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Pearlfisher at SXSW: Maiden Voyage

Karen Schnelwar, Head of Strategy, New York

Pearlfisher headed yonder southwest to Austin, Texas for the famed South by Southwest conference and festival. A first visit to SXSW is a bit like standing on the seashore when a powerful wave comes crashing in—it’s overwhelming and exhilarating all at once.

In its 30th anniversary year, the event has three tracks—technology, music, film—staggered over two packed weeks. Our attendance overlapped with all three, which provided a dazzling and dizzying look into leading-edge ideas in culture’s most compelling spaces. We’re excited to share a bit of what we saw and learned.

Talks: Glass Half Full
For perspective on the impact of this event, let’s just say that President Obama and Michelle Obama both spoke there over the course of the first week. Not bad. And the breadth of SX allowed him to talk about our tech-driven future, and her to talk about empowering young women.

Every day, there are keynote slots and lots and lots of panels. At any given hour, there are 20-30 different talks, which is good because with throngs of experience-hungry attendees on the prowl, you often need a first, second and third choice talk before you can find a seat somewhere.

A bright spot was hearing Ira Glass speak candidly and humbly about his career, the state of journalism, and the future of his breakthrough medium—wait for it—audio. But when it comes to Glass’s appeal, the anti-hi tech quality of his brand of narrative is all part of its charm: its stories well told by a curious journalist who admits that his first goal is to cover topics that interest him.

Perhaps the best description of a podcast is having a story whispered in your ear, and who better to do that than the voice that created the podcast, if not the person who propelled the medium’s widespread success. Father of This American Life, grandfather of Serial, Glass talked about the podcast’s rise through the convergence of technology and content—from Apple’s operating system adding a podcast app, to a culture hungry for authentic storytelling. On his current role: “Business is simple; creativity is hard.” But the two balance each other out: “The weirder you are, the more cunning you have to be on the business side.”

He recalled his first few years at This American Life, when his less traditional way of speaking, led people to ask when they were getting a real host. But the beauty of a true original is that paradigms tend to bend around them; today there are legions of journalists trying to sound just like Ira Glass.

The most endearing moment was when he was asked about his secret talent for making balloon animals. He immediately said “Can someone get me my backpack?” which had, interestingly, a bunch of long, skinny balloons ready to go. He deftly made a poodle, and proceeded to win over every single heart in the room.

Other talk highlights:
Don Cheadle talking about the challenge of playing Sammy Davis Junior, and the difference between impersonation and creative interpretation.

Andy Puddicome, former monk and founder of Headspace leading several hundred people in a ten minute meditation. He provided an a-ha moment while stating a reality hidden in plain sight: “People see happiness as something in the future, not the present.”

Brands: Come Together
SX is a place to see and be seen, and this is more true for brands than any other entity. Interestingly, there was not a lot of conversation about brand, but sponsors were eager to talk about how they foster great new ideas.

United talked abut “Ideas fly here” and gave out stylus pens and speculoos cookies. Bud Light invited you to play their bottle organ, outfitted with newly badged bottles. Not quite sure what Mazda was trying to say, but it was impressive that they squeezed several cars into a building.

Conferences make for strange bedfellows, especially under the auspices of a sponsored event. SAP and Patron partnered for what turned out to be a great party on a hotel pool deck. There were margarita stations around the perimeter: half dozen different kinds of pre-made margaritas to suit myriad palettes (tropical, sweet, savory, et al), as well as over-engineered custom margarita stations where you could make six different choices to create your very own signature drink. Patron was characteristically cool, and SAP will never be as much fun as it was that afternoon, cleverly turning margarita selection criteria into real time data visualization.

Sponsored lounges offer a figurative port in the storm in the form of food and drink, and a literal port for recharging devices. You can’t help but have warm feelings for PBS or McDonalds while taking a breather in their spaces, even if the latter was only handing out fruit and not Big Macs or even Egg McMuffins.

Other delights abounded, everything from free manicures to hair braiding to flash tattoos—if you knew where to go, how to RSVP, and how to get from one side of Austin to the next with remarkable efficiency. A much-loved former colleague had such SX ninja skills, and it was with great awe that we admired her nails, hair, and flash tattoos. “I feel like such a Millennial,” she said, “I’m at these brand spaces drinking flavored kombucha and eating kale chips wondering what else they can do for me.” Indeed.

Conversations: The People in your Neighborhood
The tradeshow at the heart of the Austin Convention Center was abuzz from morning to night, with everyone from universities, to states and countries, to start-up companies vying for attendee attention.

In the corners of the room were “pitch presentations” by sponsors, where founders had a few minutes to talk about their brand and business; everyone from Roadie’s shared economy delivery by real people (to front doors, or the nearest Waffle House restaurant), to Ten-X’s entirely on-line real estate process that cuts several pain points of the existing real estate paradigm.

Occupying a swath of the perimeter, complete with cool props, was the big guns: NASA.

“What can I tell you about our new rocket?” asked their head of strategic communications.

What rocket, you ask? Unbeknownst to the average citizen—and even to weekly Science Times readers and Star Talk listeners—NASA has been building an amazing rocket launch system that is poised to take astronauts into deep space by way of the far side of the moon, starting in 2018. Jaws were dropping as this man explained what had been happening under all of our noses, and what was poised to happen in just a few years.

“Wait, why haven’t we heard of this?” we asked. “Why do we know about the Kardashians and not this?”

NASA has created an amazing rocket called STS, which stands for Space Transportation System. STS is what gets you to the far side of the moon, and then into deep space. The capsule atop of STS carries astronauts and is called Orion. This is all amazing, and in an era desperate for good news and exciting things to look forward to, NASA is not doing themselves any favors with such a disparate range of brand names and signifiers at play, not to mention a disconnected narrative. STS has no verbal or visual relation to NASA; the two neither connect, nor ladder up, and the result is a fragmented story.

“Sir, can I follow up and talk to you about your brand? Because what you’re doing is amazing, and more people should know about it. But first you have to get your brands in order so they tell the most powerful story together.”

He said, “You can become an Ambassador to the Universe,” perhaps deflecting the question, which worked, because who doesn’t want to be an Ambassador to the Universe? Carl Sagan would be proud.

“OK, I’ll do that, and I’ll send you an email with thoughts on your brand.” I said and walked away with stars in my eyes.

Such things happen at SXSW: moon shots, chance encounters, missed connections, and all of the above.

Indeed, SXSW is not for the faint of heart, but it is for the curious, the adventurous, and the tireless. See you at SX’17!

© Pearlfisher 2018 |

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