Jess Wheeler's SXSW Diary #1

28958839_10155005293995044_1593585106226774016_n.jpgJess Wheeler (left), associate creative director at Fenton Stephens Sydney has been sent to SXSW 2018 in Austin, Texas. Wheeler is bringing daily updates for Campaign Brief readers, featuring only the very best of the conference.

First impressions

This is my first time in Austin, so before delving into the nitty gritty I thought I'd share my first impressions of the city that revels in 'being weird'. It's definitely a unique place. On the advice of some seasoned pros, I chose to stay in East Austin and haven't regretting a second of it. There's a bizarre, almost 'lord of the flies', vibe about it. Similar to what you might experience in Berlin, but completely different at the same time. Old decrepit weatherboard houses adorned with rusted Americana signage that you soon realise is an indicator that, in fact, there's some kind of business in there. Big vacant blocks of land with nothing but dirt, a few benches and a couple of banged up converted trailers or vans selling tacos or BBQ. Sometimes it almost feels like you're wandering through a town from one of the post-apocalyptic Fallout games, such is the ramshackle nature of how the place is put together. But the charm is immediately evident. Because you never know what you'll come across next. I haven't seen a single 7-11 yet. One house I stumbled past had some tables and chairs on the patio and a sign saying something like 'Jimbo's Sports Bar'. And it was an actual bar. Imagine trying to pull that off in one of our councils. You wouldn't last a day. I guess this must be that 'freedom' thing we keep hearing about. But on to the festival.
If you're changing something, make it for better

One of the most interesting sessions for the day was Bruce Mau's 24 Principles For Massive Change. And Bruce Mau knows a thing of two about massive change. He's designed everything from book covers to Mecca. Yes, Mecca. Not Mecca the cosmetics store in Richmond, I'm talking Mecca the holy city. We often like to complain about being asked to make client changes to a web banner, imagine receiving feedback on your concept for the birthplace of Islam. "Make the shrine bigger."

Everything he designs has to be done with beauty and empathy. It seems simple, but it's incredible how often this is forgotten in the pursuit of 'cost efficiency' and 'maximising return on investment'. We are magnetically drawn to things of beauty. People routinely travel to the ends of the Earth in pursuit of something beautiful. Yet we're all feeling the pinch of a spiralling race to the bottom in terms of the production costs and value of how we express our ideas. If it's not captivating it's not worth doing, and that's something we as creators and clients need to keep sight of. The empathy component resonated with me as a reminder to never lose sight of who you are creating for. We don't make ads only for ourselves, we make them for everyone else. Be empathetic with your ideas.

Another poignant takeout was that we are not above or better than nature, we are simply part of it. And in a culture where tribalism is becoming more and more prominent, it's important to remember that we're all human. We all came from the same place and we're all distant relatives. Creatives. Suits. Clients. Consumers. We often use our very own labels to defend why some people didn't 'get' our ideas, but at the end of the day the best ideas are universally loved by all.

Some other good points were made about leading through inspiration. Show people the way forward, don't beat them into submission. And whatever you're designing is effectively creating or changing a human experience. Make it a positive one.

A fad is not a trend

Another good talk I caught was 'The Anatomy of a Trend' by Carla Buzasi. On top of being a fantastic presenter, Carla had some great things to say about how trends start and how to spot them, and where we're headed from here. I was personally buoyant about the fact that, despite the modern obsession with it, data is only a piece of puzzle. And it's not even the primary piece. Trend forecasters still rely on human expertise and gut feel to spot emerging trends and then immense reams of data becomes the validator.

The other interesting component was about the two major trends that are resonating with younger generations. Wellness and Artisanal Experience. In short, the fast food generation that preceded theirs is being emphatically rejected. And that's not all. Large institutions in general, both corporate and government. Even the monetary system in the wake of crypto. Traditional capitalism itself is being rejected. The sharing economy is expected to be worth $335 billion by 2020. Big change is coming whether we like it or not, and the institutions we once thought immovable are already showing cracks.

Bots and banner ads

The last session for the day was 'Disinformation and the effects on democracy'. This was a heavy topic to finish on for my jetlagged and mildly hungover brain. The panel included propaganda experts and even an ex-CIA operative. The most interesting tidbit was perhaps the discussion around how proponents of propaganda and 'fake news' are targeting our democracies. They are using social media to profile their targets and tailor them content at the times, moments and places they are most susceptible. They monitor the engagement, and then re-target to embed the message. Sounds awfully familiar doesn't it?

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