A CEO’s SXSW Strategy: Tamara Littleton’s Key SXSW Insights

Over the course of this week, we’ll be sharing our thoughts about the much-debated South by Southwest Festival. Many agencies have scaled down their presence to the event, some even stopped going. As for us? More than ever, we see it as an amazing moment to energise our teams, find inspiration and connect people who don’t usually meet face to face. Over the next few days, we’ll be sharing some of the team’s point of view on the event, from our CMO’s vision on why we’re prioritizing such a festival to our Technical Director’s must-see sessions – and don’t forget our Sales Manager’s classic How to Win at SXSW!
Today in this series is our CEO and founder Tamara Littleton’s strategy for making the most of the event. Enjoy!

SXSW has so many interesting and innovative events that planning your trip can overwhelm the best of us. It’s crucial to go into SXSW with a plan if you want to maximise your opportunities for success.

1. Get together, share ideas and socialise
We are taking a small team from The Social Element out to Austin, and once again we’ll be sharing an Airbnb house to make the most of our time together. I love our distributed workforce model, but SXSW presents us with an amazing opportunity to come together as a team.
Yes, I get some great ideas from the brilliant talks and sessions I attend, but the real benefit of these events comes later when the team gets together to discuss what they’ve heard and seen during their day. To be honest, swapping stories about our days over a meal is my favourite part of my days out in Austin.

2. Give people objectives and purpose
There are so many interesting events at SXSW that it’s easy to become overwhelmed with choice. Even when you do decide where to go, what drives that decision? How can the business benefit from it?
The Social Element team members going to SXSW have all been given specific roles and tasks. We’re still flexible though. When we plan our days over breakfast and review them over dinner, we’ll often end up adjusting our plans based on interesting things we’ve learned or ideas generated by the team.

3. Meetings are important, but make time for experiences
Two of my most important objectives at SXSW are to 1) meet with clients and 2) work on our strategy for the year ahead (what’s being discussed and how is it important to the work brands do). But it’s also really important to me to build in time for more random activities – things that feed inspiration.
To do that, I try to go to the more experiential marketing pop-ups run by the likes of IBM and Sony where I can feed my passion for new technology. The tech trade fair is also one of the major highlights of SXSW for me.

4. Realise that you can’t do it all
What this means in practice is that I limit the number of keynotes I attend and they go in the ‘inspiration’ bucket. Keynotes will always be part of my SXSW experience – previous talks by Brené Brown, Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson will forever stay with me – but I accept that I’ll probably only be able to make it to one.
For the panels, I tend to pick ones aligned with my strategy and avoid ones with people talking about stuff I already know. I’m unlikely to attend social media and brand-related panels unless my clients are on the panel (in which case it’s an excellent opportunity to support them and understand what’s important to them too).

5. Identify your key themes before you go
As I mentioned, I’m not likely to attend many social media events. This year, the events catching my eye are focused on themes of future vision, leadership and inspiration. Panels I’m keen to attend focus on big questions and developing technology.They include:

  • Do More. Do things that were previously impossible
  • Bruce Mau’s 24 Principles for Massive Change
  • The emotional life of your autonomous car
  • Beyond Professionalism: Channelling Vulnerability
  • Futureproof Your Business for the Next Disruption
  • I’ve Got No Screens: Internet’s Screenless Future
  • Building Safe Workspaces for Millennials of Color
  • Death and Legacy in the Digital Age
  • Humanizing Autonomy
  • The Future of Business is Female
  • The Quantifiable Business Benefits of Blockchain

Time is always in short supply, so my strategy is to only sign up to events that interest me and can provide value to my work. The rest of my time I’m focused on connecting with people individually.

6. Allow for serendipity
While you can plan a lot, I’ve found it essential to allow for serendipity.
A lot of my careful planning went out the window last year after picking up a terrible cold on the flight to Austin. It meant I wasn’t able to go to as many talks and meetups as I planned.
Weirdly, it ended up being one of the best SXSWs yet. I had to focus on smaller meetups and client meetings to maximise my limited time. I ended up getting into a stream of random encounters that ended up being incredibly valuable.
It also gave my team a chance to go out and experience the things I couldn’t. They came back at the end of the day energised, informed and ready to share their insights with the group.

SXSW is a key event in our agency calendar. It’s a chance to find inspiration and to catch-up with clients and agency peers. I have found it crucial to go into the week with a clear strategy though. Plan your time – leaving some leeway for those important random moments – and only go to the sessions that really strike a chord.
Wants to meet up at SXSW? Get in touch and we’ll see if we can get tacos!

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