SXSW 2019: Where to Now?

In the past, SXSW has been all about the new and the next. But this year was a time to simultaneously sit back and reflect on the significance of the rapid innovation, technology and media that has come to define our world — and the responsibility that comes with it.

From data and AI to entertainment, journalism, diversity and politics, SXSW speakers and attendees were grappling with two key questions: What are the implications and impacts of the tech, media and culture we’ve created? What ethical responsibility do we have in the future?

As always, SXSW left us exhausted and inspired. Here are some of the most notable highlights we saw. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed curating it!



Connected Experiences

Connected experiences have become the cornerstone of SXSW. Brands and start-ups alike participate in the festival every year hoping to strike cultural oil and launch the next big thing at the festival. This year, content creators rather than services were the ones creating the most immersive connected experiences. 

With the volume of content available today, it’s difficult to know what to choose. By building connected experiences around content, creators are not only endearing people to new content — they’re also selling them on something much bigger than a show: Culture.

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Game of Thrones - Bleed for the Throne
  • HBO’s Game of Thrones rallied fans to prepare for The Great War to come in the final season. The takeover at SXSW launched HBO’s global blood donation campaign supporting The American Red Cross. 
  • Netflix’s The Highwaymen gave attendees the chance to visit The Highwaymen House, a pop-up experience transforming Austin’s Banger’s Basement into an interactive space that takes guests back in time to the 1930s, when infamous bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde were at large.
  • Amazon Prime Video brought Armageddon to Austin, celebrating the highly anticipated premiere of novel-turned-series Good Omens at SXSW. Festival-goers could head to the Garden of Earthly Delights, a hidden oasis from the impending End of Days.
  • Audible’s The Night Realm Taverntransported attendees to the medieval world of Heads Will Roll— with an immersive, audio-driven experience that allowed guests to revel like royalty and indulge in medieval food and drink.
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Uber Eats - Megabrands

Megabrands Supporting Local Businesses

Unlike many festivals, the city and culture of Austin are central to SXSW. This year, brands that took over without a nod to Texan culture felt like a miss, but brands that got cheesy (no queso puns intended) didn’t quite work either. The most authentic activations saw global brands getting behind local culture — without overtaking it.

Cue Uber Eats, which had a “walk through” window where people could pick up Torchy’s Tacos and Amy’s Ice Cream. And Bumble took over Jo’s Coffee for a millennial-friendly, beautifully designed workspace. We recommend all of the above, incidentally.

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Getting Political

The festival dedicated an entire track to cities, government and politics for the first time. In a festival typically dedicated to branding, tech and entertainment, it was a reminder that politics and culture are deeply intertwined.

Governors to senators took the stage - including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren. They discussed how to get back to human-centered politics, the race/class divide, breaking up big tech, and how these factors are likely to play out in the years ahead.

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  • Elizabeth Warren at SXSW
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Health Has Arrived at SXSW

Since its debut in 1987, SXSW has evolved to reflect the macro-trends and topics driving conversation and culture around the world. Today, health is everywhere, and wellness is sexy. And, true to form, the festival reflected this new age of health.

The Health & MedTech conference was bigger than ever, packed with 100+ panels, sessions, and meet-ups held in A-list venues. The track covered topics, from access to care, and marketing ‘taboo’ products, to blockchain, women’s health, and patient centricity.

Meanwhile, the Wellness Expo doubled in size, with 171 brands participating – compared to just 80 in 2018. Clearly, health has arrived at SXSW.


Notable MedTech: Interactive Innovation Award Winners

Butterfly IQ

A portable ultrasound scanner that transmits images via an iPhone app. Running on an innovative silicon chip, the device makes it possible for doctors to scan patients right in their office—or even at home. This makes it possible to do scans—whether of the heart, a limb, or a fetus in utero—in places without traditional ultrasound machines. Plus, it's about 1/5th the price of a traditional machine.

Tech that enables mobile, full-body ultrasound scanning can further democratize healthcare and provide global access to medical imaging.

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  • Butterfly IQ 1
  • Butterfly IQ 2
Virtual reality fundamental surgery
iN: Cognitive Patient Care Assistant

A small AI-powered device that can detect patient or medical professional movement and activity inside hospital rooms. Created to help stop patient neglect, it detects staff presence and assesses environmental safety risks while simultaneously collecting and aggregating data from other medical devices such as EKG/vitals monitors and from environmental sensors detecting temperature, noise, brightness, etc.

Fundamental Surgery

Virtual reality surgical simulation that allows surgeons to practice in lifelike environments with live feedback on their performance. The future of learning for doctors.

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When it came to women’s issues, diversity and inclusion, this year’s festival was all about the intersections — between women and women of color, women with disabilities, and women from economic divides.

  • It’s crucial to keep doubling down on diversity and inclusion, even when it’s slow and difficult. And, it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that we don’t limit this focus to a moment in time.
  • The uncomfortable topics are the most important topics. Talk about the issues that used to be taboo and ask the questions that make you squirm. Because if we don’t have these conversations, we’ll never move forward.
  • Break the glass ceiling… literally. Attendees could physically shatter barriers with ADP’s experiential activation.



VMLY&R represented at SXSW in Austin last week with a variety of exciting activations.

Losing Our Empathy and How to Get it Back

BAVGroup Executive Strategy Director, Laura Jones, kicked off the week with a talk about how today’s ‘me-centered’ culture is driving new trends and industries, and the need to collectively rebuild empathy in our businesses and communities. Some notable points on how we can be more deliberate in our approach to empathy:

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  • We are empathetic by nature. 98% of us have the ability to empathize.
  • Today’s technologies are making us both disconnected and more connected which presents an opportunity to fill the empathy gap.
  • Some researchers are exploring if empathy is a choice. They hypothesize that empathy is not something that happens to us but is something we elect to do.
  • Empathy isn’t a fixed trait; it’s a skill that needs to be practiced.

Ways to practice empathy: Helicopter View (a perspectives exercise worksheet) and Heard, Seen, Respected (a deep listening exercise).

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Beyond Indie Synch - Kelli Shannon_Theresa Notartomaso

Beyond Synch: Indie Artists and Brand Integration

VMLY&R’s Executive Music Producer, Theresa Notartomaso, and Producer, Kelli Shannon spoke in a panel about how up-and-coming artists are finding themselves in a position to partner and participate in integrated projects with major brands. Citing our work with New Balance and LA-based band BEGINNERS, the discussion explored how indie artists can best set themselves up for success throughout the process – from initial pitch to launch. <

VMLY&R also led a special SXSW Music activation called Good Stock to promote the Stock Music brand.

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Wendy's at Adweek Arc Awards

Team Wendy’s Takes Home A Grand Arc Award

Adweek's 3rd annual Arc Awards took place at SXSW, celebrating the best in brand storytelling.

We were honored to have our work for the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation, U.S. Navy, and Wendy’s recognized.

Our team @Wendy’s took home a Grand Arc Award for the breakthrough “webeefin?” Mix tape. Fun fact — Wendy’s rap battles with its competitors on Twitter was a springboard for the webeefin? hip-hop release. Listeners streamed 76 years’ worth of the tracks across platforms.

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  • See you next year at SXSW 2020!