“Live in the future, then build what’s missing.” is a great piece of advice from Paul Graham – founder of Y Combinator. Graham said it in an essay on his site in Nov 2012 in relation to creating successful start-ups. Even though it wasn’t said at South By it really sums up what the whole thing is about. It’s a great attitudinal approach that can apply to all areas of creativity. It sums up a philosophy that has always helped creative minds produce great work. Great creativity has always been about pioneering, the invention of something new, or a new combination or context to create something that’s never been done before. Us creative types are striving for that freshness and excitement that the genuinely new gives us when we experience it or, better still, when we create it ourselves. There’s something about SXSW that makes you feel that kind of raw creativity is alive and kicking. In fact, it’s more alive here at South By than any other conference and festival on the planet. Because SXSW sits at the intersection of brand, technology, business and creativity – it has genuine cultural relevance.
The trouble with most advertising festivals and awards is they are so one-dimensional and self-congratulatory. Focussing on just one or two facets of a brand’s behaviour (short-lived campaigns) with little regard for effectiveness or long-term brand growth. There was a time when advertising as a discipline felt far more significant and culturally relevant. If you were a young arty type or smarty-pants in the 80’s advertising was the industry to get in to if you wanted to produce highly visible work that made a difference. And the same types of people in the 90’s and noughties were compelled towards the internet and built digital marketing as we know it. But now, in it’s relative maturity, the whole integrated-marketing-communications-thing just feels a bit stale, irrelevant and invisible. Just ticking boxes on the ever-growing list of marketing channels – desperately trying to get audiences to engage in the same tired old tactics and themes.
And just like in the 80’s, 90’s and noughties the savvy youngsters of today are magnetised by the alluring glow of creativity. But now that gravitational pull is towards the tech superstars and bedroom geeksters – the guys and gals inventing new platforms, products and services. This is where the new creative energy is. This is the new centre of gravity for the pioneers. I’m sure the bright young things of today are either lining up to join Google with the rest of ‘em or hacking their way through a bedroom start-up. I doubt they’re doing grad schemes or internships at advertising agencies.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for communications agencies. If anything the emphasis on tech, NPD and service design creates a great opportunity for adland. Ad agencies get brand. And if it’s one thing the world needs more than ever it’s big emotional brand ideas that inform an entire business’s behaviour. The most powerful brands in the world have a high order belief and behaviour that galvanises their people and products to create growth. Helping brands and businesses get to this kind of top-tier strategic thinking and then telling those stories through content, products and services is a genuinely valuable skill. A skill that brand and communications agencies have been honing for decades.
The legendary, long-term relationships like Nike and W+K or Apple and TBWA go way beyond communications and reach more into creative business consultancy, effecting and creating the very DNA of the brand and its output. The ad industry needs more relationships like this. But it’s worth noting that both of these relationships were started when the brands were small and risky. The agency believed in the brand, the products and the people and together they built something incredibly valuable.
So in today’s landscape it will be the agencies that can reach out and add value to the inventors and start-ups that will create growth for themselves and the communications industry over the next few decades. So the big agencies need to rub shoulders and make friends with the techsters and geeks eating BBQ at SXSW. And agencies need to connect with and support the entrepreneurs and start-ups in their cities too. Those guys and gals are creating the big brands of tomorrow and they need help. Together, like Graham says, we need to “Live in the future, then build what’s missing”. You never know, maybe both worlds will learn something and have a little fun along the way too.