Mind blown: The unexpected power of SXSW

The&Partnership's Scott Suthren on the sessions that blindsided him with a new way of thinking.


By Scott Suthren

This time of the year is one of the greatest identity defining moments in our business. Hating SXSW has become a badge, where it is cooler to say how over SXSW you are, how big it has become, and how it isn’t like it used to be.

When I hear those lines I can’t help but see marketers in cardigans gumming Jell-O salad pining for the “good old days” right before they settle into their sitz bath.

Being a cynical optimist, I can still find value in an event that has jumped the shark in the minds of the hip because there, in that bloated Interactive corpus, behind the forgettable Branding & Marketing stream, is magic that can inspire you. To find it, you have to give in to SXSW and let the fates steer you where they may.

This year was no exception. After a flight misfire that had me overnight at O’Hare in Chicago, I hit SXSW like a tortoise, ready, but well behind all the hares. By Sunday, however, I had built up a head of steam and was charging in. I went to a chat between James Frey (yep, A Million Little Pieces) and the head of Google’s Niantic Labs. They discussed ARGs, transmedia storytelling, Ingress and the launch of a new cross-platform narrative that they had partnered on. They spoke of archetypes, characters, and making the story real for the participants through the deep backstory they had created to embed people in a rich narrative.

I stumbled from the room with a mind awash in ideas and possibilities. It was inspiring, and so I bought his new book Endgame, stood in line and became really incoherent in lame fanboy fashion as he signed it for me. Walking away in a daze, and excited to get to work on new projects, I suddenly realized that I was going to miss my other scheduled session. Not wanting to waste the hour, I walked into a session called Confronting Injustice that was happening in the room right in front of me.

It nearly destroyed me.

The hall could have fit a thousand people but there were maybe a hundred or so in attendance. The man who got up to speak thanked us all for coming to hear him and started to speak in a calm, confident manner without any notes. His name was Bryan Stevenson and he said he was going to speak about his work advocating for condemned people, people on death row, people who are locked up for life with no chance for parole. As he spoke, I could see phones being lowered, iPads turned off, and laptop lids gradually being closed all around me.

He spoke about the fact that there are children in jail in the U.S. that have been incarcerated at 13 with no chance for parole and that they suffer terrible abuse. He spoke about a mentally disabled man, who had a speech impediment, desperately trying to speak as guards were dragging him off to his execution and who finally said “Thank you for trying to save me. I love you.” He told us he lives in a country that locks up and kills the broken and the forgotten. We sat in stunned silence. At the end, as he summarized his points, he smiled and said change will happen as long as we protect our hope. He exhorted us all to walk out of that session and “Beat the drum for justice.” His was the only session that I was in that received a standing ovation.

Afterwards I began to think about the contrast between the session with James Frey and this one. I also began to think about the parallels. To create a compelling story, to move people to action no matter where you work, to make change happen, you need to do something uncomfortable. You need to let yourself go somewhere challenging in order to break the part of you that is holding you back.

For the record, I am not attempting to put our business anywhere close to Bryan’s level. I am simply speaking about what I saw in SXSW through the contrast between those sessions. You can rage against SXSW, but every time you go to a smaller event, or you seek those who are more in line with your thinking, you have a greater chance of being in an echo chamber.

The chaos and scale that is SXSW massively increases the possibility that you will be blindsided with a new way of thinking  - and that is a good thing.

Our business lives or dies by the insights and the creative that they inspire. To get great insights we need to borrow from IDEO and “look at the edges of human experience to learn something about ourselves.” Behind all the trends, the douchbaggery, the parties and Grumpy Cat lies a door to an edge. All you need to do is stop trying to wear the hater badge, and let yourself walk through it to that uncomfortable, magic place.

I will beat the drum for justice when I can. I will spread the word about Bryan’s work and protect my hope that he will do great things. I also bought his book and stood in line to get his signature. At the table, I was coherent and calm. I asked him to sign it to my children.

Scott SuthrenScott Suthren is digital strategy director at The&Partnership.

Top image courtesy of Shutterstock