James Mackinnon’s SXSW 2024 Diary Wrap-Up

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James Mackinnon’s SXSW 2024 Diary Wrap-Up

In a festival brimming with Artificial Intelligence, someone needed to fly the flag for human stupidity. Here TABOO managing director James Mackinnon recaps his time at SXSW 2024 in Austin, Texas, exclusive to Campaign Brief.


Our talk ‘Taboo by Design, the Power of Provocation in Brand Experience’ was scheduled for the 4-5pm slot on Day 1, when most fresh-faced attendees would rather be saddling up at a bar – ourselves included. To our disbelief, our theatre at the JW Marriot had a large queue running out of it and was standing room only, shattering our somewhat comforting expectation that we’d be presenting to an empty room.

The foundation of our talk was a piece of life advice from our mother “you can be anything you want in life, just don’t be boring”. We discussed how these words had affected us personally, but more importantly how we’ve applied it to branding and brand experience to help clients create outside the zone of audience expectation – what we call ‘Vanilla Valley’.

James Mackinnon’s SXSW 2024 Diary Wrap-Up James Mackinnon’s SXSW 2024 Diary Wrap-Up

The talk explored the role of emotional arousal on memory prioritisation, the dangers of meeting customers’ expectations, the power of brands addressing cultural taboos and took an in-depth look at case studies including MONA in Tasmania, Starface pimple patches, Moxie tampons, the work of UK-based studio Bompass & Parr and (of course) hell raising water brand Liquid Death.

There are over 500 panels, keynotes and workshops over 5 days at SXSW Interactive, Austin. Given our key message was the importance of standing out – and the fact that our own staff had told us our presentation was a bit shit the week prior- we knew we needed something to stand out. Days before we took the stage, we had an idea just stupid enough to work – if anyone in the audience disengages and walks out (people leave all the time at SXSW talks), the brother talking at that time would take off an item of clothing. Our idea ‘the brother who loses a viewer, loses a layer’ was the price we were willing to pay for boring our audience. What price does your brand pay for boring its audience?

James Mackinnon’s SXSW 2024 Diary Wrap-Up James Mackinnon’s SXSW 2024 Diary Wrap-Up James Mackinnon’s SXSW 2024 Diary Wrap-Up

From an audience of around 300, natural attrition saw both of us on stage in our boxer shorts, T-shirts and one sock in the dying minutes of the hour. A couple of late escapees helped us strip off our final layer, revealing the words TABOO by Design across our respective underwear, both the name of our talk and a cheeky self-promotional plug for our agency.

Q&A in our underwear was a riot and after getting off stage we slid into a 4-day tailspin of live music, ribs, ranch water, brand activations, agency parties (thanks Preacher) and the constant guilt of not attending more talks.

James Mackinnon’s SXSW 2024 Diary Wrap-Up James Mackinnon’s SXSW 2024 Diary Wrap-Up James Mackinnon’s SXSW 2024 Diary Wrap-Up

As expected, the overriding theme of SXSW this year was Artificial Intelligence and its influence on just about every part of our lives and in every category. I have come to the conclusion that nobody knows AI like AI, so here are my 5 key takeaways, with some help from AI:

  1. 1. AI: Innovation & Ethics Collide: 2024 showcased AI’s double-edged sword—innovation booster and ethical conundrum. Marketers must navigate this fine line, harnessing AI’s potential while staying mindful of its ethical implications.
  2. 2. Storytelling Renaissance: From ancient tales to modern epics, the event celebrated storytelling’s timeless power. Marketers, take note: storytelling isn’t just a tactic; it’s the key to forging authentic connections and shaping cultural conversations.
  3. 3. Ethical Compass: Ethics took centre stage, spotlighting the importance of integrity in tech and beyond. Prioritize transparency and ethical decision-making to earn trust in an increasingly scrutinized landscape.
  4. 4. Cultural Activism: Echoes of cultural activism urged brands to be agents of change. Champion causes authentically to connect with communities and drive positive impact.
  5. 5. Future Vision: A picture of a future shaped by tech, culture, and ethics emerged. Embrace uncertainty with creativity and foresight, pioneering innovative solutions for a more inclusive, ethical future.

There you have it, an AI-enabled account of SXSW presentations about AI that were no doubt written largely by AI. It’s enough to make you want to shed a few layers. Until next time, Austin.

James Mackinnon’s SXSW 2024 Diary Wrap-Up