Author: Mel Exon, Managing Director BBH London and Co-Founder, BBH Labs
Keep Austin Weird … is a phrase you are probably going to see and hear a lot once you get to Texas.
In several lucky years of going to South By, it’s the best bit of advice that has stuck with me: Austin prides itself on being an island of culture, creativity and difference in an otherwise very conservative part of the USA. As a visitor, it’s your responsibility to avoid everything you recognise and dive into the stuff you don’t.
So it’s really tempting to hang out with loads of UK agency folk, get press ganged into drinks with your brethren, attend loads of talks about advertising, but I’d ditch all of that and go see a talk by an astro-physicist or a roboticist, eat pancakes, ribs and tacos exclusively*, go find a karaoke club in an underground car park, place a bet on Chicken Shit Bingo … and make sure you head to the Lustre Pearl for beers and shots, not the Hilton. Except maybe your first night when it’s just nice to see some familiar faces and hear what’s happened that day.
(*You can get vegetables when you’re back in England.)
My second bit of advice relates to choice, or rather the over supply of choice. SXSW has been a massive conference for years and years.. several floors of several rooms all showing talks and workshops simultaneously, now in several different locations all around Austin. It takes some getting used to, take a minute on the flight over to look at the whole schedule and pick some stuff you want to see.
Over the past few years the Interactive bit of SXSW, neatly sandwiched between Film and Music, has got incredibly popular with the UK marketing industry, but that doesn’t mean it’s got tame or lame, you’ve just got to work a bit harder to find stuff that’s genuinely different and worthwhile… BUT perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, I would avoid trucking all round Austin when it comes to going to talks, it takes ages and you waste tons of time shuttling between locations: only do that for something you hear is going to be amazing. The best talks are often under your nose in the main conference centre. Apart from seeking out the things you know nothing about, there are major keynotes not to miss every day, which often make headlines – for good or for bad – and are worth hearing. Bruce Sterling usually does a great closing keynote. If you don’t like a talk ten minutes in, you can get up and leave and try another one. Use Twitter to find out what people are enjoying most at any given time, most people tweet using #sxsw and #sxswi. If you’ve not done so already, make sure you set up a Whatsapp group IMMEDIATELY. Obviously.
Try to orientate yourself quickly around the conference centre early because it makes everything easier and don’t be afraid to ask for directions if you get lost (everyone gets lost, the whole time, this is normal).
Carry as little as possible. Get one of those mobile chargers for your phone. And use the abundant free wifi, or face the wrath of your office manager.
Eat from taco trucks as often as possible. Go to Salt Lick if you can arrange a bus out of town, or book a table at the Broken Spoke for line dancing and chicken in an odd white sauce. If you’re brave and your religion permits it, try a Baconator in a cone. Get a proper cocktail at The Driskill hotel. Old school.
I think that’s it. As you can tell, I’m two parts jealous and eight parts excited for you.
Have a whole load of fun, stay safe and come back with stories to share please.