InScope: The importance of play at SxSW 2019

Peita Pacey, OMD Sydney’s Head of Strategy, headed along to SxSW and reports back on the current state of “play”.

In children, the act of “play” is well documented to be critical for development of social, emotional, cognitive and physical attributes and capabilities. So much so, that there are over 270 million searchable options available to help you ensure that the type of “playing” your child is doing, is one that contributes to their growth. As an area of interest and research, play in adults is also coming of age – focused on the benefits for well-being and overall mental health. Colouring, gaming, singing, block building are all viable ways to spend some time to refocus the mind.

Now this may seem a little left field, but stay with me, because one thing that jumped out at me from my week here at SxSW 2019, is how much we as Adults are being encouraged to play. To play with ideas, to play with technology, to play with art, to play with each other. Much has been written already about how this year more questions have been asked than answered. Session after session, panel after panel, experts are stating “You probably won’t get any answers here today” followed quickly by “But we’re definitely going to be asking a lot of questions and we invite you to do so too”.

The idea of playing with ideas

It was this repetitive theme that interested me so much, as it was pervasive across all the content tracks – be it in Brand and Marketing, Convergence, Innovation, Music, Gaming and many, many others. This attitude of seek and ye shall find, is not only an inspiring one, but as a strategist, one that resonates deeply with me. To always push for a new way to solve a problem is inherent in what we, as marketers, must do. Too often, it can be tempting to roll out the same old solution that performed just well enough to keep business flowing in, but not enough to be a game changer. If our job as media strategists is to hunt down, find and source genuine business growth for our clients we must be permitted and encouraged to try new things, and sometimes to fail a little too. That is, we need to be allowed to play.

Naturally at a place like SxSW, there are plenty of opportunities to get inspiration for how we can incorporate play into our business lives. With Empathy one of the key major themes for the festival this year, we have been exposed to a myriad of ways which artificial intelligence (AI), algorithms and data sets can give us the tools to play with our insights, taking them deeper and making them more meaningful in our ability to connect with our consumers and customers. This technology allows us to do this quickly, enabling our marketing decision-making processes to get faster.

Playing with your brand

In Innovation and Connection at the Speed of Sound, we discussed the emerging opportunity and increased impact an audio focused world will have as more people adopt voice-first behaviours, and technologies in their workplace and home. With the proliferation, and more importantly adoption, of smart speakers and other connected devices increasing exponentially and gaining momentum, we’ve seen a revival in a preference for audio. Music streaming, podcasting and audio books are all gaining in popularity and consumption, providing brands with more opportunities to connect through content. The next stage of course is to ensure that brands build strong sonic identities, utilising key voice attributes as well as sonic logos. In the Innovation Exhibition Hall, we saw software that by merging AI and neuroscience together analyses and connects the intrinsic emotional reactions that music can make, dependent on personality type in group and social contexts. Musimap shows us the next wave of music composition giving us a sonic tool to help us build even deeper consumer and customer engagement in our marketing. The question for us to play with is how do we create a sonic brand impact on sound-off platforms like social? What is the right mix of audio to visual in this new environment and changing consumer behaviours? How can we link the visual that people see based on what they are hearing? Again, playing with technology can help us here.

Playing with art

T-Bone Burnett brought down the house with his Music Keynote earlier in the week. His anti-social, anti-big tech stance has been a theme of many talks this week, including Brian Solis, Elizabeth Warren and Roger McNamee, and ultimately he and others have called on us to start playing again with the way we think. To again embrace art in all its many forms, something which for music fans feels especially easy to do here in Austin. The festival itself holds live music as a core component, with regular large showcases by entertainment brands and country-specific activations. Every bar and every hotel have live events scheduled, and you can see performances of up and coming artists in retail shops too. Madewell, the women’s retailer, held a showcase each afternoon supporting a collection of young female solo artists, displaying their understanding and empathy of their customers delivering meaningful engagements beyond the transaction.

Playing with technology

In JFK 2020: Could JFK be the NEXT American President we saw how technology designed for one outcome can be adopted and utilised for another. How one idea can sprout another and another, leading you into new territories that may seem far fetched, but also potentially viable. It is this element that we must embrace in our work, a curiosity of not how just to improve what is in front of us, but also what we might possibly create.  It’s questioning what customers truly want from you and how can you deliver that in an authentic and unique way? Essentially, it’s about being truly customer-centric.

Play as a concept is never more clear and honest than in the world of gaming. Don’t Get Got has been a SxSW “secret party game” that sought to add an extra layer of fun to the festival experience, giving people an IRL/VR experience to collect tokens and win prizes. League of Legends, Fortnite, Super Smash Bros, are all on-ground tournaments conducted around the festival as the Gaming portion of the festival kicked off, allowing teams or individuals to connect with their peers. In so much of modern day gaming, brands can participate through in-game content and engagement, connections which are designed to incentivise you play for longer. This focus was further evident at the Exhibition where multiple products were on sale from energy containing brain function boosting drinks, to ergonomic player chairs, to blue-lens glasses to allow for more screen time.

This overall concept of incorporating play into our daily business mindsets, sets us up for a more authentic test and learn approach to marketing, because the critical element of play is to try and fail, a process which at its heart requires empathy to work.

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