SXSW: Culture, Creative, Cannabis and Everything in Between

By Ted Kohnen

South by Southwest (SXSW) is one of the most anticipated events for creative professionals and entrepreneurs from all around the world. But, you don’t really “attend” SXSW like you would most conferences or events. You get a ticket for a 10-day rollercoaster ride and hang on.

The sheer volume of things to do, see and experience at SXSW is too much for the senses. And I thought Dreamforce was off the charts. SXSW hosts a wide range of conferences, workshops, and exhibitions that explore the latest trends and innovations in various industries, including technology, film, music, and interactive media.

One of the most popular tracks at SXSW and the one I was naturally most interested in is the Advertising and Branding Track. The track featured a diverse lineup of speakers, including top executives from major brands, ad agencies, and martech companies. The sessions covered a wide range of topics, from the latest trends in digital advertising and brand storytelling to the impact of AI and machine learning on marketing strategies.

Sessions highlighted the importance of entrepreneurial mental health

There was a fascinating session titled “How to Keep Your Sh*t together as an Entrepreneur.” As the co-founder of Park & Battery and someone who has launched previous ventures, I thought this would be relevant. The panel featured mental health professionals and really spoke to the unique world we operate in as company founders and the critical importance of entrepreneurial mental health. 

From the expert panel:

“Entrepreneurial mental health” is kind of an oxymoron, no? Anecdotal and empirical evidence shows entrepreneurs are more vulnerable to mental illness, mental health challenges, and burnout. Why? First, because the same roots of trauma that are responsible for depression, anxiety, addiction, and other mental disorders tend to also be responsible for entrepreneurially conducive traits such as independence, creativity, charisma, and perseverance. And second, because the emotional isolation, unrelenting pressure, and growth-at-all-costs lifestyle frequently result in founders having to choose one: success, or their mental health.”

So, in the end, lots of good advice shared as well as the openness about cannabis usage. 

Going beyond corporate social responsibility to true brand activism

Moving from cannabis to culture, the session, “Brand Activism, No More Business as Usual” was truly spirited. It featured speakers from Lyft, The League and Black Votes Matters. This wasn’t the usual ‘corporations-need-to-be-better talk’ which we’ve all heard too many times. 

From the expert panel:

“American democracy, public safety, and the fundamental rights and freedoms of many people across the country are under increasing threat. This moment demands a concerted response to ensure our progress as a nation, including brands stepping off the sidelines to weigh-in on important issues. There are a few great examples of this happening in recent years like some brands affirming that black lives do matter and that women should have autonomy over their own bodies, to name a few.“

In the end, it was an honest and energized discussion that explored the decision-making behind brands that go beyond traditional corporate social responsibility (CSR) and how brands are becoming bolder in addressing sensitive issues; and the need for more brand activism.” 

Featured performances were impressively creative and diverse

In addition to the Advertising and Branding track, I also had the opportunity to explore the Music and Film tracks, which feature performances, screenings, and Q&A sessions with artists and filmmakers. I was particularly impressed by the creativity and diversity of the performers, who represented a wide range of genres and styles, from hip hop and rock to electronic and experimental music.

In the end, there was so much to see and do and probably too much. Reflecting on my SXSW experience, I would definitely return (after I carbo-load first). 

Ted Kohnen Chief Executive Officer

Named one of the ten most influential CEOs in 2021, and the recipient of multiple Agency-of the-Year recognitions, Ted is the CEO of global digital agency, Park & Battery. Over his career, Ted has been focused on helping hyper-growth start-ups and multi-national enterprises alike to activate their brands – telling their stories in meaningful and compelling ways to their most important audiences in order accelerate awareness, interest and action.

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