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Opinion and Insight

J. Walter Thompson NY ECD, Ben James: I #FAIL at #SXSW

J. Walter Thompson New York, 2 years, 7 months ago

Ben James thinks he failed at SXSW this year. But is that ok?

J. Walter Thompson NY ECD, Ben James: I #FAIL at #SXSW

I think I failed at SXSW this year. But I’m told it’s OK. 

More than OK, it’s encouraged. 

Full disclosure, I have been wrestling with this concept for a while. We (marketing people) all have. Fail harder. Fail faster. Fail more. Totally go out there and fail your ass off. 

Cool. But you know, failing sucks.

Perhaps we should focus on learning from our failures?

Let’s consider the idea that SXSW itself is a failure. Or to put it another way, “is SXSW an ideas festival or a book tour?” The bookstand on the fourth floor of the Austin Convention Center is excusable. We get it. Get yo’ money. But sole use of a panel for book promotion and media press junkets should be stopped. Let’s say you attend 14 panels over the course of a SXSW. If you purchase an interactive ticket, that runs approximately $1400. By that math, I paid close to $400 to watch advertising this year. Fail. 

I saw at least three panels fail in different ways. One failed to address the topic, one failed to stay anywhere near the topic, and one failed to innovate on the topic. I won’t come at those guys by name. But if you are reading this, maybe you already know who you are. Maybe you feel like a failure. Not to worry. Some of the other panels offered guidance in this area.  

To that end, I’d like to offer the best advice I heard over the whole festival. It came in the form of an answer Benchmark’s Bill Gurley gave to Malcolm Gladwell’s question about “pivots” (another widely discussed topic). When the discussion came to the state of Silicon Valley, venture capital, health care, sports and hacking, Gurley suggested that the key to failure and their subsequent pivots was “confidence”. Specifically, “the confidence to admit defeat” and “the confidence to try something new.” 

That part was awesome. And totally worth the previously mentioned $1400. Also the part where the audience groaned when he said that he expects to see a lot of dead unicorns in Silicon Valley this year. The sound of failure?

The second most compelling talk I saw dealt with this directly: Forget Loyalty, Build Habits. The panel could easily be defined as one of the non-failures. Julep’s Leslie Feinzaig suggested that “loyalty” is more or less over. These days, it’s all about habits. I like this, not just for what it says, but for what it confronts: an entire industry mindset. If we don’t wake up to stuff like this, we all perish. But to hear it mentioned seems to be a sign of hope. So there’s that. 

A quick list of other failures: Uber at the airport. Drones failing to appear en masse. And I was unable to stay long enough to see Astro Teller talk about failures that lead to moonshots. Or at least, that’s where I predicted he would go with it at some point.

So, how to learn from these failures and make more out of SXSW next time? Read between the lines and discuss the topics while in line. Search for themes within themes. Realize that you’ll get more out of the whole thing when you don’t expect new news from the panelists; but when they do deliver, it’s outstanding. 

More than that, the discussions being had on the edges of the festival are fantastic. There’s a “we’re all in this together” mentality amongst festival-goers, which comes in handy when you are suffering from failure; it’s the added support needed to pull you up, out of it and on to greatness. I’m excited to see where some of these new connections will go. 

If hacker Josh Klein is right, and the rise of the meritocracy due to the inevitable oncoming of cryptocurrency comes to pass, we might see a lot more pivots and learnings from failure down the road. As early as next year’s festival, perhaps? 

I’m looking forward to it. 

Maybe I’ll get to see MisterWives play again. Those little hipsters are legit. They totally did not fail. 


Ben James is Executive Creative Director at J. Walter Thomson New York