Stories from SxSW 2019

1st April 2019

I WAS LUCKY ENOUGH to attend SxSW in the lovely city of Austin, again this year, and would like to share a personal perspective on this show — some of what I saw and what I have taken away.

A long piece this, but you can see the separate sessions listed directly below, in case you want to dive in…..


  1. Insight Leaders on The New Customer-Centric Approach
  2. Brand. The New Political Reality
  3. Fort Worth on Rainey
  4. Conversations About America – Governor Jay Inslee
  5. Creating Sound on Content, in a Sound Off World
  6. The Power of a Story – Susan Fowler
  7. A Masterclass. David Rogier with Jodie Foster
  8. Pure Golden Hour: A Sunset Mass Meditation with the Big Quiet
  9. Unleashing Creativity Through Mindfulness
  10. Influencer Marketing in 2025. The Future of Human Media
  11. Brian Solis
  12. Predictions for the Budding Cannabis Industry
  13. David Byrne . Reasons to be Cheerful.
  14. Creativity. Perspectives from Neuroscience and A.I.
  15. Street Wisdom @ SxSW
  16. Films – Pighag, Darlin, and The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps

The opening session of my SxSW was one of my best.

1) Insight Leaders on The New Customer-Centric Approach 

With PepsiCo, Mars Wrigley Confectionery, J&J and Zappi

As you’d expect, the session’s focus was on understanding the consumer, and the rise of the consumer as a kind of ‘rogue marketeer’ who can either augment or annihilate brand value.

Technology has changed people and society, and the expectations of consumers have been boosted by their experiences of customer service in the digital economy.

Panellists bemoaned the way the web has eroded established areas of competitive advantage. Big companies with large budgets and workforces, are being outmanoeuvred by smaller organisations that are more responsive and flexible, closer to the consumer and ‘laser focused’ on their intent and delivery. A key message – it’s less important to have money and resources, and more important to have speed.

A further observation was that many corporations do not have a tradition of great marketing experience or influence at c-suite level and there is consequently a challenge in imbuing a marketing focus there, and more widely across the organisation.

The democratisation of marketing, with consumers taking on a greater role, is being matched by a more democratic approach to insights within organisations. Gone are the days when insights were only created by research departments and where insights were a commodity to be owned, protected and even traded within an organisation.
This protective approach from research departments was often accompanied by a low level of responsibility shown by others in the organisation; with a ‘not my insights and so not my responsibility’, attitude. But in a democratised insight space where everyone owns the insights, there is consequently a greater sense of cooperation.

The focus of modern insight departments is around business knowledge, curation, and storytelling. The process is also around raising the overall ‘Insight IQ’ within an organisation, providing self-service insights and harnessing the benefits derived from sharing.

In terms of outputs some of the current themes include – a movement to ‘humanise data’ via greater consumer connection; fuelling the creative process by creating insights with energy and endurance; and linking insights directly to business impact.

Speakers picked up on the theme of being caught between two ‘insight worlds’. The first is the traditional siloed approach to insight and established tools; and the second newer world, is associated with speed, agility, greater consumer involvement and a democratic approach. Moving between these two worlds is an especial challenge for larger long-standing players.

A possible danger of insight democratisation could be an initial reduction in quality; but the advice was that this must be allowed to happen, with appropriate guidance in place, as this approach should develop ‘insight muscles’ that lead to stronger strategic insights across teams and projects.

Tim Warner, Head of Insight from Pepsi-Co, brought the consumer, corporation dichotomy to life by highlighting the disconnect between the frictionless, connected consumer world ( e.g. streaming content across devices) and the corporate office set-up, where devices and systems are often not well integrated. This is an especially confusing experience for millennial employees and obviously inefficient overall.

One nice analogy, referring to ‘old’ insight practice, was that of a researcher driving a car (a piece of insight) to the end of a block, getting out and handing the keys over to a project manager in the same company, to ‘drive’ the car (insight) onwards and apply in whatever way they felt appropriate. This disjointed approach is being replaced by the concept of ‘circular’ information or ‘networked data’, that can be easily accessed, recycled and re-applied.

Signing off, the panel advised on some succeeding actions; What Should You Do Tomorrow ?

  • Don’t spend money on what you already know, spend it on what you don’t
  • Plenty of time is spent talking about insight, but not much talking about foresight. Improve in this area by standardising, integrating and connecting success metrics to drive foresight
  • Get to insights earlier in the process, more focus = better ROI
  • Always consider insight generation linked to outcomes
  • Prediction and foresight are as important detection and listening
  • Create workflows and learning systems – people and processes, empowered by digitisation
  • Inject consumer learning into your workflow, don’t just sprinkle in at the beginning or the end

2) Brand: The New Political Reality 

(with Lyft, Patagonia and Airbnb)

The main theme for this session was convergence. How brands are becoming more political and how politics, in terms of thinking, positioning etc.., is becoming closer to the world of brands and branding. Important to note however, that whilst political entities have recently started behaving more like brands, brands have been political for a while.

An example of this is the emotive political ‘brand’ language at play in Trump’s America and Brexit Britain. This is to do with how one ‘feels’ about a ‘Wall’ or ‘No Deal’, rather than what one intellectually ‘thinks’ about a specific piece of policy.

Patagonia is a brand that takes a very political (issue-led) approach to brand communications. However, its values dictate that it stands for things and not against anything. Patagonia’s connection with community derives from its roots as a catalogue business and it maintains this connection by supporting local environmental causes.
Patagonia and their employees are ‘All in for Saving the Planet’ , and as well as local causes they take on big ones as well, perhaps most notably when they sued Trump over his Bears Ears National Monument, decision.

Lyft takes a different approach to society and how it can add value. Lyft’s focus is changing lives through transportation and this necessarily involves a bias towards urban areas, the future of transport and the future of work. Lyft asks the question – how do we feel in cities? and the overwhelming answer is that urbanites feel like they have woken up in a foreign land; as the US feels increasingly split between country and city. From an environmental perspective (unsurprisingly) Lyft diverges from Patagonia, with their view that companies need to invent solutions to save the planet.

Lyft’s approach involves supporting drivers, cities and communities with a collegial approach, cognisant that it cannot do much on its own but is powerful in tandem with others.

The panel’s perspective was that brands can be political, but the message needs to match the messenger. Nike’s ‘Believe in Something’ campaign with Colin Kaepernick, worked so well because of the good fit. The theme of a great athlete who is unable to compete, is totally in tune with Nike’s inclusivity.
The same principle applies to Airbnb’s Accept. and Patagonia’s Fight For Public Lands. In all these instances the suggestion was that a focus on $$$ formed no part of the ideation session; if it had the idea would likely have been diluted.

In all of these organisations the CCO (Chief Cultural Officer) plays a role as important as that of the CMO. Although the aspiration to be a ‘virtuous organisation’ is compelling, few companies have the energy or authenticity and ability to do so. Public organisations driven by shareholder value, may find the pressure for short term returns militating against this aspiration.

3) Fort Worth on Rainey 

I was lucky enough to spend a good bit of time at (friend of The Filter) Visit Fort Worth’s House on Rainey St. The location was packed out across two days with the crowd enjoying fine food, a range of great music and activations from partners including Bell Helicopters, Lockheed Martin and Whiskey Distillers – Firestone and Robertson. The most moving moment was a presentation by the wonderful Rambo Elliott, Fort Worth photographer and filmmaker, talking about her short film The Bridge, which deals with mental health issues.

4) Conversations About America – Governor Jay Inslee 

The iconic Moody Theatre, home of ACL Live, was the place for political perspectives this year at Sx. The venue hosted a series of Conversations About America’s Future, that included interviews with a number of politicians. I caught up with Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State and a Democratic Presidential Candidate. Other speakers in this strand included Senator Elizabeth Warren and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

5) Creating “Sound-On” Content in a Sound-Off World

This session centred around the statistic that most video viewed on line is watched with sound off.

Although there are factors playing in favour of volume, such as the rise of live video (e.g. Periscope) which is invariably watched with sound on and the rise of A.S.M.R.(Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos, which are dependent on aural stimuli; the figure for content viewed with sound off, on Facebook, is 85%.

Encouraging ‘sound on’ behaviour is down to providing an early pay-off. For example, showing a person or animal in the first second, optimises a positive audio response. Videos with sound will also be viewed for longer, with the uppermost limit for a silent piece being around six to fifteen seconds. On average, advertisers have up to 3 seconds to encourage sound activation before the opportunity is lost.

A user with sound activated can be encouraged to keep it that way, with the use of compelling sound effects. Natural environmental noises, such as the rustling wind, are especially powerful.

Of course, with so many videos being viewed silently, a priority is to make soundless content as engaging as possible. Tips in this area include use of high quality feed and inventive sub-title captioning (e.g. including animation and novel typography) instead of the usual black and white captions scrolling along the bottom. Finally, it makes sense to include visual cues throughout the video, encouraging sound to be turned on.

Ironically the paucity of noise in these environments and conscious of the power sound can have on the mind: has led brands to consider use of audio in other areas. The increase in the use of sonic logos is an example of this, e.g. with  – Visa, Mastercard, and Pandora.

6) The Power of a Story – Susan Fowler 

This was Susan Fowlers first public appearance in two years, since her blog post on sexual harassment was widely shared and led to the removal of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. This moment played a substantial role in the generation of the #metoo movement. She was one of five women featured on the cover of Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ issue for 2017, as a representative of “The Silence Breakers”, for reporting on the sexual harassment she experienced at Uber. She was also named Financial Times Person of the Year in 2017.

Originally home-schooled in rural Arizona, she worked at two technology startup companies before joining Uber in late 2015. She is currently a technology opinion editor at The New York Times. She had quite some story to tell and you can see the film of her talk here.

 7) A Masterclass – David Rogier with Jodie Foster 

I queued for a long time and squeezed into a small room to see Jodie Foster interviewed by David Rogier, the CEO of Masterclass. Foster has recently presented a Masterclass course on Filmmaking and her passion for this project shone through. In an hour we witnessed a potted history of her career, so far, in film; the imposter syndrome she had to deal with and how she overcame this every time the camera rolled. Truly inspiring stuff.

8) Pure Golden Hour: A Sunset Mass Meditation with The Big Quiet 

One of my most surprising and moving experiences in Austin, was the meditation organised by The Big Quiet – mass meditations for modern people. Held outside at the Long Center For The Performing Arts, overlooking Lady Bird Lake and the beautiful Austin skyline, on a warm Texas evening. I’m a big fan of meditation, but I’ve never done it in a group before and the collective feeling of 2,000 people chanting together was something else.
In a similar vein, I also spent some time at the Kadampa Meditation Center. Much smaller scale but just as soulful.

9) Unleashing Creativity Through Mindfulness

Mindfulness was a big theme at SxSW this year and this session, in the ‘Food’ strand featured inspirational and renowned chef Matthew Jennings, recounting the story of how he narrowly avoided serious illness and perhaps death, caused by over working and over eating. He has subsequently reinvented himself as a mindfulness mentor with a far healthier perspective on physical and mental well-being.

His damascene moment came on a business trip, arriving at his destination stressed and tired and shortly before a television appearance, he found he had packed only pants and socks to wear. This crisis, and his doctor’s advice, led him re-assess his life; selling his award winning restaurant Townsman and setting-up Full Heart Hospitality, a food consultancy with a focus on people, product and guest experience.

Jennings extolled the virtue of cooking as mediation and creating a new concept of ‘life currency’. Is your focus temporal or spiritual? What matters and how do you measure it? I especially liked his line that ‘fear is the fuel, time is the currency’.
In the end, perhaps through luck, he found the (right level of) discomfort that allowed him to embrace the opportunity provided by vulnerability.

10) Influencer Marketing in 2025 . The Future of Human Media

This session included representatives from NYC agency Social Fly, and Hypr- an influencer marketing platform and also the world’s largest influencer discovery and directory tool.

The panels perspective was that influencer brands are trumping established brands. As traditional brand messaging is being lost, influencers are stepping into the gap. From a consumer perspective this disruption makes sense. Brands want to get close to consumers, but consumers want to get closer to influencers and celebrities. Not only this, but in a disconnected world where we yearn for a personal connection, influencers can provide this. With this in mind I was intrigued by the line – ‘Influencer (brands) help you come back to who you (think you) are’.

The Fyre Festival came up pretty early in the session and interestingly (worryingly?) the panel’s focus was on the success that influencers had initially promoting the event – ‘really good influencer marketing, shoot, content looked fantastic….’ The opposing view would be that this was the classic example of what can go wrong when reality diverges from a celebrity endorsed fiction.

Hyper talked a lot about the importance of metrics. Focusing on the audience rather than the personality, defining a strategy and KPI’s upfront, and assessing performance against business relevant metrics. For example, who are likes from, what are the demographics, where does interaction happen? An interesting case study referenced activity for Pepsi around the Super Bowl. Real-time systems tracked influencer posts, assessed who was performing well and then fine-tuned content strategy and outputs, on the fly.

Influencer marketing is not only disrupting the world of brand marketing, it is also impacting on traditional worlds of celebrity, production and the media, producing and disseminating content outside of traditional channels.

In terms of developments, Influencers are focusing less on pushing out (branded) content, instead becoming more integrated with communications activity and part of everyday product branding. Micro-influencers are being used for authentic messaging, high engagement levels and for proximity to their audience.

So, what is the future of influencing? In a case of ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’, and as they become more established and ‘business-like’ – often banding together to boost their gravitas and reach, they are operating more and more like traditional media organisations.

Challenges in the future may be around algorithms. What happens if/when these change and it proves harder to connect with an audience? Issues with privacy and data regulation (i.e. GDPR) may also prove problematic.

11)  Brian Solis 

Brian Solis, digital analyst, speaker and author, is renowned for studying disruptive technology and its impact on business.

Starting with the wonderful Alike film by Daniel Martinez Lara,
Solis, a guru of digital trends, took an unexpected approach with a stance that was both anti-technology and pro-mindfulness.

Talking about his latest book – Lifescale, How to live a more creative, productive and happy life
he took issue with our overloaded and distracted way of living. You can download a teaser pdf of the book here including his interesting Lifescale Map.

A sequence of part amusing and part frightening digital anthropological examples shone a light on the lives we lead. These included the increase in selfie-wrist injuries, an iphone cutlery attachment and a woman who thought her cigarette pack was a cellphone. Perhaps worst of all was the assertion by Reed Hastings (Netflix’s boss) that the main competitor to Netflix, is sleep itself….

Solis asked us to move on from FOMO to JOMO (joy) or Finally Over Missing Out. He drew on the eminently repeatable Blaise Pascal, whose 17thcentury observation was never more true than today – ‘All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.’

Some of his other observations chimed too –

‘Our attention is a commodity and the more of it we spend on any given platform or device, the more those hosts can sell it for.’

And in a direct rebuttal to the rise of social media –
‘You were not put on this planet to validate your existence through the false validation of strangers. You are more important, able, and beautiful than any number of likes, comments, or followers can attest.’ Solis suggests that we should aim to live our lives as if no-one was watching.

Solis also referred to effective, mindful working methods and the Pomodoro Technique, specifically. This is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. Each interval is known as a pomodoro, from the Italian word for ‘tomato’, after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student.

 12) Predictions for the Budding Cannabis Industry 

The Cannabis/Cannabusiness track exploded at Sx this year. See here for a long list of the many sessions.

I managed to make it to the session featuring Matt Morgan, an entrepreneur in the cannabis industry and Eugenio Garcia from Cannabis Now Magazine.

The big theme was around the important role cannabis plays in the wellness sector and the fact that the recreational element is often overplayed in the media. ‘20% want to get high and 80% want to get well.’

In total there are 113 cannabinoids (a cannabinoid is one of a class of diverse chemical compounds that acts on cannabinoid receptors in cells that alter neurotransmitter releases in the brain), and it is still unknown exactly how these impact. The variety of options available could lead to the growth of boutique micro-producers, mirroring developments in the brewing industry.

In terms of production (and taste, flavour), the final product is dependent on three factors. Genetics (60%) , how it is grown (20%) and how it is cured (20%).

As more states and countries legalise, so there will be new entries into the market, both companies and nations. Big business will legitimise the sector and then government will have to take it seriously. The suggestions was, that it won’t be long before we see the launch of Amazon Green, to supply all our hemp needs….

A further step will be to pull in influencers. Musicians (esp. rappers) are already involved and following this sports people, actors and former politicians may play a role. Allegedly, there are people using cannabis in these sectors, but attitudes need to shift for open support to be possible.

Morgan’s final prediction was that Trump will legalise cannabis if he wins a second term…We shall see!

13) David Byrne . Reasons To Be Cheerful 

Managed to squeeze into the very popular David Byrne session. He ran through a catalogue of good news stories, albeit mostly from the developed world, that are addressed in his Reasons To Be Cheerful project. These were drawn from the areas of health, drug decriminalisation and rehabilitation, climate change, and prison & political reform.

Byrne recounted some wonderful stories, but to be honest the best part of the session was his laugh, his delivery and his humorous inability to make sense of the official time-keeping clock – ‘was it counting up, or counting down?’…..Genius, literally.

14) Creativity : Perspectives from Neuroscience and AI 

For my final session I spent time with some very bright people from Google, Montreal University and the University of Arkansas.

This discussion fully put pay to the long standing theory that the – ‘left brain is analytical’ and the ‘right brain is creative’.

Focus instead was on Dorsal Striatum and its role in Reward and Decision-Making. Current evidence suggests that the dorsal striatum contributes directly to decision-making, especially to action selection and initiation. Essentially it models predictions based on learning from previous errors.

One of the questions asked was ‘where does creativity live?’ and ‘how is creativity choreographed in the brain?’ Creativity draws on systems distributed throughout the brain, areas described as the ‘attention network’,‘Imagination network and ‘salience network. In terms of outputs, creativity is about novelty, uniqueness, effectiveness and relevant appropriateness (source – The promises and perils of the neuroscience of creativity. Abraham 2013)

The brain was described as a prediction machine, learning from past prediction errors to improve moving forward. Certain types of content appeal to the brain as they provide the right amount of surprise and pleasure. Too little surprise and there is no interest, too much and there is no pleasure. Sensory perception is an inference that the brain makes models around, and each person (and brain) takes a different perspective from the same inputs.

On the A.I. front, the Google gang talked about , an open source research project, at the forefront of exploring the role of machine learning as a tool in the creative process.

With the role of A.I. in the creative process uppermost in the mind, I rather liked the sign-off line of –  ‘ How do we get to Carnegie Hall? crispr crispr crispr…..’

15) Street Wisdom @ SxSW

For the first year, I ran a fringe event at Sx. This ‘Street Wisdom Adventure’ involved a gathering of seven special people, starting outside The Driskill Hotel and then gently wandering the streets of Austin for a few hours. Here is a bit about Street Wisdom – ‘We give people the skills to see the urban environment in a new way, ask a question and use the answers they discover to unlock fresh thinking and make choices. It’s ‘walking-based problem solving’ – a mix of psychology, mindfulness and cognitive science. Why wait for escape to exotic destinations when inspiration can be found on your own doorstep? When you look at the familiar with fresh eyes – great things happen…..’

16) Films

One of the great things about Sx is picking random films, often late in the evening, that you would never normally see. These are most often great quality and always surprising. My list this year included the films below, with a bit of information about each –

PigHag,  –

‘Jodie, a woman in her mid-thirties, struggles with the pressure to find a partner and have children. When she attends a Guns N’ Roses concert, she thinks she may have met a potential suitor– until he ghosts on her.’

Darlin –

‘A feral girl goes from the wilds to the dubiously civilising embrace of the Catholic Church’

The Chills: The Triumph & Tragedy of Martin Phillipps

‘The trailer leads with a collage of vintage footage charting the seemingly unstoppable rise of Phillipps’ band, before zooming into the present day to paint a portrait of the Dunedin icon’s current significant health problems. Also touched on is how The Chills famously cycled through over thirty members and how members of the band felt about their potential expendability, as well as Phillipps’ current sense of urgency to resolve his life’s work’

AND…NO PIECE ABOUT AUSTIN, is complete without mentioning the city’s wonderful outdoor swimming locations. Unfortunately, Barton Springs Poolwas closed for cleaning, but Deep Eddy Municipal Pool, overlooking Lady Bird Lake, is a very fine alternative.

Nick Hammond
The Digital Filter
31stMarch 2019