have to fix that?” she asked, “Y’all fix it…I want white men to make the noise.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan called on tech companies to do more to root out hate speech on social media, highlighting its potential to deter minority groups from taking on public roles. Reading aloud a sample selection of the offensive tweets he is used to receiving, he asked: “What happens when young boys and girls from minority backgrounds see this kind of thing on their timelines, or experience it themselves?”

In conversation with broadcaster Katie Couric, New York Times op-ed writer Wajahat Ali and rapper and activist Mona Haydar discussed the impact of Islamophobia and the double standards they face as Muslims in modern-day America. Ali even noted a nascent trend amongst Muslim parents to choose safe, Westernised names for their children as a means of protection in an age of uncertainty. Despite this, he is optimistic: “A crisis can represent an opportunity,” he said. Ali called on Muslims to take control of the narrative: “If you are not writing your own story, your story is being written for you.”

Marketers will need to be sensitive to the fight for equality on multiple fronts: the battle is on.

Making experience real

In recent years SXSW has become synonymous with tech-powered experiences, but this year’s hottest ticket put good old-fashioned physical reality front and centre. Westworld: Live without Limits, transported a lucky few ticket-holders to the wild west town of Sweetwater, which was meticulously recreated on the outskirts of Austin, right down to the famous Mariposa saloon.

Visitors to the Punchdrunk-style experience were greeted by a cast of 60 actors plus assorted stuntmen, bands and even horses. Each visitor received a personalised letter to set them off on their adventure and were free to wander the town and interact with the characters in a series of storylines centred around the HBO show. The detailed script for the experience reportedly topped 400 pages.

Westworld wasn’t HBO’s only immersive content experience at SXSW. Across town was a Silicon Valley activation which replicated the Pied Piper headquarters in detail. Meanwhile ABC recreated the iconic diner and living room from Roseanne to celebrate the return of the show.

The activations attracted long wait lines and ensured a steady stream of user generated content for social media to boot. The buzz around these experiences demonstrates the enduring power of the physical to provoke an intense emotional reaction suggesting that for brands, there’s life in real life yet.

Move over AI, quantum computing is here

Elon Musk dropped by SXSW to a rockstar welcome and took the opportunity to air his concerns over the existential threat posed by the development of artificial intelligence. Unquestionably, AI has been the buzz topic at conferences in recent years. But going forward we need to get up to speed on another revolutionary technology, as we enter the era of quantum computing.

In his keynote, entrepreneur William Hurley - aka whurley - said he’s on a mission to “humanize” quantum computing, a field so complex he claims not to fully understand it despite fronting a start-up in the field. Quantum computing uses the laws of quantum mechanics to speed up processing exponentially. In the future, it could help us solve challenges like drug discovery, encryption, famine and even climate change.

According to whurley, a confluence of factors (rising investment, rapid growth in patents filed, growth in start-ups) means the field is now nearing an inflection point, as giants like Google and IBM race to build ever more powerful processors.

“We’re on the edge of a paradigm shift in computing” said whurley, underlining the exciting prospect of more change in the next ten to fifteen years than in the entire history of computing to date. “This, not AI, is the space race of our generation.” 

Guest Author

Marie Stafford, J. Walter Thompson

European Director, The Innovation Group,


Marie joined J. Walter Thompson in 2004 and leads the European division of the Innovation Group, delivering trends, insights and thought leadership to the agency's clients.

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