SXSW makes the big time – but when will it make it to Asia?

Big money and big brands mean that enormous Texan interactive, film and music festival SXSW has hit the big time – and so has digital. In his first taco-free days back at work following a whirlwind week in Austin, Ogilvy Creative Director Barrie Seppings filed this SXSW report.

“You sure you don’t want to take the Camaro for a quick spin?”

What kind of a question is that? Of course I want to take a Camaro for a quick spin. But I’ve got my heart set on the cherry red, open-top 6.2 litre Corvette that is parked, Le Mans-style, as if about to launch into the Austin morning traffic of its own volition. And I really should, in the name of research, also get behind the wheel of the new, all-electric Volt. The nice ladies from Chevrolet really don’t mind if I drive them all. In fact, I’m certain they are KPI’d on getting as many punters behind the wheel of as many Chevrolets as is technically possible in the two weeks it takes the SXSW festival to cycle through the interactive, film and music components of what was once a fringe event for alternative bands, independent film-makers and hard-core nerds.

Considering that, just a few short years ago, General Motors was seriously toying with the idea of liquidating the Chevrolet brand, the massive investment made by the marque in terms of sponsorship, exhibition space and activation is a clear indication of the rising fortunes of both Chevy and SXSW, and their trajectory as brands. In an evenly-matched exchange of ‘brand heat’, Chevy is bathing in the ‘bleeding edge’ kudos of the world’s largest gathering of people who make their living from the internet. SXSW, meanwhile is striding boldly towards the mainstream – the American Heartland, in Chevy-speak – and taking the bleeding edge of the interwebs along with it.

All that bold striding has obviously made ‘SouthBy’ thirsty, because it gave equal top billing to Pepsi, who played host to the masses all week long in a specially-constructed open-air arena opposite the Austin Convention Centre, and presented an invitation-only concert featuring Big Boi, who is apparently famous. They also made it pretty difficult to find a can of Coke.

Motor vehicles, soft drinks, consumer electronics, energy drinks, television channels, credit-ratings agencies. These were the companies that hitched their wagon to the SXSW brand as official major sponsors, with almost all of them redoubling their efforts in terms of advertising, promotions, events, activation and, quite simply, giving away pallet-loads of free stuff, all day long.

Food truck + logo – cash register = SXSW marketing

Free stuff, and free food in particular, was a popular tactic on the streets of Austin, with many start-ups simply renting a food truck, painting their logo all over it, picking a busy corner and setting up shop for the week. Except they were the kind of shops that didn’t want your money. They just wanted you to take some more of their heavily-branded free stuff and to remember their url.

And then there were the parties. Microsoft hosted an enormous barbeque for start-ups and VCs. They also rented out a huge auditorium and threw a lavish party to celebrate, of all things, a browser upgrade. On the same night.

Mashable took over a double-fronted, three story pub on the busiest street in what appears to be a pretty busy town, threw open the doors and bought everybody a drink or three, all night long. For two consecutive nights. They are, at heart, a blog, for crying out loud. But a blog with enough clout to convince Sony, Pepsi, a domain registrar and a photo-sharing service to each take out sponsorship packages within the self-proclaimed ‘Mashable House’, presumably underwriting the whole shebang.

Nikon and Vimeo (who decides on these partnerships, by the way?) joined forces, took over a disused power station and offered the masses thumping beats and enough booze to kill all your horses. A perfectly upstanding web-hosting company threw a fairly swanky burlesque party. The official closing party of the Interactive portion of SXSW was held at a 2,100 capacity outdoor venue and featured a secret performance by the Foo Fighters. Again, a hosting company were the, well, hosts.

CNN took over a sizeable local venue as their temporary broadcasting facility, re-branding it the CNN Grilland causing ongoing confusion among hungry punters. Conan O’Brien reportedly did a couple of shows from Austin. Ashton Kutcher was also repeatedly spotted in town, presumably so he could tweet amongst people who are really, really into Twitter.

CNN rolled into town for the week, following the deals – and the money.

The Guardian sent a team from their London HQ to co-habit with the supremely laid-back journalists of the Austin Chronicle and produce a semi-regular min-newspaper (yes, the kind made from putting ink on sheets of paper) dedicated to coverage of the event.

Apple created the perfect storm of consumer-tech nirvana by combining the words ‘pop-up store’, ‘SXSW’ and ‘iPad2’ in one frenzied sentence. The store, however, looked like it was moving in for good. And it was massive.

All of this big-money, mainstream-brand, traditional marketing activity sat over a constantly bubbling layer of events and stunts and parties and drive-bys and giveaways from what I had assumed would be the usual suspects: the start-ups, the web 2.0 stars, the comeback kids. They kept giving away the eats and the booze like they had nothing but VCs on speed dial. Which, for the next little while, they obviously do.

As one wag aptly put it (in the current parlance of the web): If you’re paying for your own food and drinks at SXSW, ur doin’ it wrong!

In a sure sign that SouthBy (and, by extension, all things digital media) is now primetime, it became quickly apparent that if you spent the night networking, you’d wind up holding a stack of business cards from people in advertising.

It’s clearly gone mainstream, but it hasn’t really gone global. There were lots of Australians, pods of Scandaweigans, quite a few Japanese (Dentsu took out a large stand in the trade show area) and a smattering of Brazilians, but not many nationalities were there in sufficient numbers to be noticeable. Amongst the inevitable “It’s too big now” chatter were a few speculating that it might be time to franchise this sucker.

Asia seemed a popular pick as the region most likely to get its own SouthBy – if not as an officially-licensed product, then at least a faithful reproduction. Considering the big focus seemed to be on mobile (in terms of commerce, apps, platforms and wallets, just for starters), it seemed incongruous that a region largely acknowledged as a leader in mobile technology, uptake and innovation was essentially absent. There was a sense that some of the ‘futurecasting’ at several of the panels and sessions in Austin is already a reality on the streets of Seoul, Shanghai and Singapore.

Those of us in marketing-world and agency-land are well accustomed to reading about how, now, everything is digital. However, I finally think it may actually be coming true – evidenced by the fact that, at one of the world’s largest festivals dedicated to the congealing edge of digital media and interactive technologies,everybody came to the party.

A version of this article was originally published on the STW Group’s new trend-spotting blog Nextness.

Ogilvy Creative Director Barrie Seppings (@BarrieSeppings) covered SXSW on Ogilvy @ SXSW along with Damon Damjanovski and Brian Merrifield. Check out their podcasts from the event.