AdTech in Texas: Dispatch From SXSW

PLUSH DIGITAL helps marketers navigate (and thrive amid) the complex, high-velocity world of advertising technology, or AdTech. It’s constantly mutating, and it’s chaotic — albeit chaos of the somewhat organized kind. Neil Bar-or and I, who together run Plush Digital, refer to the whole glorious mess as the AdTech Rodeo. Our purpose is to help our clients ride the technological bulls and rope the ad-industry calves. 

With that in mind, Neil and I recently made the annual voyage to perhaps the only tech stronghold with actual rodeos in the vicinity: Austin, Texas, which every March hosts South by Southwest, the tech-and-music-and-food-and-media jamboree (and crowds as well — oh, God, the crowds).

SXSW — or “South By,” as the hip and those trying hard to be hip call it — launched in 1987, almost entirely as a showcase for bands looking for their first big break. (The groups on the bill that year included the Hickoids and Bad Mutha Goose, so it’s unclear how beneficial the festival was before it found its footing.) In the ensuing three decades, though, it has exploded in popularity and influence and has become, among much else, the world’s biggest advertising-creativity extravaganza.

The sessions I attended were uniformly interesting and professionally put together. I especially enjoyed “Social Media Is More Than a Metric,” hosted by Rod Favaron, who runs an Austin-based social platform called Spredfast. (A fantastic presenter with a funny, casual style, Favaron was a useful reminder of the importance of that utterly analog attribute: good public speaking.)

Favaron’s primary focus was the critical role authenticity plays in social-media marketing. He chose the term advisedly; authenticity has become an almost pathologically overused buzzword in marketing. As with Potter Stewart and pornography, authenticity is hard to describe, but most people know it when they see it — and all the social metrics, accordingly, reflect that.

To illustrate, Favaron introduced a chart he called “The Bill-Ellen Humanity Spectrum.” At the left end is Bill Belichick, the taciturn (not to say grumpy) head coach of the New England Patriots, perhaps the best-known example of someone who sticks to the old-school, reserved (again, not to say grumpy) approach to dealing with others. At the right end is the woman whom many regard as the apotheosis of friendly and genuine: Ellen DeGeneres. She represents a more modern mode of communication: open, garrulous, cheery, charismatic.

Brands, Favaron observed, tend to gravitate toward one side or the other. Those that do well are learning to be much more comfortable with transparency and sharing on social networks — the Ellen way. (The Bill way works for Belichick, of course, but a football coach plays by different rules than your brand does.)

An extremely unlikely example of the Ellen way is TSA, the Transportation Security Administration. It’s hilarious on social media, with an avid Instagram following thanks to its regular posts documenting the bizarre items — meat cleavers, live eels — it confiscates from hapless travelers. Taco Bell, too, is regularly cited for its innovative work. (Check out its Snapchat channel in particular.)

One SXSW symposium I’d love to see on the agenda: “How to Host a Huge Event Without Driving Everyone Insane.” The festival is a fascinating display of innovation and technology — but the organizers sell way too many tickets. Something’s amiss when between 50 and 100 people (my own unscientific estimate) get turned away from most sessions for lack of space. People were mad, and rightly so: If you’d spent up to $1,300 for an attendance badge, you’d be pissed too.

Other places that were packed: Austin’s restaurants. Neil and I didn’t go near Franklin Barbecue, perhaps the best smoked-meat merchant on the planet. On a quiet day, the line is two hours. I imagine there are still people outside who showed up March 15 and are still patiently waiting to get in. We went to Iron Works instead for brisket and sausage — a capable pinch-hitter, for sure. We also hit up a new joint called the Austin Taco Project; delectable details nearby.

In all, it was a great trip. If I weren’t going for business, I’d pick a different week to poke around Austin. I’d certainly advise the organizers to do something, anything, about the swelling crowds. But forget about all that: For me, SXSW lived up to its reputation as an unparalleled playground of human ingenuity and creativity. And mind-blowing food. Bad Mutha Goose, the Hickoids and the teeming masses of humanity packed into the city for one week every March know exactly what I’m talking about.