SXSW 2015 – Curiosity and Emotion are driving the Big Ideas


Every year SXSW in Austin becomes both a conference and a festival offering the unique convergence of emerging technologies, original music, film and television.

SXSW 2015 starts on March 15 and runs to March 22, with programming focuses on creativity, innovation and inspiration across various media industries. The Internet continues to change the business of media and marketing and the week’s goal is to foster creative thinking and professional growth alike.

SXSW is the premier destination for discovery in my mind and my fourth year attending didn’t disappoint me. My previous SXSW blog posts can be found here;

SXSW 2012 – My transmedia journal
SXSW 2013 – The premier destination for creativity and discovery
SXSW 2014 – There’s no physics in the number of things

Year after year, the event is a launching pad for new creative content and there were hundreds of new media presentations, music showcases and film screenings that with Austin opening some new hotels seem to spread the massive crowd to deliver a real world socially fuelled event platform that was both informative and entertaining.


Austin continues to serve as the perfect backdrop for SXSW, where the environment is perfect for career development amid the relaxed atmosphere.

Intellectual and creative intermingling among industry leaders continues to spark new ideas and carve the path for the future of each ever-evolving media field, and connections are made that remain strong long after the events’ conclusion.

The meeting of old SXSW friends and finding new ones allows you to test new learnings.  SXSW is alive instead of programmed and you feel ideas as much as think about them.

My SXSW 2015 schedule for the week can be found here. Below are my insights from what I experienced and took away.

Five things I learnt at SXSW 2015

1. Evolve your company structure and rules to maximise an ever-changing world so wisdom can come to your workforce

It seemed I was not the only one seeking out new ways of working in teams. What was interesting at SXSW was the number of USA government officials attended the conference than ever before. Between senators, congressmen and administrators, about 40 Washington influencers were on the ground. Everyone from New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) to Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington) were speaking on panels and mingling with entrepreneurs. They were all learning about technology and bridging the gap between Washington, D.C. and innovation and the changes in community. Discovering techniques on how companies organise or create high performance teams to delivery creativity, results and innovation was top of mind.

Jedi Mind Tricks to Drive InnovationA couple of good examples of people thinking included Nicole Glaros, Partner, Techstars Ventures & Chief Product Officer at Techstars talk titled Jedi Mind Tricks for Entrepreneurs. Nicole has a master’s degree in sport psychology, and a background in helping athletes overcome obstacles.

Don’t fire employees after a major mistake, embrace them was a key theme on how to get innovation happening . Conscientious employees won’t make that same mistake again and will be more loyal to you because of how you treated them.

Furthermore, you won’t have released a newly wiser person into the workforce to get scooped up by the competition. “Your best person is the person who just screwed up,” she says, “When people fear for their job, they aren’t going to [take a risk].” By treating your employees with affection, you create camaraderie and collaboration. “Creating an environment where you can be vulnerable is a powerful thing to do,” Glaros says. No one will succeed until they feel comfortable admitting to failure.

One instructional talk was from Brian Robertson who left a stable job and founded Ternary Software, a start-up software company that became a laboratory for experiments designed to answer the question what gets in the way of people working together as effectively as possible? In the most efficient way possible?. He learnt a lot on this topic and found techniques to remove organisation obstacles.


After a number of years on consulting on the topic he went on an founded Holacracy that is essentially a real-world-tested social technology for purposeful organisation. It radically changes how an organisation is structured, how decisions are made, and how power is distributed. 

Holacracy is a distributed authority system – a set of “rules of the game” that bake empowerment into the core of the organisation or team.

Unlike conventional top-down or progressive bottom-up approaches, it integrates the benefits of both without relying on parental heroic leaders. Everyone becomes a leader of their roles and a follower of others’, processing tensions with real authority and real responsibility, through dynamic governance and transparent operations. One of the larger companies that use Holacracy thinking is Zappos.


2. Wearables are in right now, at least when it comes to experimentation.

I’m sure it will take some time for the sector to find that right level of refinement, be it through insight or trial and error.

Intel views wearable technology as the new frontier of computing. The level of intimacy of wearable technology opens up a world of transformative experiences that is different from a smartphone. The devices on show in various trade halls are all aimed to enrich the users experience especially in fitness and health by providing data that can increase motivation, enhance training and ultimately improve performance.

This recognition is leading to some pretty interesting alliances between engineers, designers, marketing experts and sports scientists. The trend of “smart fabrics” where sensors are embedded directly into the fabric vs. existing on external devices is another example of where fitness-oriented wearables are headed. Wearables offer a level of intimacy and personalisation that cannot be matched by a smartphone, in addition to delivering more precise measurements by virtue of being closer to the body.

Tinitell the Kickstarter backed project, which is the brainchild of CEO and founder Mats Horn is essentially a phone that a child wears on his or her wrist, packing a week’s battery life (with 60 minutes talk-time), GPS and GSM connectivity, and a durable water resistant design. Very cool designs

Tinitell watch

Tinitell, a Swedish startup that makes a GPS tracking smart watch designed for kids, won the SXSW Accelerator Award for the wearables category.

3. Robots are now curating more and more content experiences but the speed is at the cost of craft.

Three years ago, media and advertising companies would say at SXSW they didn’t think it was possible to have robots or software write news articles and write ads. Now it would seem every single major news and media organisation will roll out at least one kind of automated product by the end of the year just to stay relevant.

Media Automation

Media Automation is on the increase

With mankind developing innovative ways to augment machine, what will happen to human journalists, human creative writing of any form if robots are introduced as writers more and more. Automation as theme at SXSW continues to gather speed and the biggest industries to be impacted is news media and advertising. Both for different reasons but both certainly impacted.

Machines are taking over. Programmatic, real-time bidding, automation and the finding of audience, the buying and selling of digital media is increasing but I didn’t feel it was making an impact for dollars spent yet. Over 70% of all digital advertising is now sold by one machine talking to another machine, and its growing more with every passing week. Publishers are desperately grasping onto business models that ignore old ethical boundaries and bend to media buyers will and in the process trade away their core value proposition to engage audiences.

Thank god for the experience killer creative content at MOFILM’s Industry mixer event.  Hosted by actor/director John Slattery, MOFILM’s legendary hospitality, stimulated and sate my appetite that branded advertising content is still very relevant and not one machine was in attendance.

4. The business of Sport Media is getting even bigger, louder and has no off season.

SXsports™ started in 2014 as a new convergence track of the annual event. The three-day, sports-focused programming features panel sessions, film screenings and meet ups. SXsports explores cultural impact and the human experience, tackles the future of sport in all its forms, and embraces entertainment and innovation.

Stadium Experiences

Consumer expectations and behaviours at events have changed

So many great panels but one I enjoyed a lot was Social Media Playbook: Activating Fans on Gameday, where they presented some case studies that explained how consumer expectations and behaviours at events have changed dramatically in the past five years– and how those expectations are being met at sporting events.

According  Brian Cheek, Director of Business Development at Postano and the other panelists, Wi-fi is now a requirement, fans check-in and order food with apps, and Instagram photos and selfless are the new proof that you attended a game at the actual stadium or arena. But key to it– the best part– is that they are using big screens in the venues to create the experience. It’s not about thousands of random posts. It’s about bringing all that together on huge digital screens to create the experience.

Virtual reality is a pipe dream no longer; the technology is here, and it's awesome.

Virtual reality is a pipe dream no longer; the technology is here, and it’s awesome.

Virtual and augmented reality took centre stage at this year’s SXSports where audience members were shown demonstrations on how the technology is being used in sports. A popular panel was The Future of Virtual and Augmented Reality in Sports with presenters Bob Bowman, President and CEO of MLB Advanced Media; Brent Dewar, Chief Operating Office of NASCAR and Rachel Nichols, Reporter for TNT/CNN. The discussion focused on the technology NASCAR and MLB have in place for their teams and fans. The biggest problem MLB must overcome is the pace of the game. Bowman says it is not realistic, they are looking for ways to eliminate the time between innings and pitches. He says viewers tuning in have a higher chance of seeing action if the pace of the game quickens. Bowman says the future of technology in baseball will include “mundane things” like being told which parking spaces are open, having tickets pop up on your phone as you enter the stadium, and being able to see which concessions have the smallest lines.

At the panel Acing the Sports Game with Oculus Rift, audience members were given cardboard cutouts with specialised lenses. They downloaded a Beyond Sports app on their phones and placed it in front of the cardboard cutouts. They were transported into a video game like soccer pitch. The panel members from Triple IT ran through plays where the audience members could see animated soccer figures running around them.

Second Screen Sport Experiences

Second Screen Sport Experiences

At the panel What’s in your Living Room? with presenters Jeff Beckham, Writer for Playbook/Wired, Mark Kramer, Head of Digital Technology at Pac-12 Networks, Spencer Hall, Editorial Director for Vox Media/SB Nation and William Mao, Head of College Sports Partnerships for YoutubeThe panel members focused on the transformation of television and how fans will be watching sports on TV in the near future. A good comments was “I think what I really want is the TV to know who I am,” Mark Kramer said. “I want it to know what I like, and for it to deliver linear TV to me.

We have this with Facebook where Facebook knows what you like and builds on that. We need the ability to personalise the entire TV experience: It can give you ads, it can give you offers, a number of incredible things.” Spencer said “People in sports want the shortest points to content and they don’t want the line around the fence, they will cut through the fence.”

5. Film is still the most inspiring and effective form of story telling. 

Thousands arrive in Austin, Texas, to attend the film festival component. While there is not as many distribution deals as at Sundance or Toronto, SXSW is starting to be a big launching pad for upcoming releases and focus for streaming on demand services.


Fresh off the debut season of his HBO comedy-drama “Togetherness,” the actor-director-producer and writer Mark Depluss delivered a rousing SXSW keynote about his successful indie experiences and his new Netflix deal. Worth a look when you have 45 minutes.

A few films that stood out were A Poem Is a Naked Person (24 Beats Per Second) a music-related documentary which was a unreleased 1974 feature by the late Director Les Blank about ’60s stellar session musician-turned-Me Decade headliner Leon Russell.

Lamb the novel by Bonnie Nadzam is a deeply uncomfortable drama inherently disturbing meditation on virtue and vice, by actor and director Ross Partridge, blurred lines between them that present themselves over the course of one 47-year-old man’s spur-of-the-moment camping trip with an 11-year-old girl he befriended in a burned-out Chicago parking lot. The film is as dangerously compelling and quietly terrifying as that premise suggests.

Steve Jobs Man in the Machine

Steve Jobs Man in the Machine

Another dark and reflective film was  Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine a documentary feature by Alex Gibney who is best know for his controversial Sundance film “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.”

His portrait of the Apple entrepreneur’s life and legacy is very confronting, brutal, mostly one-sided take on the late Steve Jobs. I am sure more will be said from Apple Executives over the coming weeks.

My favourite quote from the film sessions was from Brian Grazer the Academy Award–winning producer of A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Splash, Arrested Development, 24, 8 Mile, J. Edgar.  “The grey area between the question and the answer is where ideas are created.” The crux of Brian’s creativity stems from what he refers to as “curiosity conversations.” He meets with people who are experts in something other than show business. Subjects like politics, science, medicine, religion, and anything else is where he spends considerable time.

Conclusion: Get more curious and it’s OK to get emotional.

There is a genuine sense of discovery, inspiration and awe at SXSW like no other conference or festival in the world can create, and despite it being a hot mess of conflicting themes, brilliant innovation and over exuberance I think it works so well because it is all of these things.

My fourth year at SXSW I found the week fundamentally much more now an emotional experience as it is a high tech and creative one.  Thank you to everyone I met, the meetings, the talks and the gatherings and the long nights. SXSW does not ever seem to disappoint and I’m so lucky I was able to attend.

A big thanks must go to my employer Telstra for giving me a week out of the office to experience and learn.

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