It’s Your SXSW Halfway Wrap!

It’s Your SXSW Halfway Wrap!

One man whose managed to get on on top of SXSW’s befuddling (and huge) agenda this week is EssenceMediaCom’s managing partner of technology and transformation Alex Kirk. Here, he delivers the event’s juiciest chestnuts as we hit the halfway mark…

If you’ve been in downtown Sydney this week, you’ll have been hard-pressed to miss that SXSW has come to town, the first time that the legendary Austin-based event has been put on anywhere except Texas.

EssenceMediaCom’s Alex Kirk 

Thousands of lanyard-wearing folk from tech, advertising, music, marketing, gaming, and beyond are here to spend the week at the hundreds of expert-led sessions being held at the ICC, the Powerhouse Museum, and many other venues across the city. SXSW Sydney runs until Sunday, but halfway through the conference, there are already some consistent themes appearing, both on stage and about the festival itself.

AI Hot Takes

Just about every possible take on AI is on offer at the conference, but keynote speaker Amy Webb’s was notably bloody. Based on deep statistical modelling, she sees a range of possible outcomes, but the one she’s most worried about is that “at some point we might just lose our agency” as AI makes everything frictionless.

Amy Webb

While that can sound like a positive, she asked her packed audience to imagine having one or two paper cuts, but then “think about your entire body covered in five thousand paper cuts – you’re still alive, but life is nothing like it was before.” Her fear about one of AI’s possible future states is not based on murderous robots, but that “our lives can be made worse in ways that are largely invisible at the beginning”.

Funding For Good

There’s also plenty of giddy optimism on display too, moments where speakers talked about how the creative and technology industries have the capacity to improve our lives.

Cindy Gallop

GroupM’s global CEO, Christian Juhl, flew in to talk about how advertising can – love it or hate it – change the world for the better, while both Professor Fiona Wood (inventor of the revolutionary ‘spray-on skin’ used to heal severe burns) and Cindy Gallop (founder of both talked about how their businesses are moving old practices into newer, better spaces. At the core though, was a call for funding – as Prof. Wood bluntly put it, “if you want to make a difference, you need funding”. Much of the undertow was that funding is being directed towards businesses that do not have our best interests at their core.

Using Data

As well as AI, there have been some interesting uses of data on display. Keynote speaker Amy Webb is a gifted presenter and a fabulous story-teller, but her stage presence shouldn’t take away from the core of her business, using statistical models to predict possible outcomes for business scenarios.

Rohit Bhargava

Rohit Bhargava meanwhile collects thousands of data points every year from across the culture to identify and define the sorts of trends that might not appear obvious at first. A fascinating presentation by Seer Data shows how data that already exists can also promote democracy itself by empowering local activists and social projects. Just for balance on the data front though, Alison Tilling, Chief Strategy Officer, VMLY&R stood up for the more purist creative, saying “we are not data haters, but we are here to resist the tyranny of it. The story of going with your gut is told in the history of humanity. It’s also our best hope of thriving in the future.”

The Government Is Showing Up

The Minister for Tourism and Sport of the New South Wales government, John Graham, teased a major arts policy announcement towards the end of this week. He shared few details, but raised one of the biggest cheers of the day when he announced that “the days of a single neighbour’s complaint shutting down live music venues are coming to an end.” SXSW Sydney has caught the government’s eye, and any increased government attention given to the creative and arts industries will certainly be welcomed. Former minister Victor Dominello was also on stage at a Seer Data event at WPP House, passionately and knowledgeably talking about the need for transparency, digital identity, and verifiable truth in media. 

Kristi Mansfield and Victor Dominello

Beyond the specifics in the conference though, what boggles the mind is simply the sheer scale of the event. Well over a thousand individual sessions, events, and activations are happening across this week, across dozens of venues, and involving thousands of people. It’s already been three days of new ideas and breakthrough thinking, and it’s only halfway done. As most of the speakers have all pointed out, doing something for the first time is a difficult task, but at its mid-point SXSW Sydney so far is making an astonishing amount of hard work look easy.




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