MDRx’s reflections on SXSW 2024

5m read
Artificial Intelligence, Metaverse, Retail

This month I attended SXSW in Austin, Texas. I attended as part of a HM Government trade mission organised by the Department for Business and Trade (DBT), as part of our broader commitment to shaping discourse around technology and valuable innovation.

SXSW is a hotbed for innovation, thought-provoking conversations and connections with new and existing clients and contacts. We massively benefited from the connections and guidance provided by both the DBT, as well as the UK Advertising Export Group, which made the trip more productive and valuable.

I attended several events while I was in Texas.

First, I participated in a roundtable organised by DBT alongside a broad range of organisations including Arup, the City of Austin and Google. The conversation centred around the emerging role of technologies in the creative industries. I really hammered home the point that the conversation should always be around what “value” looks like for a given organisation and that the focus should be on obtaining this value rather than just using the latest tech because it is “shiny” or for the sake of it. Given the number of creatives in attendance, it was worth emphasising that “value” does not have to be more revenue or profit but can also be adding to the intangible value of the company through effective brand building. The conversation was ably moderated by my friend Yush Kalia, Client Partner at Dimension Studio, alongside whom I debated in the Debating Chamber at Cambridge Union in 2023.

Second, I spoke on stage at UK House alongside Moin Roberts-Islam, Technology & Innovation Manager at the Fashion Innovation Agency (part of the London College of Fashion). We had a really wide-ranging discussion about the convergence of artificial intelligence and spatial computing in the fashion and retail industries. Moin’s company is fascinating – I spoke alongside his colleague Matthew in 2022 – as they have the mandate to push the boundaries of innovation and experimentation even where there is not a commercial return on investment. We therefore had an interesting debate as to the value of experimentation within an organisation, and how to balance this with the need for value that MDRx specialises in obtaining and delivering. We looked at the opportunities for the retail sector, and also touched on the key barriers and challenges that must be overcome if the seamless and utopian view of emerging technology adoption is to be achieved from a technical, legal and societal perspective.

Finally, I participated in another roundtable this time organised by UK Advertising and the American Advertising Association. This one focused on the transformative potential of AI in augmenting business models and enhancing operational efficiency at scale. The conversation was inspiring, and again featured a broad range of participants from Dell and F45 through to rapid growth businesses like Outdoorsy and the best of UK advertising agencies like BrandFuel and Experience12. An unexpected treat was learning about Wood Defender, a fascinating education-based wood stain company – only at SXSW!

MDRx at SXSW 2024

Summarising the SXSW experience is hard, but key takeaways from me include:

Navigating the AI hype

Everyone is talking about it and as far as I can tell nobody knows what it is, what it can do, and what they should actually be using it for. This is our bread and butter, so if you’re an executive or decision-maker wrestling with how AI might benefit your business, do get in touch with me or your usual contact in the MDRx team.

UK as a creative powerhouse

The UK really punches above its weight in the global creative arena, and I was so proud of and awed by the dozens of incredible creatives I sat alongside in UK House. It’s also an enormous contributor to the UK economy, and we should do everything we can to promote and grow it.

Evolution of advertising

There doesn’t seem to be any consensus from within the advertising industry as to what its future will look like, leading to some interesting debate and plenty of uncertainty. One of the best speakers on this subject I heard was Jennifer Quigley-Jones of Digital Voices, who had a refreshingly punchy and controversial view around the future of brand voices and content.

Spatial computing (née Metaverse)

We still heard plenty of conversation around the Metaverse, albeit the Apple marketing machine has done a wonderful job of renaming it spatial computing. I have two observations here: first, I much prefer spatial computing as a label as it is much more closely aligned to the view of what “the Metaverse” is that we have championed for many years now, i.e. a blurring of physical and digital experiences in an increasingly seamless manner, versus the dystopian “virtual world” hype train; and second, that I’m not convinced many industries have fully grasped this distinction and ground-shift given most conversations I had seemed to revert back to building virtual replicas of “real” experiences because, well, tech. Again, MDRx is well placed to help existing businesses get their head around what value can actually be extracted from spatial technologies – I can almost guarantee it won’t involve building (in) a virtual world.

SXSW is incredible

I am definitely a few decades late to the party, and it somewhat goes without saying, but Texas really knows how to put on a show. Every corner was packed full of fringe events, the convention centre itself was heaving, and the big-but-small feel of Austin made for lots of serendipitous run-ins. We’ll definitely be back again in the future.

Finally, a few notes of thanks to the people that made the trip possible. The DBT team for hosting us, with a particular shout out to Rupert Daniels, David Moody, Freya Cartwright, Lara Purser and Krishna Mistry. The UK Advertising team were, as ever, incredible and inspiring with a special shout-out to Aisling Conlon and Quianna Maw. The MDRx team behind the scenes that set up the trip for me so well: Narcisa Lupu and Claire Good. I’m sure I am missing someone and if I am, I’m sorry, but thank you to you too.

We have a busy few months ahead within MDRx, made busier by some of the leads and connections picked up while out at SXSW. If you too want to figure out how AI and other technologies might add value to your organisation, do get in touch as we would love to help you.