SXSW 2018: An experience, more than the sum of its technology

Posted by Chris Jankoski from Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide — North America on March 29, 2018

According to a recent Garner survey, marketing budgets hit a plateau in 2017, and 2018 looks to continue this diminishing trend.* With this, agencies are looking to do more with less resources to meet the expectations of our clients, and this lean mentality leaves agency participation at events like CES, SXSW, and Disrupt on the chopping block. At their core, these types of industry events focus on showcasing cutting-edge thinking and technologies to spur the next generation of innovation. However, these forward-thinking experiences don’t often translate to dollars and cents as organizations look to tighten their belts. It is incumbent on us, those lucky enough to attend events like SXSW, to fully recognize and communicate the wisdom and value imparted from the knowledge, connections, and personal/professional growth gained while immersed in their experience.

Expand Your Thinking


One of the valuable facets of events like SXSW is the ability to learn from others outside of your immediate industry. As healthcare marketers we typically focus on areas like medical affairs, biotechnology, and other high-science topics, but as patients increasingly demand a more seamless and consumer-like healthcare experience, looking outside of our day-to-day is critical. One example of this at SXSW 2018 was a panel discussion, Beyond Ads: Become Entertainment. This session, presented by marketers outside of the healthcare ecosystem, illuminated the fact that modern consumers can easily spot an advertisement among native content, and thus marketers need to rethink how we develop and deliver branded content. The panel members explained that marketers can look to the film industry for a well thought-out execution of this concept.

As an example, the creators of Star Wars have developed a vast branded universe, however instead of leading with an in-your-face ROI-driven element, the creators assembled a comprehensive universe with the story at the center of everything. The audience-grabbing and highly engaging storytelling drives the entire Star Wars world, but the branded elements came later in the form of toys, spin-offs, and more. The key in this example was that the story of Star Wars was the focal point to draw in the viewership, and they were able to create branded content that supplemented, rather than diluted, the Star Wars brand. The speakers stressed that consumers across industries don’t want to be sold something, but rather engage with the brand as they learn through content and extract their own significance from it. The value of events like SXSW allows participants the opportunity to experience a diverse POV from speakers outside our immediate ecosystem. This allows us to break free from the trap of group-thinking and bring truly innovative ideas back to our clients.


As healthcare marketers, it is important to understand that our products and services are often being used by patients across geographic, racial, and socioeconomic boundaries. With the wide array of backgrounds and expertise on display at SXSW, it was an incredible experience to better understand how we can embrace an inclusive POV when designing patient-centered products and communications. A prime example of how events like SXSW can embed a more inclusive perspective was my time spent at the session, Digital Health Innovation at Planned Parenthood. In this discussion, members of the Planned Parenthood team discussed their digital tools like online appointment schedulers and mobile health tracking applications from concept, to development, to delivery, and how they’re continuously making these tools better for patients. The speakers explained that people do not like when assumptions are made about them on digital platforms, especially when engaging with health-centered content. In their experience, the digital tools should be less focused on who you are as a person, and more aligned on the user’s health goals. Representation matters, and using inclusive language on digital health tools is very important for users to see themselves in a wellness product. The team spent a lot of time listening to the needs of patients and delving deeper into their feedback to ensure these digital tools were meeting the core needs of patients. It was through active listening and constant testing of these products that developers were able to better understand the range of user experiences across diverse populations. Working in a small team allowed them to hold each other accountable to surface and understand their own biases to develop a better product. The speakers continued to explain that digital isn’t the only place they are innovating, but they talk about digital innovation because it is a place where we can experiment rapidly, listen, and adapt to provide the best care.


SXSW afforded me the opportunity to learn from this team with a wealth of knowledge around designing healthcare experiences for people across a diverse array of backgrounds. Since the audience at events like SXSW isn’t limited to health and pharmaceutical industry experts, watching these speakers expertly navigate the complex human side of their digital health programs was eye-opening as to how we can deliver comprehensive but personalized healthcare experiences to patients craving a more consumer-driven approach to health and wellness. 

Let’s Skip to the Best Part, the People!


I know, typically authors and literary professionals (and frankly, my boss) suggest waiting to make your strongest point at the end of your blog post, but I just can’t wait. Easily, the most valuable part of my SXSW experience both professionally and personally was the face-to-face connections I was able to make while on-site at the festival. Whether it was members of my own organization I don’t engage with on the day-to-day or international colleagues limited to Skype calls, or even new partners and friends that I made along the way, these interactions forged invaluable relationships. In today’s marketing climate, communicating across organizations and business units is essential, and never before have digital tools made more leaps and bounds to enhance this collaboration. However, the importance of interpersonal relationships should never be forgotten, and events like SXSW anchor these interactions at the top of mind.

There were a lot of cool exhibits and immersive experiences that left you wondering, “Has the future already arrived?” but the most treasured insights came from navigating the SXSW landscape alongside colleagues who continually asked: “How can we apply this to our business and our clients?” Everything from personal assistant robotics that made us think, “What would this look like in a hospital setting?” to next-generation chatbot engagements that could be applied to enhance a more seamless healthcare experience—there was nothing more inspiring than taking this futuristic innovation and bringing it back to our own reality. This hands-on expansion of what is possible in our day-to-day was far beyond impactful when comparing to the typical conversation of simply sending a cool article to a colleague via email.

There is something magical about bonding with the folks that you are in the trenches with at SXSW. Long days, Texas heat, mind-blowing exhibits, and intoxicating BBQ are all part of the SXSW experience, but the connections made along the way are strong forces that had already made a tangible impact as I made my way back to the office in New Jersey. From talks of “SXSW reunion” to closer partnerships with people inside and outside of our business, the culture of SXSW brings diverse people together. Today’s marketing climate is looking to break down silos and create a more collaborative and horizontal landscape; coming together for events like SXSW drives a cohesive teamwork mentality across organizations.

A Seat at the Table (shout-out to Solange)


Whether you spent your time perusing the endless innovation on display at the exhibition floor or listening to industry experts during speaker sessions, it was clear to all at SXSW Interactive that how we engage with our health and wellness has become part of the mainstream conversation. Exhibits like Land O’ Lakes’ The Food Effect tied the future of food and agriculture back to our physical health and how we make health decisions, using educational panel discussions and interactive games to drive awareness.

Mindfulness was another big opportunity that tech companies were making their foray into in the health and wellness space. Like Toshiba Design Center’s Mindful technology, which looks to provide portable breathing technology aimed at measuring and assisting in recalibrating a user’s breathing patterns to reduce stress and enhance one’s mental health. Even the more health-focused sessions were looking outward to more mainstream innovations to better understand the holistic relationship between our lifestyles, cultures, and overall wellbeing.


In the session, Empowering People to Own Their Health Data, the panelists argued that we need to rethink how we understand “health” data, and realize it’s not just the data collected when we engage with healthcare providers. Lifestyle data informs a more holistic view of our health and how we engage in health decision making. Panelists in the session, Default=Health: How Tech Can Refactor Modern Life, further drove this point as they explored how things like transportation, infrastructure, and food choices contribute to a macro-view of our health. Panelists went on to explain that when fighting tuberculosis outbreaks, housing policies improving air quality, land use, and more had major impacts in the success of preventive programs. And there were boundless examples of how digital health technologies are illuminating culture and lifestyle traits that contribute to our health.

This give and take—the technology companies looking to the needs of healthcare consumers and the healthcare organizations looking to embrace a more mainstream POV to better understand a 360 view of our health—was a common thread throughout SXSW, and further stresses the need for agencies and clients to be at the forefront of events like SXSW. We need to be there to ensure the right voices are being heard and that future innovations are being designed as such to always be focused on one goal: improving the lives of the patients we serve.