The first SXSW interactive was held in 1994. Originally, it was called SXSW Multimedia and in the early days, there was a skeleton staff, no keynotes, and it was described as two days of “cutting edge visual creatives milling about looking for a free cup of coffee.” By 1997, it got a name change to SXSW and a refresh with some serious speakers in tech, but it was still the much-lesser festival to its big brother SXSW Music. 2007 was the stuff of history when the launch of Twitter put SXSW on the big media map. This makes SXSW officially 24 years old in human terms — a college graduate and a millennial. But it’s aging like fine wine, and so are its attendees.
I’ve gone to SXSW interactive for nine of its 24 years. When I first started going, most of the attendees were the hoodie-clad set that’s the uniform of start-up founders. I felt really old. Last year, I noticed that more of my “mature posse” was showing up at events. I began to randomly run into people I’d never before seen at South by. People I know from my true “adulting” life. People who looked like me. Gotta confess, they were as giddy as the junior agency people who used to go to interactive for free drinks and to bring back cool ideas for the firm.
This year, that trend of mature attendees has turned into a full-on parade of old folks. (I use the term “old folks” gingerly. No disrespect for my mature brethren intended). Walking into the convention center this year, I saw a sea of grey-haired people. Not a hoodie in sight. Yikes. Will SXSW end up like Facebook, I wondered? Remember, when grandma showed up, all the cool kids bolted. With so many mature attendees, has SXSW lost its relevance?
To test my thesis of the greying of SXSW, I asked the opinions of several long-time interactive goers to get their take on the aging of SXSW.
I ran into a true agency veteran in Tim Scott. He’s 64 years old and CMO of Land O’Lakes, and I asked him if he had any concerns about South by getting so old. He assured me that it’s actually a good thing. “It’s not all young people who have great ideas. Great ideas are going to come from everywhere.” He viewed it as a resurgence of sorts:
“If it’s only young people or old people, they are going to just talk to themselves.”
Greg Galant, the founder of Muck Rack, is a relative young buck at only 36. He views the aging of SXSW as a direct correlation to more brands attending. He’s been to SXSW 11 times and reminded me that in the early days, interactive was the inferior festival. “The first (SXSW) was a sideshow to SXSW film, which was a sideshow to SXSW music, and nobody really cared about it. Today, brands care. It’s a classic case of counter culture becoming culture and no longer counter culture.”
Martin Jones, of Cox Media Group, who I must confess (with his wife, Perla) is my first and forever SXSW ride or die. You know, that friend who will leave the party with you when the music gets too loud and it’s 9 pm? Martin had this to say: “It’s evolved as far as attendees go. Five years ago, SXSW was all about social media, Snapchat, Periscope, etc. Those things dominated. As a result, you also had the social media influencers. Today it’s very tech-oriented. Tech and the technology that’s doing business, so you have a very different audience.”
A signal that SXSW is getting older may be found in the very first session I attended, “How Midlife Women Work Their Entrepreneurial Mojo.” One of my old friends, Ricki Fairley of Dove Marketing, was on the panel. She’s scary smart — like worked with Barack Obama smart. I asked Ricki if the aging of SXSW was a good thing or a bad thing. Her response in all her 62 years of acumen?
“It signals that SXSW is ready for wisdom. The whole emphasis on tech is great — experience is what will make it successful moving forward.”
SXSW and Brian Solis go together like peanut butter and jelly. He’s been a fixture (and a frequent keynote speaker) at interactive as long as there’s been an interactive. He was there in his usual perch in the Mercedes TechSet Media Lounge (formerly the Comcast lounge). I asked him about my hypothesis. He didn’t quite agree.
To Brian, “SXSW has always been ageless. It attracts both industry veterans and youth who are invested in learning. In fact, you can say SXSW is #ageless. Quote me on that.”
Well, Brian, we did.
The serial marketer, David Berkowitz, brought his 40 years of wisdom and 11 years of SXSW-going to my question. “We’ve been waiting for this. For so long, it was unusual to find senior-level people on the marketing business side at SXSW. It started coming when SXSW started getting media attention. It used to be a perk for 20-somethings at agencies and brands. They’d send them hoping they’d bring something back to the organization.” In fact, Berkowitz thinks the aging of SXSW is a good thing. “Today, you can have more meaningful conversations because you can see and meet with people who have been around a while. There’s also less pressure because the hype has faded. It’s no longer about figuring out what the next BIG THING is.”
Laura Pevehouse, who’s been at Dell for 18 years, is so much an industry veteran that she has the word “chairman” in her title. What may really age her is that she was named a “social media maven” way back in 2009. Laura’s another one of those friendly faces in my age group. She had a few concerns about the aging of South By. “We need to make sure you don’t lose the young people because they bring fresh ideas. It’s no longer exclusively the place for 20-somethings. There’s really something for everybody. It’s not necessarily getting older, there’s just more diversity of ages…
“We have five generations in the workforce now and SXSW reflects that.”
Richard Dunn, who wears history on his t-shirt (literally, his SXSW t-shirt reads “Maynard, Andrew, Maynard, Bill, Shirley, Kasim, and Keisha”) had a positive feeling about the aging of SXSW. He said, “It’s a natural thing for SXSW to get older. Those who grew up in the creative community and made a living in the creative economy have evolved with the festival. It’s a great thing because those of us who are 35 and older understand longevity, sustainability, and how to strengthen the infrastructure.”
On my last day, I ran into the true elder statesman of SXSW, Guy Kawasaki. He was there sharing insights from his 15th book, aptly named Wise Guy. If there was a council of chieftains in tech, Guy would be at the head of the table. I asked him if the aging of SXSW was a good thing or a bad thing. In true elder leader fashion, his response was as enigmatic as it was simple. “There’s no real value judgement. It’s good if old people come and it’s good if young people are coming.”
So there you have it. SXSW interactive is getting old — and it’s neither a good thing or a bad thing. It’s simply a sign of the times, and a reassurance that as new, sharp minds enter the tech and marketing industry, they’re joining a sage society of experienced pros who provide priceless perspective on generations past. And that’s an unstoppable combination I’ll absolutely cheers to.