Forget SXSW, it's time brands looked elsewhere for exciting new things

Al Gore speaking at SXSW
Al Gore speaking at SXSW

I have always enjoyed reading and listening to the chatter about SXSW from a distance.

Spending five days over in Austin, Texas, to pick up tips on the best-covered tech conference on the planet, seems slightly unnecessary. One day, I might go just for the atmosphere, without trying to justify anything else.

Looking back at this year's gathering, however, it has proved harder to pick out anything useful, and I've been wondering whether the presence of so many marketing folks is to blame.

SXSW used to be mostly populated with tech people; it was the place to launch a product or service and show everyone what you had made and how they could use it. Most of the speakers would have struggled to get recognised outside an Engadget forum, the panel sessions were more leftfield and oblique, and the brand presence was low. SXSW was where people who were building the future went to find out what they could use in the present.

The oxygen of attention swirled around these exciting new things, the fledgling businesses that succeeded in capturing people's imagination while they were there. As attendees and press shared what they had discovered, so it was that the world found out about the 'next big thing', and it could grow further.

Nowadays, the speakers at SXSW are global figures, from Al Gore to Shaquille O'Neal, and the topics covered are big and weighty: space, Africa, big data - things that are important and mind-blowing, but very hard to do anything about when you get back to the office.

What's more, every agency and brand with a passing interest in technology has decided to decamp to Austin for a few days. Some have even decided to do something there, perhaps involving a machine that does something if you tweet at it. However, just because you have bought a ticket to the circus does not mean you should show up with your juggling balls.

It all adds to the cacophony. Attention, such a precious commodity at the best of times, is sucked away from the small companies. They are being suffocated, and as a result have less of a chance to grow.

SXSW is now a place where people wrangling the present go to learn about the future. It is less practical and more thematic. It's not about products and services, but ideas and quotations: less for the hands to do, more for the brain to think about. TED rather than inventor's shed, which is great if you're there, but awful to listen to from a distance.

If you're seeking interesting building blocks for putting together new things, it might be time to look elsewhere.

John V Willshire is the founder of Smithery, an innovation works for marketing and product development. Follow him at or on Twitter

For Inspiration

  • The last Brighton Makerfaire was great: like a car-boot sale for the future of manufacturing. It will return in September.
  • XOXO in Portland, Oregon, funded on Kickstarter and set up to 're-create some of the best aspects of an event like SXSW but without the headache-inducing crowds and marketing noise'.
  • If pure inspiration is your thing, head to OFFF in Barcelona (6-8 June). A brilliant post-digital cultural conference, now in its 10th year.


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