SXSW 2023: Highlights and key takeaways

SXSW 2023: Highlights and key takeaways


This year, one of our planners at Havas Lynx Group headed over to Austin Texas, to attend South by Southwest (SXSW), an event that celebrates the convergence of tech, film, music, education, and culture, and allows those in creative industries to see cutting edge ideas and developments in multiple fields. Read on to see what Serena got up to and her three key takeaways from the festival.

When I found out I was lucky enough to be going to SXSW, I immediately checked out the schedule and was totally overwhelmed! There was SO much included, from education, music, and culture to tech, science, and medicine. I flew to Austin with a rough idea of the key events that I wanted to attend. The ‘tracks’ that stood out to me were: Advertising & Brand Experience, Health & MedTec, XR & Metaverse, and Music & Tech – as I heard New Order was in town with Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham.

The best way to describe my first full day at SXSW is this: it’s like a huge University, with industry-leading brands, professionals (and the odd celebrity), where you pick and choose whatever interests you that day. I noticed Les Binet was doing a talk on the important balance for scale-up companies, between short-term sales activation and long-term brand building. I headed along to the British Music Embassy’s Courtyard bar to watch him speak. One of my many takeouts is that no-one is immune to tech problems – Les’ presentation cut out on slide two, prompting someone in the audience to ask Les to draw the many graphs in his presentation using his hands instead. He obliged before saying **** it and giving up.

After this, I strolled to the main Convention Center to hear an agency and their client discuss why pharma brands shouldn’t shy away from gaming platforms to reach patients. It was called ‘Gaming and Healthcare: Unusual Bedfellows’. Their discussion broke stigmas of ‘who’ the average gamer is (aged 35+ with a 50/50 male/female split) and encouraged agencies and healthcare clients alike to begin to view gaming as ‘just another channel’. If the data supports it, just do it, they said.

I finished the day with tacos, popcorn, and a Ben Affleck film premiere.

Monday was a busy day! A talk called ‘Creatives and Scientists: Do They Think Alike’ immediately stood out to me due to nature of our work at Lynx, marrying the science and creative for brands, in our multi-disciplinary teams. A key finding from the study is that creatives and scientists gain inspiration from the same sources and are inspired by each other’s fields, but they do not state a strong desire to work together. In other words, there is an inspiration-collaboration gap. Some reasons for this include a misunderstanding of each other’s skill sets, jargon, and legal & regulatory barriers. You can read more about their study here.

Next, I attended what was a highlight of the trip for me, it was a discussion led by the Former Commissioner of the FDA, Dr Stephen Hahn, and Ambassador Deborah Birx MD, Senior Fellow at the Bush Institute. Their chat explored The Science and Politics of Vaccines. Discussion focused on how the FDA and other US health bodies reacted and continue to react, to the COVID-19 pandemic. They shared their biggest challenges in tracking COVID’s spread, to vaccine rollout, and highlighted mistakes made in their communication to the public. Really insightful.

After lunch and eating my 5th taco in less than 2 days, I headed to hear Andy Burnham and panelists discuss a new music festival coming to Manchester in October called Beyond The Music. Although music will be a focus, the festival sounds like a mini-SXSW, promising to “bring together tech, AV, gaming, brands and more, to build a creative alliance for the future”, so keep an eye out if you’re interested!

As you may expect, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Web3, and the Metaverse were hot topics. I must admit that the Metaverse case studies I heard felt experimental, ambiguous, and expensive – largely executed through NFTs by big fashion brands such as Gucci or Nike. A sentiment that sticks in my mind regarding the Metaverse is this: It’s been around for years. It’s gaming, it’s Sims. If you view the Metaverse like this, it feels much less daunting and easier to get your head around.

SXSW really was a great experience. Amazing speakers with a massively diverse line-up, it was hugely inspiring to see people crafting their personal contribution to their industry and ultimately the world. I’m incredibly thankful to have been a part of it!

Here are my 3 key takeaways:

  1. Despite exponential knowledge growth, some laws never change. Look at what stays consistent in the ‘science’ of strategy, copy-writing, design, and advertising in general. What’s always worked? How can we use new ideas to enthuse these core principles?
  2. Brands entering the metaverse have to mean something. Don’t just turn up to the party expecting to have a good conversation. Have a purpose for being there.
  3. A historic problem, and the reason Lynx exists, but it really stood out: Science has a problem with communication. Creativity is key to solving it.