After three years since its last IRL presence, my fair city’s landmark conference SXSW was back in full swing. It felt great to pound the pavement with fellow creatives, digital marketers, business leaders, musicians, and revelers again, and the positive energy in Austin was palpable.
In digital marketing, we need to be on the forefront of new trends and concepts. So how do we translate these still-new concepts to our audience and our clients—primarily law firms—in a way that’s meaningful to them?
This is what I discovered at SXSW this year.
What is SXSW?
SXSW is shorthand for South By Southwest (“South By” to locals) and is the preeminent industry conference for creatives. Founded in 1987 in Austin, its history is in music, but the conference has since expanded to include film, art and design, marketing and advertising, education, and comedy.
Creative leaders from around the world flock to SXSW to connect with each other, share ideas, and learn about emerging trends in their respective fields. I attended sessions across multiple disciplines, and a few key themes emerged in each of these areas.
From corporate governance to tips and best practices for musicians, these macro themes came up over and over in formal talks and informal conversations. In addition to the following themes, it was wonderful to see the outpouring of support for Ukraine throughout SXSW, from keynote talks by prominent Ukrainian creators to fundraising efforts and meetups to learn more about the conflict happening there right now.
Leadership and innovation
Reggie Fils-Aimé, former President & COO of Nintendo of America, gave a powerful talk about intentional leadership. A child of Haitian immigrants raised in the Bronx, he worked hard in school, was educated at Cornell, and held several leadership positions in business before he was recruited by Nintendo.
When he joined Nintendo of America in 2009, he came in during a rough period in the company’s history, and people questioned his decision to take the job. But because his background and demeanor were in stark contrast to the conservative Japanese headquarters, he knew that he had a real opportunity to shape the culture at Nintendo.
Fils-Aimé, or “The Regginator” to his friends and colleagues, urged the audience to push for your bold and brash ideas if you really believe in them. When credited for Nintendo’s success during his tenure, he proclaimed “it’s not me, it’s WE,” citing the strength of his team for the wins attributed to his leadership.
Culture is the way employees act when the executives aren’t in the room, and that starts at the top. Leaders set the culture.
In a moment that had the room buzzing, Fils-Aimé proclaimed that Facebook isn’t actually an innovative company: they’re fast followers, and they acquire innovations, but the company itself is not innovative.
His keynote was the perfect preamble to data scientist Frances Haugen’s talk, aka “The Facebook Whistleblower,” who testified on Capitol Hill last year that Facebook knows how to keep us safe without censoring us, but they choose not to because it makes them more money.
An insider and former employee of the social media giant, Haugen is one of many Facebook whistleblowers. Attorneys need to keep abreast of this situation and the legal implications it has for individual privacy and corporate responsibility.
The impact of storytelling
It’s unsurprising that storytelling was a core theme at a creative conference. But what struck me is how the theme of story and the power of personal narrative came up not only in creative tracks, but in sessions on corporate leadership as well.
Business leaders spoke about how revisiting your own story and disrupting your leadership failures are crucial to developing self-awareness. We need to rewrite the stories we tell ourselves about what concepts like “executive presence” mean so we can make room for marginalized voices in leadership roles.
I sat in on an in-conversation with Bob Odenkirk and his son Nate, who co-wrote and produced an upcoming fiction podcast for Audible. They touted the magic of real, immersive storytelling and compelling characters as ways to capture attention and convey a deeper message.
Filmmaker Céline Tricart spoke about how she employs various technological mediums to enhance storytelling and how story is the essence of our lives. Storytelling, story living, and story sharing is how we make sense of the world.
Two USC researchers spoke about speculative storytelling to help people imagine new futures, starting with stories that matter to them to consciously bridge divides among disparate groups.
And forward-thinking companies like Porsche and Slack represented themselves with elaborate activations at SXSW, telling their brand stories verbally and visually.
Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging
This is obviously a hot topic among employers, but diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) can’t just be lip service.
In a talk with ThoughtExchange CEO Dave MacLeod and Nike’s Global Senior Director of Talent Acquisition Judith Rudge, the audience learned hands-on lessons on accessing the unheard majority to disrupt companies’ biggest fear: a failure to lead.
Affinity bias, or “like me” bias, gets in the way of creating a truly diverse workplace. Although it’s natural for us to gravitate towards people like ourselves, it can be dangerous because it results in a preference for one type of person (usually Anglo Saxon men) and prevents women from being promoted to senior roles.
Future-forward organizations must learn to tap into tools and technologies to raise all voices and make better, equitable decisions, even for remote teams. We cannot allow fear to hold us back from having crucial conversations because we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing.
Moving from organizations to individuals, an intimate conversation with Jonathan Van Ness and ALOK revealed how crucial it is for societies to acknowledge and celebrate “other”-ness at an individual level, from gender identity to how we present ourselves physically to the world.
Hennessey Digital is a global, diverse company that is proud of our team members’ differences and what makes each of us unique. We recognize that, not only is this the right thing to do as leaders in the digital marketing space, our diversity of thought and background gives us a competitive edge.
NFTs, blockchain and cryptocurrency
I had expected to hear these concepts come up frequently at SXSW. But what I didn’t expect is how NFTs, the blockchain, and cryptocurrency are already beyond a niche interest or passing fad.
For many, NFTs represent freedom and are changing the way business is done. NFTs are social, experiential, and programmable, increasing their appeal to musicians and anyone creating intellectual property. Art and music are already forever changed by digital technology and currency. Now, other industries are on the cusp of major changes with these new technologies.
In a session devoted to NFTs for musicians, the panelists explained how we are in web 2.0 moving into web 3.0, where artificial intelligence and the ubiquity of the internet are becoming our new reality.
As the web continues to advance and consumers’ trust in brands decreases, there is real appeal to what NFTs and blockchain technology offers, including a digital chain of custody to pass on the rights to these assets. And as NFTs and chain-based collectibles re-architect the entertainment ecosystem, it behooves us to pay attention to these trends. Could legacy systems such as law and finance be next?
And while cryptocurrency is still a very new concept, it may not be long before businesses will be expected to accept it as a form of payment.
SXSW takeaways for attorneys
South By is always a flurry of activity, and the first live conference back since 2019 was a thrill. As a full-time communications professional and part-time creative, it was the perfect amalgam of practical applications and pie-in-the-sky inspiration.
I also couldn’t help but notice how prescient the macro themes of SXSW were, and not just for creatives. Corporate executives, lawyers, and rank-and-file employees alike can apply these tips to their firms to amplify their message and gain the trust of internal and external customers.
- Don’t spout facts; tell a story. Our Content Marketing team does this every day for clients. To build trust with potential clients, you need to paint a picture for them. What should be their first step if they’ve been in an accident? How is working with your firm different from your competitors? Empathize with them, show compassion for their situation, and illustrate how you can help solve their problem with real-life stories and examples.
- Live events > virtual events. We learn this at every legal industry conference we attend, and the interactive nature of SXSW drives this home. There is simply no substitute for real-life connection, as we were reminded at the National Trial Lawyers Summit last month. Live events bring an energy that can’t be replicated in a webinar or video call, and audiences at SXSW were grateful to be back in person with each other.
- You can’t ignore new technologies if you want to win. From NFTs to crypto, new tech isn’t just for creative fields. Will your law firm accept cryptocurrency as payment? Will your next groundbreaking legal brief become an NFT on a blockchain? Though seemingly far-fetched, these scenarios aren’t far off in the future: they’re happening right now.
- “Innovate or die.” This is a quote from former British Airways CEO Alex Cruz, whose case study was used in a SXSW talk about creating a culture of innovation. Creativity has a role regardless of what you do, and innovation is the secret to surviving, growing, and thriving in business. You can’t be afraid to challenge convention, encourage people to experiment, and let your culture be created by the people in it.
- We all have influence; use it wisely. The effect of influencer culture can be corrosive for both individuals and societies. (I learned this at the screening of Casey Neistat’s new documentary about the rise and fall of YouTube sensation David Dobrik.) We have high-profile clients on our roster with name recognition and influence in their communities. When they do good or make a misstep, people notice.
As leaders in the legal community, we have a duty to our clients and partners. It’s up to us to model the behaviors we want to see in the world. Law firms must commit to becoming leaders in their communities and doing the right thing, even if others aren’t.
Where you can find us next
Coming up in April, the Hennessey Digital team is attending multiple legal industry events, plus a new one for us.
Find us at Mass Torts Made Perfect and the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys Bootcamp in Las Vegas. We’ll also be representing Hennessey Studios for the first time at the B2B Marketing Expo in Los Angeles.