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‘Postcards from the edge: a conversation about the future’ / Dan Machen, Billington Cartmell on SXSW

by on March 16, 2013 in Apps, Best advertising story, Ecommerce, Email Marketing, Events, FaceBook, Google, iPhone, Lead story, LinkedIn, Metrics, Mobile Marketing, Mobile/Tablet, Online Advertising, Online Video, Pinterest, QR Codes, Research, Retail, Retail News, Search Marketing, Social Media, Twitter, Uncategorized

The South by Southwest Interactive Conference & Festival is described as the “unique convergence of original music, independent films and emerging technologies….the premier destination for discovery”.

Dan Machen, Head of Innovation, Billington Cartmell writes …’Can Ad Agencies & Brands Humanise Technology?’ .. I’m here in Austin, Texas, ready for the opening and conscious that I’m crossing a number of very weird lines.

Firstly, there’s the strange geographical delineation of Texas – with its abrupt 90 degree side, it seems like the State itself somehow represents the collision of analogue and digital about to take place at its cultural heart. Next, there’s the record-breaking number of devices and chargers I have chosen to mule to the U.S. to record and report the sights and sounds of one of the world’s largest interactive festivals. And finally, there’s South by Southwest itself – as a music, film and interactive gathering, it’s the ultimate nexus of ‘art meets science’.

That’s the reason I gave to my boss back at marketing agency Billington Cartmell in London – who understandably said “can’t we just Google it?” – for going. It’s not just about the new tech, or ‘how’ we do things. It’s about meeting people and sharing the connective human ideas behind the tech – ‘why’ we do things. That’s what I’m excited to share first-hand and what I know will inform and inspire my agency’s marketing campaigns.

For me, SXSW represents a unique opportunity to challenge a recent Collision debate that there are tech people, and then there are ideas people, and they don’t work more closely together, because they are fundamentally different animals. If there is truth in the notion that we occupy divisive, entrenched positions, then SXSW represents the football match in no man’s land.


At a macro level, the visions of where technology can take humanity were truly inspiring at SXSW, but also conversely a watch out for agencies and brands in terms of their relevancy and value moving forward,  Dan Machen, Billington Cartmell’s director of innovation reports back during the conference.

Tim Berners-Lee at SXSW
Tim Berners-Lee at SXSW

1. Scenario planning

One of the major elements landed by Ford’s futurologist Sheryl Connelly was to beware of sticking to SWOT analysis because “companies don’t control their strengths”.

One of the key elements here was scenario planning based on human insights to direct future strategy based on the most probable outcomes. This was echoed eloquently by US entrepreneur Elon Musk who said companies should ‘be the house’ in the sense that, ultimately, Casinos can’t lose.

2. Platforms not products

One of the most refreshing insights gained from being here in Texas was the altruistic intent of many of the founders. Sir Tim Berners-Lee illustrated this when talking about his motivation in creating the World Wide Web, “If you want to talk to the most people, you use the least powerful language,” he said.

Many focus on open platforms to invite co-creativity and – like Sir Tim – the primary driver is “a problem shared is a problem halved”. If brands thought more about open ecosystems, the money would follow if you connect things of value for people.

3. Quantified self

Data acquisition and usage was an evident and dominant theme – amplified by the advent of wearable tech like Nike Fuel. A tricky topic, but the consensus was that if we can land individual value with “habit understanding” then societal adoption will follow.

Panellists were impressive when talking about the “non-toxic” use of data. Brands and agencies need to take heed here – not falling into the “failure lines” Berners-Lee talked about when referring to companies “spying and blocking”.

4. Invisible interface

Leap Motion really defined the concept of the disappearing interface. Michael Buckwald and David Holz are the 24-year-old founders of Leap and have created an incredibly accurate gestural interface (like Xbox Kinect on steroids) that tracks all 10 fingers.

They eloquently explained that people shouldn’t have to learn PC interfaces. “People should just be free to create,” said Buckwald.

The killer demo of this was when one of the founders sculpted virtual clay in mid-air. Agencies’ creative possibilities are endless here as this could redefine art, medicine, 3D engineering, pointing to a world where notions of on/offline input cease to exist.

5. Humanising technology

The key insight value here was not the tech per se, it was the motivation behind it – the human value – that will co-define its adoption.

Meeting the creators of WWW., Spacex (Elon Musk) and Leap Motion revealed how inspiring their vision really is – to make what they do “fundamentally better”, according to Michael Buckwald. Elon Musk really spoke eloquently, “I thought about what problems need fixing for humanity and then went about solving them”.

This includes power, transport and also (because one day the sun will explode) extra-terrestrial colonies. Hyperbole? Well not really. Elon Musk has Mars in his five-year plan. For commerce, this poses the question of motivation – we should really want to make things better.

6. Web of humanity

So overall – and this was really fuelled by Berners-Lee – this concept centres around a greater connected consciousness and a supranational awareness driven by the web. The web is not like a fridge and we can’t simply open the door and shout for mum and dad if it’s empty.

Berners-Lee said: “If it sucks right now, it’s because you haven’t fixed it yet… And while the kittens are great, I created it to solve bigger problems.” This highlights a moral ROI opportunity, whereby we – as agencies and brands – take the baton of purpose into our actions. What can we most valuably fix and how can we inspire the next generation to make the world (or even Mars) amazing?

Who’s up for gamifying education?


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