Why I’m going to SXSW: Our CMO Ashley Cooksley On the Value of South by Southwest

At a time where many agencies are questioning the value of SXSW, I’m happy to say that I’m about to head out to my fifth iteration of the event. While I can’t quite believe that I’ve been attending for five years, the experience never gets old.
SXSW hosts some of the most innovative businesses and never fails to excite with amazing new tech. Recent years have seen interesting and important debates around issues that many tech-focused businesses and agencies struggle with. In short, you never know what ideas you’ll be leaving Austin with.
Here are my three main reasons for signing up for a fifth year.

1. Finding inspiration in unexpected places

Inspiration is the key reason for attending SXSW.
Through the years, I’ve learned not attend the obvious sessions.
I don’t just stick with the “social media marketing” sessions either.
I make time in my schedule to go to the sessions that seem bizarre, that are new ideas, and simply will refill my inspiration bucket.
That means that I’ve seen incredible speakers.
Neil deGrasse Tyson taught me to think bigger than I am. He taught me that we are small but powerful. He encouraged me to push our business beyond what we thought was possible.
Al Gore taught me the art of persuasion. He reinforced the importance of our impact on each other and our world.
Brené Brown taught me how to be vulnerable. She also introduced me to a very handy breathing technique, used by Navy SEALs, to reduce stress and anxiety (box breathing).
I’ve seen Andy Puddicombe talk about getting headspace and adding mindfulness to your daily life, and watched a talk by Edward Snowden (beamed in via Skype of course!).
I’ve seen amazing, inspirational teenagers talk about the future of fashion.
I still remember parts of their talks. They’ve influenced me as a leader, a mother, and as a team member.
These sessions, as well as the people I meet, and the conversations I have all inspire me, and allow me to bring that back to the agency to drive us forward.


2. It’s an unparalleled chance to collaborate with The Social Element team

As a distributed workforce, SXSW provides The Social Element with the perfect excuse to get our team together.
While we don’t bring everyone to SXSW, our CEO has been attending for the past four years, as well as other members of the team.
We decided to stop booking individual hotel rooms and started booking a house to use it for our central meeting point and jumping off point.
Each morning we gather over breakfast burritos and talk about our plans for the day ahead.
We come home in the evening and sit around talking about how we were inspired, who we met, and the craziness that inevitably happened during our day (a fairy riding a unicorn through downtown, anyone?).
By the end of the conference, we’ve come up with ideas to drive the agency forward; but we’ve also had valuable bonding time. It’s great to be away from our desks, and playing late-night foosball together, or heading to Rainey Street to hear live music.
Each moment together encourages creativity and team closeness. 

3. Creating connections through networking, not hard selling

What’s a huge conference without networking?
SXSW is one of the best places to network. I don’t go with the intention of trying to sell to anyone – that’s not what people want when they’re at SXSW (pre-arranged meetings aside).
Networking at SXSW is about making new connections, understanding different businesses, and, yes, we do start new partnerships with people we meet at SXSW.
If your goal is to sell, sell, sell at SXSW, you should rethink your goal. Relax, meet new people, and you’ll find that long-term connections will come your way. 
There are so many events to go to these days and let’s face it, we can often see inspiring speakers from our desks as we consume vast swathes of TED videos. But there’s something special about my time at SXSW. I find that, as a team, we rarely get the chance to experience this kind of learning and networking together. It’s a valuable opportunity and always a fantastic experience.   
Ashley Cooksley is The Social Element’s Chief Marketing Officer. Overseeing business development and client services, she spends her days navigating time zones, connecting with team members and partners all over the world. When she is not traveling, Ashley likes long walks on the beach and her dog, the Instagram celebrity @bowielovesziggy.

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