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SXSW 2017 What we think we know

We made it back in (nearly) one piece. There was only one night where, between the Forrest Green drinks reception and the Elephant Room margarita marathon with the legends from Taxi Studio, that we thought we’d permanently broken something, but we made it out alive. In fact, we feel more alive, invigorated and inspired than ever after a week in Austin Texas.

The biggest problem now is how to make sense of it all. Once the jet-lag subsides and real life seeps in, it’s hard to piece together the whirlwind that makes the conference the most important date in the creative calendar (I know Cannes is a big deal, but I feel a little uncomfortable with the champagne, chest beating wankery that it’s become). If we get into the detail here, we’ll never see the bigger picture, so instead, let’s look at the important themes we packed into hand luggage with us.

If you’re relying on data to tell you what to do, you’re doing it wrong.

Data wasn’t a dirty word in Austin, far from it, but the reliance of agencies, clients and brands on data doing the hard work for them certainly was. One talk from proved beyond doubt that focus groups are too small and too biased to be reliable and then Netflix waded in on the debate with a wealth of statistical proof that hypothesis, experiment and result is the only way to go. SapientNitro questioned the questions themselves, creating a springboard for a new creative approach to UX and Candice Morgan from Pinterest showed that data only tells a small part of any story, and that we must be brave enough to write our own truths and put them out into the world.

Brands must have purpose

This is not news right? But at SXSW it was a subject squarely back on the agenda. From Gary Vaynerchuk (talking sense) to Casey Neistat (talking Nike), the idea of brands meaning more and doing more was a theme you couldn’t avoid. At Halo we look at purpose as ‘Reason to Exist’ and ‘Reason to Believe’, preaching the transformative change that comes from living purpose, but in a world where short term ROI shouts loudest it’s sometimes hard for these important ideas to gain traction. Maybe with the big personalities in creative and strategy calling for a brand revolution, on the most important stage in the world, there will be a renewed appetite to work harder at thinking differently.

Virtual Reality is fucking everywhere

Honestly, I’ve never worn so many headsets. There was the full immersion suit where you flew around shooting stuff and you could feel every explosion. There was the game where you collected gold and traveled around on a mining cart. There was the Swiss invention where you strapped into a machine that let you fly like a bird over New York. There were virtual music studios, virtual alien invasions, virtual African safaris and virtual wanking machines (we gate-crashed the Fleshlight Interactive launch party – it was weird).

But in amongst all this virtual entertainment there was a Dutch VR invention that was simply awe inspiring. Sensiks is a VR booth that is being used in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, taking soldiers back to the moments of extreme stress in virtual reality and then scrabbling the brain signals at the acute point of stress in-order to reprogramme the brains response to the memories of war. In clinical trials in the US and Europe this treatment is easily out-performing other traditional techniques. VR for better mental health.

And don’t get me started on NASA. They use VR to walk on the surface of Mars to study the geology of the planet. That’s right, they have a holodeck. I’ll just leave that thought with you.

Sony are not evil

You remember how Sony used to be pretty awful, hiding malware in their products like an insidious evil empire hell bent on controlling the world like a demented puppet master? Well, turns out they are no longer bellends and are actually doing some incredible things. The Wow Factory at SXSW was an exhilarating journey into the future of tech entertainment. And they gave us t-shirts and hats. And stickers. And all we had to do was give them our passwords for all social media, fingerprints and let them scan our retinas.

It’s not about what’s new, it’s about what’s good

If you’ve been working with front-end technologies for the last 10 to 15 years, you’ll be more than aware of the explosion in tools and frameworks that have become available to help us leverage the power of this technology. But the pace of change and innovation has been steadily accelerating, so how do we keep up without succumbing to “framework fatigue”? ‘Let’s Make JavaScript Great Again’ showed how this language was first developed in 10 days, and how the changing browser landscape brought us to where we are today. What was so interesting was the amount of discussion about picking the right tool for the job, and why the new and shiny isn’t always the best option.

The Japanese have the most fun with tech

In the trade-hall the best place to be was at the Japanese stand. Why? Because when they weren’t making the worlds thinnest electric guitar, they were making electronic cat ears that activated by flapping wildly when the wearer’s posture was poor. They we’re exhibiting amazing technology built for the joy of it. And sometimes that’s enough.

Stay true to yourself

I know how that sounds. I can’t quite believe I’m writing it, but overwhelmingly what I learnt from SXSW was a singular, universal truth that everyone knows, but not everyone does. Stay true yourself.

For me, 12 years into building Halo, it’s easy to get a little jaded. We have amazing, talented people who work here. We have some incredible clients. But it’s hard work keeping the ship sailing and it’s easy to forget the ‘why’ in amongst the day-to-day. Maybe it was the margarita’s, but somewhere in the heat of Texas I remembered that all I ever wanted was to do insightful, original, successful and beautiful work for clients who cared about doing the same. That’s all we do. And if we want to keep on doing it, only work with people who think like you do.

Oh. And NASA are the best

NASA fucking rule.