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THE VIEW: Impressions of The Inaugural SXSW Sydney
A.I. A.I. A.I. A.I. A.I. A.I. A.I. A.I. A.I. A.I. And, what am I forgetting? Oh yes...A.I!
Every October, despite living in Singapore for nearly 15 years now, my body craves a change in season and that craving, as with nicotine cravings, manifests as an all-purpose pissy-ness that my wife is long past putting up with. So, at the onset of each autumn I tend to decamp to somewhere cooler (in the barometric sense) to reset my body clock and save my marriage! This year's destination was SXSW Sydney, which I attended with my antipodean colleague Nurfilzah Rohaidi Lambert. Here's what went down…
Having observed attendees of the original SXSW in Austin, Texas posting glamorous selfies on social media for years I was excited to soak up similar vibes in Sydney but they were curiously absent, at least upon arrival. Vibes picked up through the week but on day one my impression was that most of the city had no idea what was going on and didn't care. The crowds were thin and installations were still being built whilst we attended our first few sessions. It definitely felt more conference than festival, at least until the bands started playing on Tumbalong Park of an evening, which eventually lured people out of the ICC and into the sunshine (check out Battle Snake by the way - they were 🤘😝!)
I used the excellent SXSW app to build a comprehensive schedule of sessions on marketing and advertising, of course, but also film and TV as I have an audio drama, film & TV development company called Pretty Neat Productions. However, the distance between venues was…unaccounted for, and I probably missed about one third of the things I wanted to see due to travel time. Of the sessions I did attend the film and TV folks were by far and away the most interesting, innovative and advanced compared to the marketing and advertising, which were actually woeful. And that brings me to the inevitable…
Of course A.I. was the massive, inescapable talking point of the event and the film and TV crowd had cool stuff to show including, for instance, https://othelia.co/, a private A.I. application that generates screenplays based on the world and characters created by a writer. The idea being that there are infinite stories to be told about a world if you are ambitious and rigorous enough about building it. This, coupled with https://www.midjourney.com/ and https://www.unrealengine.com/ can enable tiny, independent filmmakers and production companies to develop and produce world class content for less, and there were demos to prove it.
The film and TV sessions also showcased cutting edge production technologies like volumetric video, virtual production and advances in drone shooting all of which have the capacity to make every level of content creation more accessible, imaginative and immersive. However, in the marketing and advertising sessions, which were dominated by A.I. discussions, the only thing I gleaned was that (delete as applicable):
A.I. may/may not be the best/worst thing to happen to our industry since 5G/the metaverse/mobile but one things for sure it certainly won't displace people but allow them to spend more time being more creative (yeah, right!). Remember, A.I. won't replace you, someone using A.I. will (profound!).
The marketing and advertising sessions were filled with clichés and platitudes and the same advice repeated over and over again which was simply to "play with it, see what it can do and apply that to your own work". And the only use case anyone could offer was that they could now produce 200 versions of a creative in seconds. Well, so f***ing what? Any one of us can do that now using Canva's Magic Studio, which they released two weeks ago.
I can't express how underwhelmed I was with the ad industry, which had nothing to say about the impact of A.I. on research, measurement, analytics, content creation, storytelling, interactive experiences, anything! In fact I got the distinct impression no one speaking had actually played with anything except asking Chat GPT to write their bio for the brochure. I also have a sneaking suspicion that they don't want to let their clients know too much about it because despite their painted on smiles they know it's a massive threat to their outdated business models (Canva demonstrated how they have already reduced the average cost of an artwork for FedEx from $1,000 to less than $5). Or maybe I was just in the wrong sessions. Either way, by Thursday lunchtime I was done with A.I.
The keynote speakers were a massive highlight of the event and I caught three of the headliners including:
Cindy Gallop, the ONLY headliner who had actually gone to the effort of preparing a proper keynote presentation, which also cut to the real reason were were all there: 'How To Reinvent Aspirational Culture And Make A Huge Amount Of Money'. I have been a fan of Cindy of years and it was a real thrill to finally see her live!
Charlie Brooker took part in a fireside chat and was amiable, self-deprecating and smart. I appreciated hearing about how he gathers and processes his ideas for Black Mirror and was gratified to know that most concepts live in his head for years as just a line or a scene before he works out how to spin them into a story - me too brother!
David Droga also took part in a fireside chat, which unfortunately got stuck in a loop about A.I. that he seemed eager to get out of. He explained that creativity and being a "creative" was no longer restricted to advertising, where he got his start, but could be applied across business functions, along with technology, to create growth. As such he called for more creativity in areas such as finance, legal and HR, which I found both intriguing and inspiring.
Panels can be so hit and miss and I often debate myself over whether to attend them. Why? Because the obligation to inform, educate and/or entertain can be dispersed amongst too many people. Consequently panelists often come under-prepared and have a habit of laying back in their chairs like lounge lizards, greeting every question as though it's the first they've ever heard of it. Panels are a way for organisers to get bums on seats and create speaking opportunities for sponsors, and though every moderator claims they welcome opposing views rarely does anyone ever bring any. However, for every rule there are exceptions and, in my case, these were them:
Cindy Gallop, again, hosted a panel entitled 'Where Are All The Men?' and, as moderator, she understood the brief, compelling every panelists to speak in specifics and share actual, actionable advice that the audience could put to use immediately (more on that soon).
A panel entitled 'How New Technology Is Powering The Evolution of Story In Film' gathered together four representative from different parts of the production chain not to debate but to demonstrate how they took an AI driven animation project from concept to completion starting with the writer, Ally Burnham, who was part of the team that developed Othelia, then technologist Joe Miller, Director/Producer Mel Poole and actor Mike Goldman, and it was mind blowing (and, crucially, well rehearsed).
'Immersive Audio' was moderated by Karen Appathurai Wiggins, VP & Head of Content at Audible, and showcased three 'creative non-fiction' producers and their work in a session during which they candidly share the process of finding and telling compelling audio stories, including techniques.
And then there was a panel-cum-fireside-chat hosted by Kirsty Wilson from Meta and featuring Celebrity Chef Marion Grasby and Totem Head of Content Amelia Darmawan talking about 'Building Brands And Media Companies From Social Content'. They both came armed with case studies, numbers and more actionable advice for the audience, which I will certainly be putting to work. (Maybe women just work harder when asked to appear on stage 🤔)
With tracks on technology, music, gaming, film & TV the networking was plentiful but random. I met lots of lovely people, and everyone was up for a chat in every queue I joined and table I sat at, but I didn't meet many people who would directly benefit my business. That being said, I used to be a networking demon in my drinking days, but they belonged to my twenties, maybe now I simply can't keep up?
The networking breakfasts were the best format for me but the evening events were, in the words of my colleague Nurfilzah, alcohol fueled "bro-fests", which she couldn't stand and I can't really blame her.
Sydney was stunning, the temperature was perfect and I definitely came back with ideas for my business; four to be precise. I also got to spend lots of quality time with my colleague Nurfilzah who works remotely down under, which was wonderful. However, at S$1,700 per ticket excluding travel and expenses I might send her solo next time. But what are the best events you've been to for learning and networking and why? Let me know, I'm always up for an adventure.