Why ad people shouldn’t go to ad talks

sxsw · Thoughts-

Originally published in Mumbrella.


It’s a typical Saturday at SXSW – half the world’s elite brand and ad execs are standing in a stifling queue that snakes from level four of the Austin Convention Centre down a fire escape, onto a balcony, and down three corridors. The stragglers won’t make it in to see “Why a great UX is key to advertising”, or whatever session has everyone’s attention this time, and will be left wandering the streets with an hour to kill (tragic).

This is what they call survival of the fittest (quite literally, considering the speed you’d need to have walked three blocks from your previous session to get there). And it’s been the scene at every major brand, tech or advertising session this week – from TikTok to ChatGPT.

But two blocks over, an entirely different dynamic is playing out – to an almost empty room.

NASA is talking about finding literal life on other planets, with seats to spare. Kamala Harris’ ex-speechwriter is breaking down the ultimate level of crisis comms and I’ve got half a row to myself. Start-ups are handing out powerful frameworks for problem-solving through Afrofuturism, Indigenous women storytellers are sharing how creative industries could operate under Indigenous protocol and values, and disabled astronauts are talking about the possibility of a ‘post-disability’ world through universal design, and there are no queues. Frankly, few people outside their actual communities are in attendance.

Why are ad people only going to fancy advertising talks, while the real people sit in the next room, changing the world?

Source: SXSW Credit: Photo By Andy Wenstrand

The examples listed above were some of the most insightful talks I’ve ever attended, and left me with functional frameworks and knowledge to embed directly into my work back home. I learnt more about science communication in the NASA talk than I did in years of study. I learnt more about accessible design principles from the AstroAccess team, who are designing spacecrafts for people with vision, hearing or limb loss, than reams of ‘how to make it accessible’ articles. These keynotes were far more useful than the Disney guy waving around his light saber to a packed room (not a euphemism). Why then was I one of the few attendees?

As brands and agencies, we claim to want to ‘know our audiences’ back to front – to truly understand what makes people tick. Yet when it comes to unpacking the trends and opportunities of our future, we only listen to other brands and agencies.

Maybe the joke is on us. Are we just the victims of really good marketing from SXSW? The program ‘features’ some sessions for the time-poor to attend without digging any deeper. They’re usually the name-drop events, or the ones on trends and theory – full of what I’d call Googleable stuff – and they’re consistently overflowing despite that fact that most are being recorded and will be available on demand later.

Maybe we – like all unsuspecting humans – just tend to follow the flock.

Or maybe that vast majority of us are not actually willing to take the risk of popping our bubbles. Australia’s ad industry is a homogenous echo chamber (and other countries behave similarly) in which we say we welcome diversity and new ways of working, but really, we mean we welcome another rant about ChatGPT.

Curious Futures shared in their session at SXSW that English-speaking ‘futures’ forecasters are mostly male (2/3), white (86%), boomer (52yo avg), and located in western developed markets (95%).

“This is a sliver of the world’s population and does not represent the world’s diversity,” says the team who commissioned the research, “and yet this is the profile of the loudest and most influential voices in foresight who are shaping all of our futures.”

For us, it begs the (uber-generalised) question – if marketers are only interested in marketing to marketing people, who’s going to actually buy the product?

Poshmark CEO Manish Chandra gave an (averagely attended) talk on building community as a business imperative. He said one of the reasons his $1.6 billion fashion resale marketplace has seen unmatched growth for over 12 years now (recently expanding into Australia) is that they listen to their community first, and peers later.

Every activation they’ve done, every new product feature, is based on what their community of sellers and buyers need. Through deep listening, they’re able to productise existing behaviours and market them in a way that builds true loyalty and helps them innovate faster. They don’t bother so much with trends, as with real customer needs.

At NASA, a whole raft of their most profound insights about life in space actually come from research on Earth – and vice versa: Earth scientists and oceanographers learn so much more about our planet when they look at data gleaned from elsewhere in the solar system (for example, we heard from Lia Siegelman herself about her findings that Earth and Jupiter have almost identical ocean patterns). Sitting in an echo chamber just can’t compete.

In a panel hosted by Frog (creative consultants to the likes of Apple, Coca-cola), someone called it “widening the aperture of your thinking,” and encouraged brands to always look to other industries and communities for inspiration, not just the one you’re in.

I’m not saying don’t go to the most popular talks – I get that there’s something powerful about sharing a ballroom with that many eager minds and hearing from your heroes. All I’m saying is also keep your eyes wide open to the insights and innovations happening on the ground – whether you’re at SXSW, or at home in Australia.

All the UX theory in the world will do you no good if you aren’t able to understand your user – and today, the user has never been more complex, more diverse, and more global. We could learn a lot about how they tick if we showed up to their story.