The lesson from SXSW: “Live in the future, then build what’s missing.”

“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.


Love Your Job

Ode to technology

Being stuck in the #ashtag wasn’t actually that bad. Yes I missed my wife. Yes I missed my kids. But really, I was connected the whole time: iPhone and Facebook made it seem like I was very near home. Crazy how the world has changed in just a year or two. Made me think of this again:


Love this RG/A talk. At 30 mins in there’s a nice way of splitting up what agencies do for clients into 3 groups:


I love thinking about platforms (Nike+ etc) – far more exciting for me and far more rewarding for punters too.

Very interesting take on the type of skills we need in agencies these days. A neat chart to articulate Traditional Storytellers vs Digital peeps and Thinkers vs Do-ers. Interestingly I would put my self slap bang in the middle (dunno whether thats good or bad?!)


Full vid:

Music I like, Music I used to Like, Music you like


Finally, after all the joking, we’ll get to be in Minority Report

Astounding how Sci-fi has such a high hit ratio of fiction becoming reality. And the time it takes its speeding up. This is amazing:

Molecular Gastronomy

Had the most amazing experience with Bernard Lahousse, an internationally renowned food scientist and founder of CREAX Food. He advises all the top chefs in the world on the chemistry behind food. He’s the guy behind all the weird science that Heston Blumenthal uses. So he gave us a great talk on food pairing, the essence of which is: ingredients that taste good together always have a certain molecule in common. He’s created a site that documents all the possible flavour combinations for any given ingredient. It’s a bit like the visual thesaurus but for food. Another interesting thing he mentioned was THE perfect way to cook a steak. Its a myth that you can ‘seal in the juices’ by searing the meat quickly – that hissing you hear is moisture escaping. The best way to cook a steak is… bake it on a low heat (53ºC to be precise) for an hour then whip it out and sear it for 10 secs on each side. It will be perfectly cooked and the most tender and juicy steak you ever did have – with no resting or anything.

But the great thing was after we’d talked about the theory in abstract we then got to actually taste molecular gastronomy at its best. We were incredibly privileged to wrangle a private opening of Roger Van Damme’s Lunch lounge Het Gebaar especially for us. This is like the Belgian equivalent of The Fat Duck and it was quite simply the most amazing food experience I’ve ever had. We had a live demo of some food science, liquid nitrogen etc. and then into several courses of exquisite dining and great wine. The food itself was very poncey obviously, but I guess it’s the haute couture of cooking so you can forgive its pretentiousness. Beans on toast tonight.


Great talk from Reginald Van de Velde about urban exploration, or Urbex as its known. These guys visit abandoned buildings and forbidden places and take the most amazing photographs documenting their adventure. It’s a very secretive and respectful scene – their aim is protect and preserve these phenomenal places they discover. Their motto: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints…”


It seems in this digital age that doing things in the real world (as opposed to online) has become such a rarity that ‘in real life’ itself has acquired its own internet abbreviation: IRL.

This got me thinking, as did Russell Davis’ post digital thought, about purely digital things being a bit boring now. How many more microsites do we need? The exciting stuff is connecting real life with digital. A couple of examples are Doritos Dodgeball by AMV where web visitors can aim dodgeball canons at human targets IRL.


And Fallon’s Blast Studio for the BBC where you can make a mess IRL with various bits of cool arty equipment that seem to be left over from Fallon’s other campaigns for Sony and the BBC.


These kind of cross-media experiences are neither cheap or easy to put together and its interesting they’ve been made by a couple of big traditional agencies making deliberate inroads into the digital world.

EVOLVE at Foot Locker with Nike Tuned 10