Lessons from SXSW: Y&R’s Gracie Page on ever-changing martech conferences and where innovators should go next

With a start to the tech year chock-full of big-name events that are just as big a bragging right as they are an innovation opportunity, I’ve started hearing rumblings of discontent from my adland colleagues. General displeasure with the enormity of headline events is leaving legs tired (MWC has a whopping eight halls to explore) and minds increasingly perplexed as to what value can really be extracted from an event where you’re a single drop in the ocean.

So what’s happened to our beloved calendar-staples, and what can you do if you actually care about unearthing horizon innovations?

Both Mobile World Congress and SXSW have been around since 1987, becoming mainstays of the technology and media spaces respectively. Starting as niche gatherings for enthusiasts, such meets are not only subject to growth thanks to the quality of the events themselves. They are also fuelled by growth of the core industries they serve and the societal importance they play, economically and culturally.

It being a practically unfathomable job to easily sum-up the explosive trajectory of the technology and media landscapes we’ve watched evolve over the past thirty years, suffice to say these once-small gatherings for aficionados have grown to appeal to, well, everyone and their mother.

When an industry, or should I say societal paradigm, becomes so important in pop culture, it becomes a badge that many seek to wear as part of their identity — of course one important part of identification is to see, and be seen, with gatherings of like-minded people. Thus, the mega-conference boom began.


So why is this bad? And why are people getting bored of events that attract thousands of attendees?

First off, let’s get real. The people getting antsy with mega-events are those looking to derive hard-to-attain value from them. They are the CTOs-in-residence at world-leading academic institutions and the award-winning entrepreneurs who are changing the face of online retail. They are the creative directors and heads of digital who want to explore new ideas so they can be innovators in their field; the people who make, build, and change things for the rest of us.

For these individuals, the growth of mainstream conferences and the associated cultural dilution – arising not least from ever-inflating ticket sales causing smaller innovation shops to be priced out – means they need to find or found new arenas for small, more meaningful conversation. Or at least a place where they can get exposure to a larger number of ideas quickly, then choose to lean in or move on.

Our industry’s largest start-of-year reunions have hit an inflection point: a shift from open-ended futurist thinking to pride of presence has begun, leaving many forward-thinking execs and their innovative employees hungry for the exploratory communities of yesteryear.

Large events won’t die: they’re flourishing under a new business model, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you want to hang out with the cool kids, everyone knows Coachella is no longer where it’s at. And these conferences are Coachella minus the flower crown. That’s not all bad: they remain good places to quickly gain exposure to mature innovations in a wide range of verticals. The SXSW conference alone covers topics including brands and marketing, design, programming, health, film and TV, influencers… need I go on?

But if you’re looking for more cutting-edge ideas to bring home to your agency, then put the below up-starts on your radar for 2019:

1. Hit up Tech For Britain on June 7th in London to be among the 300-or-so “technologists” in attendance to see presentations from some 40 digital leaders, including The Guardian’s chief digital officer and EY’s digital transformation leader.

2. Head to Copenhagen for TechBBQ (yes, it started as a barbecue get-together) to meet 1000 start-ups leading the way in Europe in verticals such as VR and AR, IOT, transport, clean tech, music, science, and education.

3. Technology for Marketing is the UK’s only conference solely focused on martech. Running for 16 years, this year’s theme ‘The Shift Back to Human’ promises to be a thought-provoking one for those interested in developing their opinion on AI, automation, and bots in the context of connecting brands with consumers.

4. If you’re still craving a big sexy event but want to feel smug when you ask your CEO for tickets to the hottest place in the world your colleagues didn’t know about, then check out:

* Collision, New Orleans

* VivaTech, Paris

* TNW Conference, Amsterdam

* NTDT, Dubrovnik.

You’re welcome.

Gracie Page is a creative technologist at Y&R London.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.
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