Interview: SXSW Interactive director on the event’s brand explosion


Director of SXSW Interactive, Hugh Forrest, talks us through the marketing industry’s growing involvement in the digital innovation festival held in Austin, Texas each year.

The Digital Outdoor IssueMarketing: Tell us about the growth you’ve seen in the branding/marketing industry’s involvement at SXSW Interactive?

Hugh Forrest: The SXSW Interactive Festival has been lucky enough to experience a large amount of growth over the last decade – and a lot of that growth has come via increased attendance from the branding/marketing industry. More specifically, this rise in branding and marketing industry attendance begin in March 2008, a year after Twitter essentially launched at SXSW Interactive 2007.

Forward-thinking marketing professionals realised the value of new social media technologies like Twitter, and they wanted to be at the event where so many of these new technologies were getting their initial push.

M: Why have marketers been getting more and more involved in terms of attending and learning?

HF: Because it is the launching spot for so many innovative technologies, SXSW Interactive is a great place to get a hands-on preview of what’s going to be hot in the next two years. Such was the case with Twitter in 2007, Foursquare in 2009 and Meerkat in 2015.

Said another way, attending SXSW Interactive brings together some of the world’s most creative digital innovators and, in today’s world, branding and marketing professionals need to understand what these innovators are working on in order to stay relevant and competitive.

M: What’s the pitch to brands to be involved in terms of the type of audience the event attracts and the value of attendees?

HF: SXSW Interactive attracts a hyper-connected audience that is looking for the most innovative new ideas. So it is a great testing ground for new ideas, new applications and new technologies. Moreover, if the service, product or event succeeds at SXSW, then it typically generates a strong buzz that can help with a more consumer-oriented rollout.

However, the reverse can also be true. In other words, if a service, product or event fails at SXSW, then it fails on a pretty large stage – and that can be a kiss of death that may be impossible to overcome.

M: What are your favourite activations from brands that have taken place at SXSW?

HF: There have been so many great activations at SXSW Interactive over the last few years – and I’d hate to play too many favourites here by singling out one over another.

That said, I always get a kick out of how popular Grumpy Cat is at SXSW Interactive. The popularity of this feline demonstrates a number of things. One, it demonstrates the strong power of this internet meme. Two, it cuts to the heart of what SXSW Interactive is all about – ours is an event where people do serious business, but they have lots of fun in the process of this deal-making.

Chevy was the automotive sponsor for SXSW for many years. One of its most successful activations at the event was called ‘Catch a Chevy’. This activation helped solve one of the biggest challenges for SXSW registrants – simply getting from one place to another when downtown parking is difficult.

More recently, Mazda has taken over as the automotive sponsor of the event. It has embarked on a similar program. With both Chevy and Mazda, the lesson here is that activations that help improve registrants’ experience at the event tend to be the most popular activations at SXSW.

M: What exciting/interesting things are coming up in the 2016 event?

HF: We are really excited about the addition of a new VR/AR track (which runs from Wednesday 16 March through to Friday 18 March). Virtual reality and augmented reality are two of the biggest industry trends for the next few years – and this track will give attendees some good perspective on the possibilities these new technologies will offer across a variety of different fields and applications.

For marketers specifically, we have a track of content called ‘Branding and Marketing’. That is where the bulk of sessions that focus on these topics occur. One of the early favourites in this track is a session titled ‘That New Un-Car Smell: Selling The Post-Driving Ex’, which focuses on how the changes ahead in marketing automobiles as the experience of driving undergoes significant changes in the next few years.

That said, I think that industry professionals often get the most value out of SXSW Interactive by attending sessions that are completely outside their area of expertise. Going to sessions outside of your area of expertise helps you learn new things – and it also helps you meet new people that lead to valuable new opportunities.


SXSW Interactive 2016 takes place 11 to 15 March in Austin, Texas. See details of all events in the branding and marketing track at