Home News Opinion: 10 TAKEAWAYS FROM SXSW 2024

Opinion: 10 TAKEAWAYS FROM SXSW 2024

Fresh from her recent trip to SXSW in Austin Texas, Jane McDaid, founder and head of creative innovation with Thinkhouse shares her key takeaways from the event which had a strong Irish participation this year.

1: Ireland So Hot Right Now

In 2024, the world has been getting really excited about Ireland; from a cultural and creative point of view, we’re on fire. At THINKHOUSE, we spoke about this ‘cultural renaissance’ recently and ‘Ireland’s So Hot Right Now’ became the expression of the day at last month’s ‘AI Connect’ event that I spoke at, hosted by Google, IAPI and Enterprise Ireland. And the positive energy about Ireland is not just home-grown, here in Ireland, it’s all around the world with articles, listings and features in publications such as New York Times and Forbes Magazine and Vanity Fair in the last few weeks.

I was delighted to be amongst a gathering of tech and marketing companies flying the Irish flag at SXSW in Austin Texas; to participate in the brilliant line-up of events and conversations curated by Enterprise Ireland (as part of their new focus on promoting the Irish creative services sector), in partnership with, Culture Ireland, Tourism Ireland, Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland and which was coordinated across Government departments by Global Ireland/ Department of Foreign Affairs, Ireland as part of the St. Patrick’s Day programme.


It was important for Ireland to have a presence there – with other European countries such as England and France hosting similar events to showcase their country’s creativity in the fields of science, innovation, technology, culture and the arts. And IRELAND HOUSE certainly played a blinder in showcasing the spirit, ingenuity and creativity of Ireland through panel discussions, demonstrations and events; with some of Ireland’s most exciting talent, alongside intentional innovators; working here and abroad; from the creators of U2’s The Sphere, Rich Peppiatt, Director of Kneecap to Christina Guckert (Reddit); Donald Knight (Greenhouse Software); Meisha-Ann Martin (Workhuman); Andrew Patton (Manna Drone); Steven Davenport (Screen Ireland); Emma Foley (Pale Rebel Productions) amongst many other speakers covering a range of topics including Irish Identity, Filmmaking, Immersive storytelling, AI & AR, corporate DEI amongst other things.

2: AI is Changing Everything as We Know It

AI was integrated into almost every conversation and panel I attended.

Firstly – Ryan Patel hosted a keynote with Dr. Lisa Su, a trailblazer in the technology world, Dr. Lisa T. Su, Ph.D., is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and was inducted into the prestigious Women in Technology Hall of Fame in 2019.

Whilst the talk was mostly directed at engineers and technologists in the audience; as a marketer, I got excited at the prospect of investing in my first AI PC.

AI PCs are personal computers with system-on-a-chip capabilities built to run GenAI tasks on the device, at speed. Not widely available yet, this will further transform our capabilities as marketers and will ‘kill rendering time for artists.”’

In talking about AI, she made some powerful statements about creativity and filmmaking including: “The future of filmmaking is between passive + active entertainment. The future of media is about passive + active + realtime entertainment.” She claimed that AI will “Make creators much more productive.”

She wrapped up with by saying: “AI is the most important technology in the last 20 years. The answer is not to go slower, we must go faster and we must do so with a watchful eye. Companies that learn how to leverage AI are going to win over companies that don’t.”

Because AI is one or our strategic priorities at THINKHOUSE, I attended as many of the AI talks that I could. Of the many speakers I witnessed throughout my 5 days in Austin, when it came to discussions about AI there was an air of ‘move fast and break things’ and it wasn’t until I attended a smaller SXSW event called “Can AI Help us become more human?” that I finally witnessed an expert who had a deep knowledge on the more ethical questions around the fast deployment of AI. When asked (by me) how she compares the US with Europe and Asia on AI legislation, Amanda Lawson, AI policy Manager with the Responsible AI institute, said “The US has a lot of catching up to do. Europe is more progressed”.

Others felt the same and a music professional I spoke to at the conference said: “Despite being able to sell the positives about the mass adoption of AI and machine learning, nobody from any field seemed to have an answer when it came to the moral dilemma of how these systems are being trained, and how artists or copyright holders should be compensated.”

At a panel discussion about live entertainment, Live Nation’s Anubhav Mehrotra made a brilliant statement that made me further appreciate my love for festivals and festival life. He said: “We’re entering into a period with AI where we have an abundance of opportunities and tech, which actually makes real life more scarce, more valuable.”

3: Breaking the Sphere

As a marketer and technophile, I’ve been obsessed with the Sphere in Las Vegas since I first heard of its development. As well as being a venue like no other, it’s the ultimate canvas for mind-blowing advertising that pushes the boundaries of what we could do in the ‘pre-sphere’ days.

I felt so lucky to hear firsthand, the story of U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at the Sphere with Ric Lipson (Stage Designer & Creative Consultant); Stefan ‘Smasher’ Desmedt (Video Director) and Niall Slevi (Audio Monitor and Wireless Systems Engineer) on the Ireland House stage. Rick explained how the band broke through the 4th wall by finding new ways of approaching entertainment architecture. In speaking about his work with U2 Slevin said “When U2 try to ‘test’ something, they try to break it” and he described the experience of sound design for the Sphere as being “a bit like cycling a bike up the Liffey”.

What I found interesting, from a live entertainment perspective, was how U2s approach to sound and lighting design is so organic. They reject the notion of what they refer to as ‘Synchronised swimming.’ Where artists match the sound and lighting perfectly to a planned performance (time code)- instead, preferring a looser approach. “It’s Bono. He doesn’t do time code. We work to organic workflow,” said Smasher.

Another rich conversation that even deepened my appreciation for the artists and architects that are pushing boundaries to maximize the experience for all. Pretty mind-blowing stuff.

4: Sponsors Matter

Just as I landed in Austin, artists had started to pull performances due to the US Army’s Sponsorship of the SXSW and many of those flocking to SXSW were asking themselves the same question: “Can I stand with the Palestinian people whilst also attending SXSW?” This was the backdrop to a festival that was going to question and challenge as well as inspire and celebrate. Whilst it was predominantly music industry artists that led, and participated in, the boycott; many of the speakers, including those who attended events at IRELAND HOUSE, used the platform to express their solidarity with the people of Palestine and express their revulsion at the devastation that has been unleashed on Gaza.

To me, this reinforces a few things.

Firstly – sponsors matter. In hosting an event with sponsors, your selection of partners is an expression of the organiser’s beliefs/ values. When the audience is international, this takes on a geo-political dimension and something that must be considered.

Secondly – everything that happens in culture, business and technology happens against a cultural and political backdrop; it’s a reflection of the increasingly polarised world in which we live.

Thirdly – whether you choose to boycott, or attend, expressing your views in a way that attempts to advance democracy, justice and fairness is everyone’s job – not just musicians. It was encouraging to see so many people use their SXSW platform in this way.

On the subject of sponsorship, my fellow Irish-SXSWester Jon Jon Mehigan had attended SXSW for many years so I was fortunate to have his, and others, advice on what to see and where to go. He explained to me that this year, there were a lot less brand activations, with the exception of notable brand activations by Porsche and Audible.

To me, the brand activation that stood out the most was Poo-Pourri – innovating the toilet experience for festival goers like I’ve never experienced before. The Founder of Pourri, Suzuki Batiz was a speaker on “The experience economy: The future of events and Culture” which was a brilliant panel discussion about sponsorship. Her insights were hilarious and from an entrepreneurial perspective – you could see why she’s one of USA’s most sought-after speakers on brands, branding and brand experiences. She describes herself as “Alive as Shit” and encourages people to “Do Epic Shit. She shared some hilarious insights that led to her innovative company Poo-Pourri which is valued at an estimated 300m. We learned about “How Poo-Pourri became the no.1 brand for number Twos” and Suzuki shared some hilarious insights such as “The average person sits on a toilet for 13minutes a day. How do we make that time entertaining?” She also posed questions to the audience such as ‘would you like to know how many people around the world are pooping at the same time as you?’ She used the audience’s enthusiastic and energetic positive response to this question to announce a SXSW launch: “With Poo-Pourri’s new tech-enabled platform/ campaign, now you can connect with fellow poopers around the world.”  Tune into her podcast ‘Holy Shit’ if you want to follow her fascinating story.

5: The Robots Are Not Coming to Get Us

One of the most hyped events was the showcasing of Apptronik’s Apollo – an AI powered robot that the creators plan to ‘make available to everyone for the price of a car.’ An outstanding opening welcome performance by Yemi, the artist and dancer who is part of the The Dear Moon Crew, was made and everyone’s cameras were up in the air, in ‘record mode.’ Mine included, ready to witness the much anticipated, live reveal of Apollo – the humanoid robot. 15 seconds in, what I captured was a failure of the robot to respond and a panicked look on the innovators face to get Apollo back up and running. A few technicians and a reboot later, Apollo finally ‘performed.’ The first version of most technologies are full of bugs and failures – I know that’s how great technology advances; through failure, test & learn, improve and optimise.

It’s exciting but I think the robots are not coming any time soon.

6: The Creator Economy

From our launch of *The Love Network last year, I know that the creator economy is booming. We have witnessed, first hand, the power of an online community for major brand and behaviour change campaigns. So, it came as no surprise that the ‘Creator Economy Track’ was one of the most popular areas at SXSW. I attended several events that explored everything from ‘remix culture’ to ‘creators rights.’

In a conversation with Patreon’s Laurent Cranshaw and SeedAi’s Austin Carson, I learnt about the key challenges creators face today – everything from the advancement of AI and copyright infringement concerns right through to potential job displacement due to AI automation. On the exhibition floor I came up close and personal with AI influencers. This is a whole new breed of ‘non-human’ AI ‘influencers’ competing with ‘real humans’ for likes and fan-bases. From a marketer’s perspective, this might be a compelling opportunity – no celebrity endorsement fees, no behavioural risks, no reputational issues – an AI influencer built for, and by your brand. Anyone? (Authentic marketing be gone?)

I also attended a charming conversation with Catherine Halaby, Head of Entertainment, Tik Tok North America and Creators Kyle Kazanjian-Amory of ‘Don’t Tell Comedy’ and Delaney Rowe, Actress. The Creators shared some simple advice for creators: ‘Post once a day” and “Growth is a by-product of doing good work.” Kyle’s story around the changes in the comedy industry was fascinating; explaining the role of Tik Tok in opening a world of potential for start-up comedians saying: ‘gatekeepers in comedy are gone because of Tik Tok.’

We can expect a potential enormous backlash from Tik Tok’s young American creators and community as the USA passed a bill to ban Tik Tok whilst SXSW was happening. The future for social media, and the Creator Economy, in the USA is looking more interesting than ever.

7: You’re the Average of the 5 People You Spent Most Time With

They say you’re the average of the 5 people you spend most time with and if I left my SXSW as the average of the people I spent most time with last week (Emily Ross, Naiose Nunn, Jon Jon Meighan, Devon Fox and Conor O’Donovan of Enterprise Ireland) then I’ve come back a better person.

We reflected on our SXSW experience and I want to share some of theirs here too:

8: LGBTQ+ Representation Not Strong Enough

Devon Fox, PGA Tour PMO & Innovation, said: “This year, LGBTQ+ programming dropped in a noticeable way. There used to be ample queer programming but this year, the number of official SXSW offerings dropped from 20 to 13. In addition, there were a lot fewer discussions about transgender topics, which coincides with an increase in anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in the US as well as a decrease in public support of the queer community from brands and corporations. Really disappointing to see when the LGBTQ+ community needs as much support as it can get.

9: Storytelling Triumphs Tech, Life on the Edge and Being Human

Emily Ross, EMEA Director of Brand Strategy & Creative, X, said: “Storytelling trumps tech: Every year trends come and go. NFTs, Blockchain, AI – but the foundations of this event are built on storytelling. ‘Storytelling’ was the word I heard the most this year.

Life is better at the edge: Main stages and big queues contained plenty of interesting content, but it was at the fringe events where the most novel, exciting and memorable conversations happened.

Creativity and connection: These are the things that make us human. Technology on its own will never replace the humour and joy of true connection.”

10: High Art

Naoise Nunn, Creator and Producer (Minefield, Kilkenomics etc..) said: “The integration of proper “high” art like opera and visual art into XR experiences and the extent to which the latter can more soulfully serve the former was an eye-opener for me.” He continued: “Art and, more importantly, artists still matter because otherwise technology and AI would just have orcs blundering around in Mordor.” and he finished up by saying what we were all thinking; “And obviously that Ireland House must return in 2025!”

I was privileged to spend time with many brilliantly talented SXSWesties and learn from their insights too.

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